Five corporations control almost all U.S. media.
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Working for a succession of “independent” community newspapers in the 1990s, I was able to report and edit without concern for the first class; I had only to keep the person who owned the newspaper happy — although this could sometimes be a challenge in itself — without worrying about the caprices of a board of directors headquartered half a continent away. But the advertisers were another matter. Since the community papers were small and had a narrow economic base, a few larger accounts could be their sustenance or their undoing. In fact, one publisher was forthright about this: “The advertisers,” she told me, “call the shots.”
Whether they’re small, local and “independent” or sprawling, global elements of a media empire like Time-Warner or News Corporation, the news media must always so configure their reporting as to please private corporate power. This naturally entails a certain distortion, but paradoxically, as the number of owning corporations continues to fall, it becomes easier to disguise this distortion. This is because the smaller number of participants facilitates uniformitization of the media environment, permitting media owners the ready-made excuse that their distorted news coverage actually reflects the desires of the audience, as “proven” by the very uniformity that they have so assiduously constructed. If, for example, no major electronic media report comprehensively and informatively on events in Israel or South America, they can always say that “no one cares” about events outside the US; that few of their viewers know enough about the rest of the world to know why it is important, precisely because of this assumption, somehow never merits consideration.
But the problems with this model go far beyond mere failure to inform. The real trouble lies in the way the media report what they do report. When advertisers and corporate executives call the shots, we can be sure of one thing: Any story deemed detrimental to the interest of the shot-caller will never survive to be seen, or it will come out so edited as to be harmless.
Worse, because more insidious, is the psychological effect on reporters, and the subtler distortions that proceed therefrom.
Since reporters who consistently present embarrassing stories are weeded out over time, the remaining reporters take this lesson to heart and internalize the values and priorities of their employers as a matter of professional survival. Now, since they are professionals, such reporters keep their opinions and biases strictly out of the straight news; “objectivity” remains, as ever, the Holy Grail of journalism. But it is altogether possible to write a story consisting of nothing but indisputable facts, and so present them that the story itself is a lie. To do this is extraordinarily easy, and often a largely unconscious process on the part of men and women steeped in the doctrines of the ruling elite that employs them.
So it is that the journalists who best master the art of slanting reportage to serve the needs of their employers and advertisers find themselves with the most prominent bylines and the most prestigious assignments, assuring that still more of their exemplary work will set the standard for mainstream media coverage, while those who insist on real impartiality find themselves inexplicably marginalized. And as the field of competitors shrinks, and the relative power of the few remaining media executives increases, this can only become worse.