A free press is one of the most important rights guaranteed in the United States Constitution and crucial to a functional democracy. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” The press’s role is to be a watchdog of the ruling class on behalf of the people. Its obligation is to inform and educate the public. Journalists are meant to have an adversarial relationship with the powerful elites of society. In the United States today, six corporations own 90% of all media including: radio, television, film, and publishing. That’s down from around fifty companies in 1983, representing the biggest consolidation of media in history (Lutz). The two largest media companies in the U.S., Disney and 21stCentury Fox, are set to merge this year, turning the big six media companies into the big five. This consolidation of media by large corporations leaves the public uninformed and our democracy terminally ill.
Entertainment, not education, is the primary function of the news content produced by these companies. All of these companies’ actions are completely, and self-admittedly, profit driven. The parent companies of these media giants have vast financial interests in every corner of the world market. Another function of the corporate owned news media is to push narratives and ideologies favorable to these parent companies’ business interests. How can a journalist be adversarial to the powerful when their employment hinges on the good graces of those powerful people? The richest man in the world and C.E.O. of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, bought the Washington Post in 2013 (Benner and Wingfield). Bezos also has a $600 million deal with the C.I.A. and sits on a board at the Pentagon (Konkel). The lines between large corporations and government were long ago blurred and ultimately erased. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, pushed through by President Bill Clinton, eliminated the key regulations that had been put in place to protect the public against the consolidation of media companies (Hmielowski et al. 153). Clinton followed up with more media deregulation in 1999 when he changed the Local Television Ownership Rule, allowing a company to buy multiple stations in a single market (Smith 388). These pieces of legislation directly led to the consolidation we see in media today. It also spawned a new generation of profit driven, opinion and ideology-based, cable news networks such as Fox News. Meanwhile at major networks, news staffs were laid off in droves. Studies show a direct connection between the polarization of Americans and the consolidation of media since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Hmielowski et al. 155).
In 2003, President George Bush was trying to convince the American public to support a war with Iraq. The reason the administration gave to justify an offensive war was that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction”. This, of course, was a lie. Fortunately for President Bush, the consolidated mass media was more than willing to repeat the lie verbatim. Among the media companies pushing for war was NBC. The parent company of NBC, at the time, was General Electric; GE is one of the largest defense contractors in the U.S. and would stand to make massive profits if the U.S. entered a war with Iraq. The fossil fuel industry made record profits as a result of the war in Iraq, and coincidently, is one of the biggest advertisers on corporate media platforms. Every major news outlet pushed the W.M.D. lie. This lie would lead to the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and was directly responsible for the inception of ISIS. The media has in fact pushed fallacies to promote every war since the Spanish-American War in 1898 (Hehman). Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of news writers who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers.”
The motive of these companies to deceive the public is clear but the methods in which they do so are not as easy to see. Social issues such as abortion and gay marriage are focused on in order to polarize the population. “Russia-gate” gets continuous coverage, while issues such as war, clean water, income inequality, civil rights, and man-made environmental disasters are virtually ignored by the corporate media (Maté). With the lines between corporations and government erased, the corporate media has been biased, particularly on the issue of war. Noam Chomsky writes in his book Manufacturing Consent, “This bias is particularly advantageous to U.S. policy-makers, for focusing on victims of enemy states shows those states to be wicked and deserving of U.S hostility,” (Chomsky xx)
According to a poll conducted by Fairleigh University in 2011, those who watch Fox News were shown to be less informed about current affairs than those who watched no news at all. Of the programs involved in the study, viewers of The Daily Show with John Stewart were shown to be the most informed (Kelley). Nothing against John Stewart, but for a comedy show to be the best source of information in a society with a supposedly free press is disturbing to say the least. Fox News however, is far from the only culprit. So-called “left-wing” media is as culpable for the misinformation and polarization taking place in America as any right-wing media outlet. Between February 20 and March 31, 2017, Rachel Maddow (host of the highest rated cable news show in America) discussed the alleged “Trump-Russia connection” for 640 minutes, while spending nine minutes talking about the wars in Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, eight minutes discussing the weakening EPA, and three minutes talking about the military spending increase (Maté).
Creating a network of news organizations that are publically funded is where the focus should be. A large portion of taxes should be allocated to fund hundreds, if not thousands, of independent news outlets. The organizations, although federally and state funded, should be completely independent from the federal and state governments’ control and should not be allowed to accept outside funding. The heads of each of these publically funded news organizations should be elected by the citizenry. These organizations would create free content and not operate in a for-profit model. Journalists should be held in as high regard as doctors and lawyers, and be as well paid in this new system, as they are vital to a free society. Journalists’ rights of access to politicians, war zones, intelligence reports and other crucial information should be written into the constitution. An independent, analytical, auditing agency could be set up to rate the various news organizations’ performances based on criteria such as accuracy and relevancy. Auditors should consist of scientists, historians, linguists, and other experts relevant to each news story. This model does not promote any attack on free speech. Diverse viewpoints are a benchmark of a free press. This new system would covet the public interest, not profit. It would promote fact-based reporting on topics that people care about and that are relevant to their daily lives.
The goal is not to silence anyone in the private sector. The banning of corporate “info-tainment” is an attack on free speech and should not be part of the plan. The goal would be to make publically funded news so much more accurate, comprehensive, and relevant than corporate news, that saying you get your news from Fox or MSNBC will be like saying you get your news from Howard Stern (no offense to Howard). Authors of stories and opinion pieces not based in fact should be scrutinized. The system shouldn’t silence voices, but at the same time it should not be giving a bullhorn to one particular voice to shout over all the others.
Some may think pouring public resources into journalism would be a misallocation of funds. In reality the money the country would save by exposing corruption and waste would far outweigh the resources it would take to shine a light on it. The corporate model does not produce the educated citizenry needed in a functional democracy. Mainstream news outlets helped Donald Trump become president by giving him over two billion dollars in free media during his 2016 presidential campaign (Confessore and Yourish). Ironically corporate media’s lack of integrity has made it possible for President Trump to coin the phrase “fake news” and call into question journalism as a whole. Corporate news outlets that are now attacking independent media on the internet for being inaccurate is the pot calling the kettle black. No system will ever be impervious to corruption, and it would be crucial to constantly reassess how the system is working in order to protect and improve it.
Chomsky, Noam, and Edward S. Herman.Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Hehman, Michael G. 100 Years of War and the Media: An analytical evaluation of the role media played in five major American Wars.18 August 1999. 18 May 2018. <https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/war_peace/media/hmedia.html>.
Hmielowski, Jay D., et al. “Structural Changes in Media and Attitude Polarization: Examining the Contributions of TV News Before and After the Telecommunications Act of 1996.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research28.2 (2016): 153-172.
Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson Quotes. 11 December 2008. 4,7 May 2018. <https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/thomas_jefferson>.
Kelley, Michael B. STUDY: Watching Only Fox News Makes You Less Informed Than Watching No News At All. 22 May 2012. 5,9 May 2018. <http://www.businessinsider.com/study-watching-fox-news-makes-you-less-informed-than-watching-no-news-at-all-2012-5>.
Konkel, Frank. The Details About the CIA’s Deal With Amazon. 17 July 2014. 8 May 2018. <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/the-details-about-the-cias-deal-with-amazon/374632/>.
Lutz, Ashly. These Six Corporations Control 90% of the Media in America. 14 June 2012. 6 May 2018. <http://www.businessinsider.com/these-6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-in-america-2012-6>.
Maté, Aaron. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Sees a “Russia Connection” Lurking Around Every Corner. 2017 12 April. 7 May 2018. <https://theintercept.com/2017/04/12/msnbcs-rachel-maddow-sees-a-russia-connection-lurking-around-every-corner/>.
Smith, Laura K. “Consolidation and News Content: How Broadcast Ownership Policy Impacts Local Television News and the Puhlic Interests.” Journalism & Communication Monographs10.4 (2009): 387-453.
Benner, Katie, and Nick Wingfield. Jeff Bezos, Riding High, Defends Decision to Buy Washington Post. 1 June 2016. 8 May 2018. <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/01/technology/jeff-bezos-riding-high-defends-decision-to-buy-washington-post.html>.
Confessore, Nicholas, and Karen Yourish. $Two Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump. 14 March 2016. 6,9 May 2018. <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/upshot/measuring-donald-trumps-mammoth-advantage-in-free-media.html>.