The Sweetest Fruit of Power and Profit: Modern Media?

19 02 2010

Over the course of my reading Robert McChesney’s book, The Political Economy of Media, I have had to think about the current state of media in the United States. As seen in my post last week relating to the same book, clearly there are issues that could be interpreted as major problems with the current media environment. However, others may feel content with the current state of things as capitalist, free markets serve as the underlying basis of operations for media in this country.

Regardless of which side, if any, you feel most reflects your stance on this issue; several points mentioned in the book are worthy of exploration.

Increasing media conglomeration has largely occurred outside of public consciousness. It could be argued this is because mainstream media outlets, which reach the most people, do not cover these proceedings within the government hence the public is largely unaware. Even if that were a completely accurate argument, one fact does remain. This fact is one that really makes me cringe. When business leaders or politicians equate criticism of business practices to being unpatriotic. This, my friend, is a ridiculous argument. Democracy is meant to function by the people. Without public say, our country would not exist in the twenty-first century. By over simplifying the relations between media ownership, the public and criticism of media conglomeration as unpatriotic, this in itself runs contrary to the fundamental ideals that this country’s constitution is premised upon.

With that being said, I must take exception to some of McChesney’s own words. He does not get off scot free on this topic. On page 321 it is stated that “The global commercial media system is radical in that it will respect no tradition or custom, on balance, if it stands in the way of profits.” I find this quote rather ironic. The media industry itself is actively using the “custom” of patriotism in the United States to serve as a front for protection from criticism. Using a fundamental pillar of democracy to shield the media industry from the inherent checks and balances democracy is meant to actively utilize for public good is pitiful. It is unfortunate that the media industry acts cowardly by using democratic principles to protect their own isolated interests, whereas criticism of such measures is deemed unpatriotic. Furthermore, McChesney deserves to be chastised for demonizing the media industry in the aforementioned statement, painting the industry as an all-evil entity. He does not immediately follow the statement to point out the industry’s reliance on said principles for its own protection.

Another issue of concern dealt with in the latest chapters of McChesney’s book is context, context of information to be specific. Increasingly, McChesney claims, media outlets are trying to avoid providing contextual basis for stories. In essence, the stories presented are seen strictly as is without any understanding for the consumer to make sense of the story as it relates to much broader, possibly significant societal issues. Ted Turner, a media maven and entrepreneur, wrote in a 2004 column for the Washington Monthly magazine, why he was concerned about consolidation of the media industry. He furthered his point by referencing a quote from Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black commenting on the importance of accessible information from many sources:

“The First Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.”

As the media industry consolidates, the diversity of information becomes endangered. Furthermore, without news stories expressed with regard to contextual background, the public is left unsure where to look or even unaware of what to look for. Currently, the lack of context can be seen in relation to Internet control within the media industry. When the topic surfaces in the news, it is almost always framed as a business story instead of a public interest story. In turn, the information is arguable exposed to those already in the know, whereas the public, who could be adversely affected by Internet ownership, are left scratching their heads. Connecting the dots between stories, showing the bigger picture and the potential implications, is not happening.





Changing Journalism for Better or Worse

12 02 2010

The media industry in the United States that you and I experience on a daily basis has morphed from its existence a generation ago. However, when analyzing how these changes have occurred, whether they are good or bad and for whom, much debate ensues.

One prime example of such perspectives can be found in Robert McChesney’s book The Political Economy of Media. It is within this text that McChesney lays down his case that the journalism industry in the United States is tremendously flawed, off-balanced and in many ways failing. He provides numerous reasons why this evolution of the journalism industry is so calamitous and paints a disheartening picture for the future of not just journalism but democracy, since they are closely related, if nothing is done to arrive at a solution. Although McChesney assigns blame to numerous situations and institutions, I will focus on a couple that I believe are of great significance.

Deregulation is presented as a topic of grave concern relating to journalism, as the tendency for business interests to trump journalistic motivations occur when fewer rules are in place. In turn, media power becomes isolated among a fewer number of large media conglomerates which drowns out competition. McChesney argues that the government is the only safeguard that can prevent this scenario from occurring rampantly.

The flip side to this argument, that McChesney alludes to, is to allow the marketplace to evolve as it may with the belief that it is a self-regulating entity ensuring the best outcome for all concerned parties. Based upon the evidence presented in Chapter 1 and Chapter 5, along with my personal observations of the media industry, it seems the media industry is much more concerned with and tempted by shareholder influence than providing for the public good. In light of the Enron and WorldCom corporate debacles, where journalists largely failed to report upon the illegal activities of corporate leaders, a weakness of the modern journalism industry was highlighted. McChesney makes it clear that due to the profit pressures in journalism today it is the industry’s “…inability to provide criticism of the system as a whole-even when it was well deserved-[that] is an inherent flaw of professional journalism (51).” One hypothetical scenario from rampant media deregulation is that the public loses all respect for the industry, resulting in a new outcrop of smaller, independent media production outlets. However, a potential difficulty can arise from this scenario as well.

If journalism as has traditionally been known is dissolved into a plethora of smaller, isolated media sources, the risk for cognitive dissonance rears its ugly head. Psychologist Leon Festinger devised the idea behind cognitive dissonance in that people desire to reduce dissonance as much as possible in their lives. To do this, people establish a belief and seek only information that aligns with their personal beliefs while strictly avoiding influence from any differing lines of thought. The end result from this is largely ignorance through the inability to be exposed to a diversity of perspectives.

The potential ignorance resulting from the multiplication of these pseudo-journalistic echo chambers leads me to reflect upon my parent’s generation. During the 1950s and 1960s, journalism resulted from a more limited number of sources that were largely trusted and much less pressured by profits than the current industry. These limited resources forced anyone who desired to have an idea of what was happening in the world to tune in and, by default, be exposed to a greater degree of differing views and opinions. If this was a positive or negative attribute for journalism is a matter of opinion. One thing is clear though: journalism is not what it was a generation ago.