Sunday, December 16, 2012
Freedom of the Press, Freedom From the Press
The news biz has changed today. There are fewer owners. More news outlets are being concentrated in fewer hands. Merger and acquisition folks know that concentrated ownership means greater economies of scale, a euphemism for layoffs. Foreign news bureaus are closed. Newsroom staffs are pared to the bone. Information and insight lost, abandoned.
Whereas reporters were once sent out into the streets to bring back news, a few even to turn over rocks to ferret it out, fewer bodies today fetch back less content of increasingly lower quality. Press releases are regurgitated disguised as information. This is an immense relief and benefit to those who have truths to conceal, information to manipulate.
In Canada we had the example of Harper spinning the myth of a constitutional coup d'etat over the notion of opposition parties forming a coalition to govern in stead of his minority government. It was a blatant lie, utterly ungrounded in fact, yet it was freely repeated, and hence validated, in the major mass media. A good many Canadians thus came to believe wholesale untruth perpetrated by a chronic liar yet laundered by a complicit media.
There was no media organization so unsophisticated that it could possibly have believed Harper's lies but only a few willing to denounce him for what he was, a manipulative liar. That is not a media in service to the public. It is, however, a media plainly in service to a liar.
When Bush/Cheney/Rice/Rumsfeld and the rest of the executive branch scum ginned up evidence to manipulate public opinion in support of the conquest of Iraq, it wasn't just FOX News that did their bidding. Every major newspaper, every major television network played along. All but one - McClatchey Newspapers, then Knight Ridder. That one voice warned that the evidence was bogus, the administration's casus belli was bogus. Who listened? Damned few. How many died? Hundreds of thousands.
Today's corporate news media has changed the game in another often overlooked way. It has gone from being the watch dog of government and the powerful to become their lap dog. It has entered into a pact, a symbiotic relationship that now serves powerful, established interests to the exclusion of the public interest.
To the corporate masters of today's mass media, news is a commodity and like any other commodity they peddle they want the best, most lucrative product at the lowest cost. Their duty, after all, is to their shareholders, not the public. Concentration of ownership, media cross-ownership, economies of scale can only generate so much benefit or profit. The entrepreneurial spirit, however, quests for opportunity and the corporate media has it in the product they peddle - news.
News as relevant information has its limits. The public record is, well, public. It is events that occur and the information that emerges from those events is public, it cannot be owned. The corporate media needs something more. It need something proprietary that it can create, that it can control, that it can sell. Why peddle information when you can create, control and sell something far more valuable, messaging? Watch 10-minutes of FOX News and you'll see this carried to the extreme.
Studies have shown that FOX viewers are not merely uninformed. They're powerfully misinformed. They are fed a diet rich in misinformation in the guise of news. One report found that three years after the White House admitted it had found no WMDs in Iraq, 60% of the FOX audience believed just the opposite.
In 2003, a surveyby the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found widespread public misperceptions about the Iraq war. For instance, many Americans believed the U.S. had evidence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been collaborating in some way with Al Qaeda, or was involved in the 9-11 attacks; many also believed that the much touted “weapons of mass destruction” had been found in the country after the U.S. invasion, when they hadn’t. But not everyone was equally misinformed: “The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news,” PIPA reported. “Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions.” For instance, 80 percent of Fox viewers held at least one of three Iraq-related misperceptions, more than a variety of other types of news consumers, and especially NPR and PBS users. Most strikingly, Fox watchers who paid more attention to the channel were more likely to be misled.
n a late 2010 survey, Stanford University political scientist Jon Krosnick and visiting scholar Bo MacInnis found that “more exposure to Fox News was associated with more rejection of many mainstream scientists’ claims about global warming, with less trust in scientists, and with more belief that ameliorating global warming would hurt the U.S. economy.” Frequent Fox viewers were less likely to say the Earth’s temperature has been rising and less likely to attribute this temperature increase to human activities. In fact, there was a 25 percentage point gap between the most frequent Fox News watchers (60%) and those who watch no Fox News (85%) in whether they think global warming is “caused mostly by things people do or about equally by things people do and natural causes.”
In a much more comprehensive study released in late 2011, ...American University communications scholar Lauren Feldman and her colleagues reported on their analysis of a 2008 national survey, which found that “Fox News viewing manifests a significant, negative association with global warming acceptance.” Viewers of the station were less likely to agree that “most scientists think global warming is happening” and less likely to think global warming is mostly caused by human activities, among other measures.
...In 2009, an NBC survey found “rampant misinformation” about the healthcare reform bill before Congress — derided on the right as “Obamacare.” It also found that Fox News viewers were much more likely to believe this misinformation than average members of the general public. “72% of self-identified Fox News viewers believe the healthcare plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly,” the survey found.
...In late 2010, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) once again singled out Fox in a survey about misinformation during the 2010 election. Out of 11 false claims studied in the survey, PIPA found that “almost daily” Fox News viewers were “significantly more likely than those who never watched it” to believe 9 of them, including the misperceptions that “most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring” (they do), that “it is not clear that President Obama was born in the United States” (he was), that “most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses” (it either saved or created several million), that “most economists have estimated the healthcare law will worsen the deficit” (they have not), and so on.
Further studies have shown that there is a significant segment of the American public drawn to FOX because these viewers are predisposed to its messaging. FOX tells them what they want to hear, it reinforces what they want to believe. It's not information they seek. It's the sort of messaging the FOX serves up, a product that has been invaluable to the American political right.
Is that a legitimate use of public airwaves, messaging? What is messaging except propaganda to manipulate public opinion and the democratic process? How can that possibly be in the public interest?
In Canada we have been somewhat better off, at least until the arrival of SUN TV and it is showing signs of post-partem mortality. Yet our flagship newspaper, The Globe & Mail, has fallen powerfully into service of its corporate owners and their political associates. CanWest, at its peak was labelled the "house organ" of the radical rightwing Reform/Alliance movement. One observer ventured it was so far right that the National Post should be delivered in a holster. Sun Media, same thing. Most of our television networks, particularly CTV, have drifted well to the right under the yoke of corporatism. The Toronto Star, once sometimes labelled the Red Star, has now assumed a more centrist posture which is probably why it has, by far, the largest circulation in the country.
The fact remains that, as we saw with Harper's "constitutional coup" and the ready forum that Big Oil and climate change denialists enjoy in Canada's corporatist media, messaging remains a powerful affliction on our mass media also.
A subtle but potentially grave consequence to the rise of messaging is that it is inherently, perhaps deliberately, divisive which is of obvious appeal to practitioners of the Dark Arts of wedge politics, people like Steve Harper. Information has a cohesive nature even when it is tinged with some political tilt. Messaging serves, perhaps even seeks, to divide.
Our world is embarked on a century that may be challenging as none before it in the history of mankind. Many states will fail and fall. None will avoid major economic, political and security stresses, Canada included. To meet these challenges and threats Canada will need the sort of robust democracy that can only be achieved with the support of a cohesive society. We don't all have to agree, far from it. We can be of the left, the centre, and the right and we should be. But we must see and trust each other as Canadians first, bound to each other and the country as fellow Canadians.
The sort of animosity, confusion and distrust engendered by the messaging mass media is an inescapable incident of concentration of corporate ownership. That has to go. We must dismember Canada's media cartel. The media must be widely held so that it can deliver the broadest range of views based on information, not messaging. The cartel must be forced into divestiture; not confiscation or forfeiture but divestiture; for there is no other way to restore the media to service of the public instead of service to the powerful.
Now, ask yourself which party proposes that very thing. The Liberals? The New Democrats? Hardly. The Tories? Obviously not. The Greens? Yes, you got it. The Green Party alone wants this cartel, this combine busted up. And for that, if for no other reason, it deserves your support.