Corporate News Media’s Dereliction of Duty

Introduction

America’s news media has long been known as the “Fourth Estate.” This term has come to signify the important function the media is supposed to perform in keeping the government honest and responsive to the public interest.

The Founders of the U.S. thought the media’s function was at least as important as the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. Its importance stems from the philosophy of government contained in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

The Declaration says government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. It also states that government is instituted to secure the people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And it provides that if government becomes destructive of those ends, the people may withdraw their consent, abolish the government, and form a new one that secures their rights.

The same philosophy is the reason the Constitution begins by saying the government was formed by “We the People.” It further specifies that the purpose of the government is to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for the people and their posterity. And the Constitution provides the people with the means of altering the government to better perform those functions.

To know whether the government is acting in their interest or needs reform, people must have accurate information about its operations. But the government cannot be trusted to provide that information or allow it to be freely disseminated.

In the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, therefore, the Founders guaranteed the right of freedom of speech and the press. This right would enable the media to report on governmental acts. As a result, the people could know what their government was doing, critique its operation, and alter and improve it when necessary.

It’s impossible, then, to overstate the importance of the role the media was intended to perform in the U.S. Being the means for the people to obtain information about public affairs, the media would enable them to know when reforms are needed to keep the government acting in their interest. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press. . . .”

But today’s mainstream media is failing to perform the functions the Founders wanted it to perform. It is thereby preventing the U.S. from being the kind of country they envisioned.

A highly consolidated corporate media

A major part of the problem is that in recent decades a small number of conglomerates have acquired ownership of much of the media, including television, radio, and newspapers.

The factors that have led to this situation include regulatory failures to enforce antitrust laws; fewer restrictions on the number of media outlets a company can own; massive governmental subsidies, privileges, and monopoly rights and franchises granted to the corporate media; and laws and regulations written to serve powerful corporate interests in Washington and the states.

Until a few decades ago, scores or even hundreds of media companies operated in various distinct industries. But as a result of mergers and consolidations, by 1993 the number was down to approximately 50 major media companies operating in an integrated industry.

A decade or so later, a handful of giant conglomerates dominated the industry. Those corporations now control much of the information Americans receive from the media.

Moreover, news decisions are increasingly made not by professional journalists dedicated to performing the functions of the Fourth Estate. The decisions are often made by executives whose sole interest is in making corporate profits instead of informing the public about all sides of important issues.

As Laurie Garrett, one of the nation’s most highly respected reporters, said when she quit the news field in 2005: “All across America news organizations have been devoured by massive corporations – and allegiance to stockholders, the drive for higher share prices, and push for larger dividend returns trumps everything that the grunts in the newsrooms consider their missions” She added: “This is terrible for democracy.”[1]

U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan likewise observes: “Consolidation has badly wounded media’s willingness to tackle the tough issues.”[2]

Problems with a media controlled by conglomerates

(1)  Conflicts of interest suppress news reporting

A giant corporation’s executives are likely to be concerned about how the news division’s operations affect the profitability of other divisions.

Profitability can be threatened if the news division offends customers of the other divisions. For huge corporations, offending any significant percentage of customers – who might decide to stop buying the company’s products – could cost millions of dollars.

This consideration can lead corporations to avoid news coverage of topics and views their customers might find offensive. Or if those matters are covered, the media may avoid a thorough and fair analysis of them, and instead dismiss the unpopular side with superficial coverage reinforcing popular prejudices and misconceptions.

As veteran news producer Maurice Murad states: “Most people in editorial control nowadays are market-oriented centrists. For the most part, stories are chosen for their general interest and mass appeal. . . . In producing stories, the biggest no-no is to offend a substantial chunk of the audience by reporting things in a way that goes against their attitudes.”[3]

Additionally, worries about profitability can lead corporate managers to prevent the news division from investigating problems in industries that the corporation’s other divisions operate in. Anything making those industries look bad could redound to the detriment of the conglomerate’s bottom line.

For example, if a conglomerate has divisions selling products to the U.S. military, its executives have a financial interest in preventing the news division from reporting on wasteful or excessive military spending.

In fact, that is exactly the situation of one of the major television networks. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, a significant supplier of equipment to the U.S. military.

General Electric also has a long history of opposing unions. This doesn’t bode well for coverage of pro-labor issues on NBC or its affiliates.

ABC is owned by the Disney Corporation, whose toys are sometimes made in horrible work environments in underdeveloped countries. ABC News is therefore less likely to report on sweatshop conditions that millions of workers are exploited in throughout the world. The same holds true for news reports on the outsourcing of American jobs to low-wage countries and the resulting U.S. trade deficit.

Similar financial considerations can lead to the quashing of reports on other matters opposed to the interests of wealthy corporate chieftains. One example is the rapidly widening income disparity between rich and poor.

Media critic Robert McChesney writes: “As economist Lester Thurow notes, this peacetime rise in class inequality [in the 1980s and 1990s] may well be historically unprecedented and is one of the main developments of our age. It has tremendously negative implications for our politics, culture, and social fabric, yet it is barely noted in our journalism – except for rare mentions when the occasional economic report points to it.”[4]

It’s not the sort of social development that rich corporate executives want the public focused on.

(2)  Reluctance to do investigative reporting and take risks

The intrusion of corporate values into the newsroom has also put a damper on the media’s willingness to perform one of its most important functions: investigative reporting to expose governmental and corporate wrongdoing.

Investigative reporting is often expensive because of the time and work involved in penetrating the cover-ups and stonewalling of public or private institutions. These expenses can be tempting targets for corporate executives to eliminate in efforts to improve short-term profits.

Moreover, investigative reporting is generally performed best by experienced reporters who have developed extensive contacts in business or government for many years. Corporate executives can find it profitable to replace those experienced reporters with inexperienced ones who are paid less.

Additionally, investigative reporting is more likely than other types of reporting to invite lawsuits against a news organization. Because the reporting can make powerful people and organizations look bad, they may try to have the public discount the reports by bringing lawsuits alleging libel, invasion of privacy, or some other tort.

Even if the investigative reporting is accurate, the lawsuits can be expensive for corporations to defend against. This potential outcome may lead a corporation’s lawyers to advise profit-driven executives to minimize or eliminate investigative reporting.

Further, advertisers angered by the reporting, or nervous about who could be angered by it, might be less likely to do business with the conglomerate.

Top governmental officials upset by the reporting might refuse to give the media company the interviews or leaks it desires. George W. Bush has used this tactic against reporters who asked him tough questions and the networks they work for.

Another concern for some corporate executives is that public officials may be less willing to enter contracts to have the conglomerate’s various divisions provide goods or services to the government. For certain conglomerates, the loss of government contracts could mean millions of dollars in lost revenues.

These entrepreneurial considerations have helped cause a significant decline in investigative reporting. It has often been the first thing corporate executives have slashed in the newsroom. Veteran CBS reporter Mike Wallace says newsmagazines now do “damned little” significant investigative journalism, and the work still done is “much softer than it used to be.”[5]

(3)  Reliance on governmental and corporate public-relations statements

After eliminating or drastically reducing investigative reporting, the corporate media often fills the vacuum with material ideally suited for low-cost, low-risk, and don’t-rock-the-boat business strategies.

Much of the material consists of propaganda gleaned from press releases, talking points, and other public-relations (PR) statements issued by governments or corporations. Surveys indicate that PR constitutes from 40 to 70% of news content.[6]

The use of this information enables media organizations to avoid the expense of employing reporters to research and write stories. In effect, the government and corporations subsidize the media’s reporting. Many media executives love it.

In these circumstances, politicians and corporate leaders feel comfortable deceiving the public. They know that the media is reluctant to devote the time and resources necessary to investigate their false claims.

Additionally, by simply parroting the statements of public and private organizations, a media company can avoid evoking the wrath of government officials and corporate executives. Those persons will instead be grateful to the company for acting as a mouthpiece for their propaganda.

As a result, media executives won’t fear that a corporate subject of a story will refuse to buy advertising from the conglomerate or do other business with it. A government that is the subject of a story will continue to grant the media division access to prominent public officials for softball interviews. And the government will not be reluctant to award contracts to the company’s other divisions.

As long as costs are reduced and revenues produced from these cozy arrangements, the corporate media doesn’t seem to mind the decline in journalistic accuracy. And the decline will be precipitous when governmental and corporate spokespersons are the ones providing information for stories about governments and corporations.

Even when media executives suspect or know that society’s leaders are lying to the public, the financial benefits of having good relations with those leaders can lead media companies to fail to disclose the deception.

For example, they often rationalize that by simply presenting the claims made by both sides on an issue – instead of investigating to reveal who is lying and who is telling the truth – the media has done its job by providing “balance.”

Bill Moyers described this problem in 2005: “Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin invariably failing to provide . . . any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.”[7]

In 2006 Lou Dobbs said such journalism is “a cop-out necessitated by budget constraints” at many news organizations. He explained: “Rather than asking their journalists to dig through their facts, analyze the issues, and reach for the truth, it’s much less expensive to simply quote a Republican and a Democrat and satisfy an editor that the reporting is balanced. It’s also a lot safer for everyone involved. Never mind that the readers, listeners, and audiences of such reporting are left no closer to the truth.”[8]

In fact, without an investigation of the merits of the opposing claims, the public is more likely to be fooled by the lying side. The nation’s Founders wanted the media to protect society against that very outcome.

(4)  Neglect coverage of international news

Corporate executives often have little interest in international news and believe that Americans don’t care if there is less of it. They think Americans are more likely to watch programming that is less expensive to produce.

Reducing international coverage therefore makes financial sense to profit-minded executives. Maintaining foreign correspondents in various parts of the world is expensive.

As a result of the corporatization of the news media, coverage of international events dropped by 70 to 80% in the 1980s and 1990s.[9] And the number of foreign correspondents was slashed.

This change makes it far easier for leaders in other countries to put their spin on events occurring there. The American media is less likely to spend the time and resources necessary to get at the truth.

People know, however, that part of the news media’s job is to provide international coverage. So to give citizens the impression the job is being done, the media sends reporters to cover plane crashes and other disasters that occur in foreign countries.

That type of coverage is less expensive than reporting on and analyzing economic, social, and political events in other countries.

Because of these news decisions, many Americans are appallingly ignorant about conditions and events in foreign countries. This is a catastrophe for public debate about American foreign policy.

After the 9/11 attacks, for instance, many Americans were at a loss as to why the terrorists did it. The void in their knowledge enabled politicians to fill it with claims about the terrorists simply hating American freedoms.

But as one wag said later, if the terrorists hate freedom so much, they would have attacked Holland or Canada instead of the relatively puritanical U.S.

By selling Americans on a dubious cause of the attacks, government officials were able to avoid tough questions on whether, as some have alleged, U.S. foreign policy fueled much of the hatred the terrorists have toward the U.S. That’s a discussion the officials didn’t want to happen. Nor did they want Americans to reflect on how free the U.S. actually is compared with some other countries

A similar void in knowledge of foreign affairs leaves many Americans in the dark about the way other countries view the U.S. Polls show that most Americans are unaware of how unfavorably a majority of people in many countries – even countries generally friendly to the U.S. – view some U.S. policies.

Likewise, Americans are unaware of how other countries have alleviated some social problems the U.S. continues to struggle with. The mainstream media in the U.S. provides little information on those matters too.

(5)  Neglect coverage of local news

Not only news about far-away places but also local news often declines drastically because of the business decisions of media conglomerates.

After a national conglomerate acquires a local media outlet, one cost-cutting measure that can be used is to discontinue the local programs and fire the local staff. The corporation then replaces the local programs with content piped in from a central location, where programs are produced for airing at media outlets in various parts of the country.

This business strategy decreases costs because salaries for local staffs are no longer paid. But it has a devastating effect on media coverage of community issues. The firing of local reporters means a substantial reduction – or elimination – of news coverage of local issues by the acquired media outlet. And the firing of local talk-show hosts has the same effect on public discussion of those issues.

In seeking the 2004 Democratic nomination for president, former Vermont governor Howard Dean noted how these problems have harmed radio news coverage in his state. He explained: “I would say that there is too much penetration by single corporations in media markets all over this country. We need locally owned radio stations. There are only two or three radio stations left in the state of Vermont where you can get local news anymore. The rest of it is read and ripped from the AP.”[10]

Just as giant corporations have repeatedly shown they don’t care whether manufacturing and service jobs are kept in local communities or shipped overseas, they have displayed indifference to the quality of local news in those communities. In both cases, their concerns are about cost cutting and profitability instead of serving the public interest.

Consequently, the public’s ability to make informed and intelligent decisions about local issues is hamstrung.

(6)  Focus on the wealthy and middle-class but not the poor and working-class

With corporate executives concerned mainly about the bottom line, they are interested in drawing audiences that advertisers want to reach.

And advertisers don’t care about reaching people who lack money. They want their messages heard by those who can buy the products being advertised.

So instead of choosing stories based on what societal problems are most serious and affect the most people, the corporate media concentrates on stories relevant to segments of the public having money to spend.

For instance, news coverage about investments and the stock market has increased substantially in recent years. This coverage has been quite profitable for the corporate media. Advertisers know that if people have funds to invest in stocks and bonds, they can spend money on the products advertised. Advertisers are therefore willing to pay substantial amounts to sponsor programs those people watch.

The same concern about pleasing the big spenders – and the advertisers who want to influence them – also makes the corporate media reluctant to air programming that will disturb or anger the moneyed interests.

Moreover, there is little financial incentive for profit-driven corporate executives to focus on hunger, homelessness, poverty, and other problems of the poor. Advertisers don’t want to sponsor programs relevant mainly to people lacking money to spend.

This leads to a situation where the plight of the poor and working-class will be covered only if their problems somehow affect the lives of the rich or middle-class.

Robert McChesney writes that the “increased focus by the commercial news media on the more affluent part of the population has reinforced and extended the class bias in the selection and tenor of material. Stories of great importance to tens of millions of Americans will fall through the cracks because those are not the ‘right’ Americans, according to the standards of the corporate news media.”[11]

As a result, the corporate media does not “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It caters to the powerful, comforts the comfortable, and ignores the afflicted – no matter how badly the powerful and comfortable have mistreated the afflicted.

And the function of the media as envisioned by the Founders is turned on its head.

(7)  Focus on government corruption instead of corporate corruption

Conglomerates dominating the news media have an incentive to avoid or downplay corruption in big business.

Too much attention on that subject could give the public the idea that large corporations need to be regulated more to promote the public interest. The public might even conclude that huge corporations should be broken up to reduce their power and produce a competitive marketplace.

Conglomerates are thus better off preventing the public from seeing any problems with an unfettered capitalism that enables them to form oligopolies and reap rapacious profits.

Also, the public might be reluctant to support huge tax cuts for the rich if they saw that public funds are needed for agencies responsible for regulating big business and enforcing laws against white-collar crime.

It’s much more in the interest of the corporate media to keep the focus away from corporate corruption and instead placed on alleged problems with governmental programs for the poor.

If the media can show inefficiencies in those programs, or instances of aid being given to undeserving people, the public will be less inclined to support taxes for the programs. That means more money left in the hands of corporations.

No wonder Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, says the media gives far more publicity to his group’s reports on governmental corruption than its reports on corporate wrongdoing.[12]

(8)  Avoid criticizing government actions benefiting the rich

Although they often dislike welfare programs for the poor, media conglomerates have an interest in supporting government programs they can profit from.

For example, corporate welfare involves tens of billions of dollars the government annually bestows on companies. Conglomerates receiving some of this largess are unlikely to permit their media divisions to criticize the programs.

Additionally, they are likely to give a pass to the CIA and other national-security agencies. By propping up pro-American foreign governments and opposing anti-American elements in those countries, such agencies can benefit American companies operating there.

If any criticism of the agencies does come out, attempts are usually made in the corporate media to attack and discredit it.

For instance, author John Kelly has extensively investigated the CIA. He writes that “there is next to no meaningful coverage ever of the CIA in the mainstream media, let alone analysis. The few exceptions prove the rule, and when they occur, the rest of the media gang up on the exception, side with the CIA, and obliterate the story often before it’s published.”[13]

It’s no coincidence that obliterating the stories can protect the financial interests of conglomerates.

(9)  Focus on “junk food news” instead of serious problems

Another way the conglomerates keep people’s attention off real problems is to present idiotic and irrelevant stories instead of legitimate news. These stories – which the group Project Censored calls “junk food news” – involve subjects such as celebrities, lifestyles, sex, marriages, divorces, and so-called reality shows.

The news media devotes numerous hours and resources to Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Paris Hilton, Madonna, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, O.J. Simpson, Anna Nicole Smith, royal families, American Idol, and the Runaway Bride.

Those stories are much easier to cover and less expensive than doing investigative reporting or covering foreign relations. And they don’t disturb or antagonize society’s elites.

Journalist Peter Arnett says this focus is a reason Americans aren’t well-informed about world events. He explains: “Most of the nation’s newspapers and magazines and television stations, seeking greater profits through larger audiences, fed the public a diet of crime news, celebrity gossip, and soft features, choosing to exclude more serious topics that news managers feared would not stimulate public attention.”[14]

In the past, such profit-driven thinking didn’t have as much influence on what was considered news. Professional journalists had more ability to keep the news focused mainly on informing people about important issues affecting the public interest.

But in today’s conglomerates, executives outside the news division can decide whether the news will cover significant issues or fluff. And if fluff appears more profitable, many executives will choose it over serving the public interest.

Making matters worse, this coverage is supplemented by an overemphasis on stories about violent crime, drug busts, police chases, natural disasters, and tragedies such as plane crashes or vehicular accidents. These stories, too, are less expensive than investigative reporting and don’t disturb the powers-that-be.

Besides, directing people’s attention to serious societal problems and injustices could threaten the economic status quo that corporate owners profit so handsomely from. It’s much safer for those owners to have the public talking about the latest sex scandals, celebrity gossip, and other tripe masquerading as legitimate news.

(10)  Censorship of information about important issues

The corporate media also protects the wealthy and powerful by flat-out censorship. Project Censored issues an annual report on stories censored during the preceding year. Many of the stories do not support the financial interests of media corporations and their advertisers.[15]

Robert McChesney explains that the “general rule in professional journalism is this: If the elite, the upper 2 or 3 percent of society who control most of the capital and rule the largest institutions, agree on an issue then it is off-limits to journalistic scrutiny.”[16]

Some of the biggest censored stories in recent years involved the war in Iraq. During the buildup to the war, media outlets fired talk-show hosts and reporters who opposed the war; ignored political leaders who wanted to speak out against the war; refused to accept anti-war ads and play anti-war songs, downplayed the massive, worldwide protests against the war; and disregarded other anti-war criticism expressed in the U.S. and foreign countries.

Those actions were taken even though the main arguments for the war – Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and involvement in the 9/11 attacks – turned out to be lies. Information contradicting the Bush administration’s pro-war claims was available in the international press and on the Internet before the war. But the information was largely ignored, downplayed, or disparaged by media conglomerates in the U.S.

In 2003 the Bush administration tried to rewrite governmental regulations so that those same conglomerates could acquire more media outlets. The timing suggested that the administration was trying to reward the corporate media for serving the government so well in promoting the war. Fortunately, public outcry foiled the apparent quid pro quo.

That same year, though, Bush’s Federal Communications Commission appointees were able to allow the owner of TV’s biggest cheerleader for the war – Fox News – to substantially expand his media empire.[17]

And after the FCC voted in December 2007 to permit more media consolidation, Amy Goodman noted that the corporations benefiting from the change “are the same ones that acted as a conveyer belt for the lies of the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”[18]

Even after the reasons for the war were indisputably revealed to be false, the corporate media was slow to let the public know. In 2005 John Kerry complained that when the presidential election was held in November 2004, 77% of the people who voted for George W. Bush thought weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.[19]

Also in regard to the supposed weapons of mass destruction, the corporate media showed little interest in informing the public that, as David Corn reports, the Bush administration took a “lackadaisical approach” and “failed to mount anything resembling a serious and top-priority hunt” for them after American troops arrived in Iraq.[20]

Former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips adds that the troops did, however, rush to surround and occupy the Iraqi Oil Ministry building, which contained “thousands of seismic portraits of the nation’s oil fields. . . .”[21] That priority was likewise far higher than providing relief to Iraqi civilians and protecting hospitals, the national library, and the national museum from looters.[22] Phillips says of the real reasons for the war: “Oil was a critical factor.”[23]

The corporate media has also censored coverage of the killing of innocent civilians caused by the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Unlike the rest of the world, Americans have been presented with a sanitized version of the war.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote in April 2005: “The vast amount of suffering and death endured by civilians as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has, for the most part, been carefully kept out of the consciousness of the average American. . . . As for the press, it has better things to cover than the suffering of civilians in war. The aversion to this topic is at the opposite extreme from . . . the media’s manic obsession with the comings and goings of Martha, Jacko, et al.”[24]

Similarly, Herbert wrote in March 2008 about the media’s failure to report on the war’s huge financial costs. The Bush administration has repeatedly hidden those costs from the public, along with information about the number of American casualties of the war. Herbert also said the media has ignored the fact that if the estimated $2 trillion total cost had instead been applied to domestic problems, significant improvements could have been made on matters such as Social Security, Medicare, education, law enforcement, border security, and alleviation of poverty.[25]

By cooperating with the government to promote and continue what turned out to be an unnecessary and disastrous war in Iraq, the corporate media supported what esteemed investigative reporter George Seldes wrote in 1938. As fascism was overspreading Europe, he observed that “it is possible to fool all the people all the time – when government and press cooperate.”[26]

The corporate media has further assisted the Bush administration by censoring information on subjects besides the war. Al Gore gives an example in his book The Assault on Reason. He says the group MoveOn.org tried to buy air time from CBS for an ad to be shown during the 2004 Super Bowl. The ad criticized the Bush administration’s economic policy, which Congress was then debating.

CBS refused to accept the ad by saying the network wouldn’t allow “issue advocacy.” Nevertheless, the network subsequently ran ads promoting Bush’s economic policy. When MoveOn complained about unfairness, CBS initially discontinued the pro-Bush ads, but reversed its position and continued showing them after the White House objected. Yet CBS still refused to show MoveOn’s ad. Gore says this type of censorship happens “too often.”[27]

In these cases and many others, powerful corporate and governmental interests had economic and political agendas they wanted implemented. And they did not want their goals thwarted by a thorough public discussion of policies they were advocating.

As for journalists who persist in trying to report on matters the government and corporate establishment don’t want exposed, they can end up retaliated against, slandered, fired, blacklisted, and labeled as “radioactive” (which means “unemployable”). Their media careers may be destroyed because they tried to do their jobs with ethics and integrity.

Because of the corporate media’s many failings to serve the public interest, Congressman Dennis Kucinich made several proposals for substantial structural changes to the media during his campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. He wanted to make the media much more responsive to societal needs and less driven by profits.

But the corporate media ignored his proposals. Instead, it provided extensive coverage about the more than 80 women who wanted to date him after he mentioned he was a bachelor.[28]

Conclusion

Media consolidation, commercial pressures, and selfish financial interests are preventing the mainstream media from providing Americans with the type of information the Founders passionately wanted them to have.

Rather, media conglomerates have created a marketplace that is closed to much of the information people need to intelligently participate in the political process. And most Americans look to that restricted marketplace as their main source of political information.

The use of reason – which the Founders believed should guide public discussion and policy – is thereby diminished or eliminated in decision making on public issues. Reason can be used to full effect only when all information about a subject is available.

Many U.S. leaders seemingly prefer having the public’s reasoning abilities crippled by a lack of information. British Labour Party leader Tony Benn says those leaders “don’t want people to be educated, healthy, and confident because they’ll get out of control.” He claims the leaders want Americans to be “poor, demoralized, frightened,” and to believe that “the safest thing is to take orders and hope for the best.”[29]

Such an intimidated and subservient mentality would be impossible in a society where people make political decisions with access to an open marketplace of ideas. But it’s very possible in a society where a profit-driven corporate media, the government, or both control the information people receive to keep them uninformed, exploited, and afraid.

Denying information to people causes them to make political decisions that are not in their interest but in the interest of an elite few who control the information. And the more decisions the people make that turn out to harm them in the long run, the less confidence they have in democracy. The lack of information causes their supposed democratic society to become, in Madison’s words, “a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”

To correct these problems, citizens need to go beyond the mainstream media to obtain information necessary to make informed and intelligent political decisions. They must view with a skeptical eye the information they receive from the mainstream media, and look to the so-called fringe press, the international press, and other sources offering alternative views.

They must also refer to sources where the marketplace of ideas is much more open to alternative ideas. Examples of these include the Internet, nonprofit and noncommercial news organizations, public-access TV, and Current TV (which broadcasts viewer-created content).

Additionally, Americans should support changes in the media structure to allow a greater diversity of views. Dennis Kucinich was on the right track when he proposed breaking up the media conglomerates, restricting the number of media outlets one company can own, increasing funding for public broadcasting, encouraging community-controlled media, and providing free air-time for political candidates and parties.

By having access to a truly open marketplace of ideas, the public will be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” as Madison put it.

This power will enable them to recognize and oppose exploitation and abuse; support governmental policies necessary for economic and social justice; and make the enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a reality for more than just the rich and privileged.

That’s the way the Founders wanted it.

Endnotes:

[1] John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (New York: The New Press, 2005), p. 29.

[2] Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics are Selling Out America (New York: Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press, 2006), p. 216.

[3] Maurice Murad, “Shouting at the Crocodile,” Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), pp. 99-100.

[4] Robert McChesney, “The Rise and Fall of Professional Journalism,” Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), p. 375.

[5] Carl Jensen, “What Happened to Good Old-Fashioned Muckraking,” Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), p. 340.

[6] McChesney, p. 369.

[7] Nichols and McChesney, p. 25.

[8] Lou Dobbs, War on the Middle Class (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), p. 80.

[9] Nichols and McChesney, p. 24.

[10] Id., p. 108.

[11] McChesney, p. 375.

[12] Id., p. 369.

[13] John Kelly, “Crimes and Silence,” Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), p. 326.

[14] Jenson, p. 349.

[15] Id., p. 343.

[16] McChesney, p. 369.

[17] Nichols and McChesney, p. 137.

[18] Amy Goodman, “The FCC’s Christmas Gift to Big Media,” http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20071224_the_fccs_christimas_gift_to_big_media/ (December 24, 2007)

[19] Id., p. 149.

[20] David Corn, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003), pp. 267, 269.

[21] Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), p. 75. Accord: Corn, p. 298.

[22] Phillips, p. 75; Corn, pp. 297-298.

[23] Phillips, p. 69.

[24] Bob Herbert, “The Agony of War,” New York Times (April 25, 2005).

[25] Bob Herbert, “The $2 Trillion Nightmare,” New York Times (March 4, 2008).

[26] Gary Webb, “The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On,” Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), p. 310.

[27] Al Gore, The Assault on Reason (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007), pp. 18-19.

[28] Nichols and McChesney, p. 101.

[29] Matthew Rothschild, “Sick Priorities,” The Progressive (September 2007), p. 4.