A Free Press? 

What a shocker. The GOP is waging jihad on The New York Times.

Whether or not Republicans are trying to energize their base, the move fits perfectly with Bush's overriding vision: a world without pesky "liberal media," where a small group of elite global corporations can pursue their secretive goals in peace.

Comedian Stephen Colbert may have put it best when he told Bush to ignore popularity polls because they reflect statistical reality, and we all know "reality has a well-known liberal bias."

So do we really need to clamp down on our already complacent media?

I recently read an interesting book that sums up the history of journalism, the many problems it faces today and some important things that we as American citizens can do to make sure that the profession lives up to its essential duty: to inform the public.

The book, "The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century," is by Robert W. McChesney, a prominent media critic and research professor at the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Information and Library Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Democratic theory posits that society needs journalism to act as a watchdog of the powerful, to ferret out the truth from lies and to present a diverse range of informed positions on important issues. It's fairly obvious that today's newspapers — of which there are usually only one or two dailies in every town — fail miserably at these goals.

McChesney writes that the problem with media stems "directly from the system of profit-driven journalism in largely noncompetitive markets that began to emerge over a century ago … a system that was not 'natural' but the consequence of a series of policies, most notably policies favoring monopoly and/or oligopoly in telegraphy and broadcasting, and commercialism in media."

Today's journalists are spread too thin, and the idea of investigative American journalism is almost an oxymoron. Companies don't want to spend the time and money to conduct important investigative work, especially when it could conflict with advertisers and/or the corporate culture of which media ownership is an integral part.

Journalists who raise issues no official source is talking about are accused of being unprofessional or introducing bias or, if they antagonize, are cut off from their sources.

For a classic modern example of how journalism has failed, just look at the whole Enron mess — one of the greatest scandals in American history. That web of corruption between big business and the highest levels of government was going on for years, but the press never had a clue because it wasn't looking.

The majority of journalists today are more aptly described as stenographers.

What about that media drumbeat for war in Iraq? Newspapers and television stations, afraid to appear unpatriotic, allowed blatant "intelligence errors" from the Bush administration to go unquestioned and so thoroughly disseminated to the public that even today a majority of Americans still think Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. Most of the military conflicts during the last 50 years started in the same fashion, with the public being duped.

By its very nature, journalism can't be neutral or objective. There are always the editorial choices of what is covered, how it's covered, and where it shows up in the paper. A growing trend has found news editorial budgets slashed and focus shifted predominantly to sensational stories: disaster, crime, sex, scandal and celebrity — all big sellers. Some people would say that's OK. The market is dictating what the papers write about because it's what people want to read.

The problem is that democracy can't function without an informed public. When you consider that, judging by our pathetic voter turnout, most people feel disengaged from political discourse, one can see we have a democracy in name only. Is it any wonder that foreigners are skeptical when we occupy foreign countries and attempt to force on them our legally corrupt brand of democracy by gunpoint?

McChesney identifies three primary flaws with journalism: (1) In order to remove controversy with story selection, it regards anything done by official sources as legitimate news. ("The media do not necessarily tell you what to think, but they tell you what to think about and how to think about it." (2) It avoids contextualization ("coverage barrages with facts and official statements … while surveys show that PR accounts for anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of what appears as news"). (3) It smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of owners and advertisers and to the political aims of big business (the "dig here, not there" phenomenon).

Relaxation of media-ownership regulations, along with general market pressures, have led to waves of media deal-making and mega-corporations, and it's obvious that these firms must meet their bottom line. They expect employees to contribute.

James Carey of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia notes that "the reform of journalism will only occur when news organizations are disengaged from the global entertainment and information industries that contain them."

McChesney agrees and points out that reconsidering the whole idea of commercial sponsorship as a means to fund media will mean taking on the most powerful corporations, indeed "the capitalist political economy as it exists in the United States today."

Encouraged by public interest in the 2003 FCC controversy (when elements from the right and left joined together to ward off further media consolidation), McChesney hopes that future media issues can grab more of the spotlight and American citizens will increasingly see a legitimate and questioning media as crucial to their well-being.

The other option is that we become increasingly ignorant — an easily manipulated citizenry that allows global corporate interests, also what Eisenhower once termed "the military-industrial complex," to continue leading us away from our country's founding ideals. S

Brent Baldwin has written for nine years for weeklies in California and Virginia — including Style Weekly — mostly about arts and culture.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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