Is news what the Big Six say it is?by Bob BrowningNews Weekly
, June 30, 2001
In 1982, 50 firms dominated media around the world. Today the number is 10, with six looming large and in takeover mode.
The Big Six comprise AOL Time Warner, News Corporation, Vivendi Universal, Viacom, Sony, Disney, and Bertelsmann.
Most people have probably never even heard some of their names, let alone realised how much the media giants influence their thinking and lives. Yet the mega-corporations are ubiquitous. Their executive managers control the brunt of TV, radio, print, film, video, musical recording and most other forms of mass information and entertainment communication around the globe. They wield huge political and cultural power.
Democratic political theory attributes a crucial role to the "Fourth Estate". Freedom of the press is the usual test of whether freedom of speech exists in a society. A basic democratic tenet is that popular sovereignty cannot be exercised without the public being properly informed. Digging out, critically analysing and reporting "the news" is the public watchdog role traditionally considered indispensable to open, pluralistic, democratic society.
But who watches the watchdog? Global corporate oligopoly is relegating traditional democratic principle to the status of cosmetic rhetoric - a disguise for special interest.
Consider a few incidents that illustrate current trends. Fox TV recently sacked two of its US journalists, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, over an investigative report on the chemical giant Monsanto. The two had compiled a telling report on the prevalence and effects of bovine growth hormone in milk. The General Manager of Fox told them: "We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We'll decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is."
A memo from Coca-Cola's advertising agency to US magazines warned them that:
"The Coca-Cola company requires that all insertions are placed adjacent to editoral that is consistent with each brand's marketing strategy ... We consider the following subjects to be inappropriate: hard news, sex, diet, political issues, environmental issues... If an appropriate positioning option is not available, we reserve the right to omit our ad from that issue."
The Fox and Coca-Cola examples were two of the many disturbing stories told this year in Copenhagen at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference. Over 300 journalists from 37 countries attended the conference. It was organised and co-sponsored by Investigative Reporters and Editors (USA) and the Danish organisation for investigative journalism, Foreningen for Underssgende Journalistik.
Charles Lewis, the founder and executive director of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), was one of the lead speakers. Lewis quit his job as a producer for 60 Minutes to found the Center - a nonprofit, nonpartisan, investigative reporting organisation based in Washington DC.
Lewis and his colleagues seek ways to help journalists maintain professional integrity within the constraints increasingly imposed by globalisation. CPI has produced more than 100 investigative reports.
They are published as books and/or made freely available over CPI's Web site (www.publicintegrity.org
CPI helped found the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which links 76 reporters in 41 countries to do international investigative projects. CPI does not take money from corporations, unions, governments or advertising. Nevertheless it succeeded in spending US$18 million last year to assist investigative journalism. It raised the money from foundations, individuals and publications. It lists all its donors on its web site.
One of the problems of professional integrity is that corporate globalisation makes it increasingly difficult for journalists to cover objectively a phenomenon of which they and their employers are an integral part. Lewis notes, for example, that:
"Media corporations in the US have spent roughly $200 million in recent years to politically influence the very same Congress and President they cover as journalists, with campaign contributions to individuals and both major parties, and lobbying fees to dozens of the most-connected, high-priced Washington firms.
"These media corporations have taken members of the US Congress on 315 all-expenses-paid trips around the world, and taken Federal Communications Commission regulators on 1,400 all-expenses-paid trips."
Media corporations want greater freedom to merger and agglomerate, less regulation, tax breaks, more TV stations and the digital spectrum - in short, more power and bigger profits. One result, says Lewis, is that:
"No one in the major US media closely covered their efforts to manipulate the political process. And similar media corporate power grabs around the world are seldom investigated or covered."
Political advertising and advocacy journalism are skyrocketing in the corporate media. Political advertising revenue for the US media shot up from $80 million in 1980 to $1 billion during the last US Federal election. Corporations - media or otherwise - aim to make money. Advertising and advocacy bring profits. Full, honest and accurate reporting carries no guarantee of doing so, even if it boosts readership.
The line between business considerations and journalism is increasingly blurred. Media corporations are less news organisations in the old sense than Big Business operations in the new globalised sense.
Media bosses do not want their journalists alienating advertisers. Nor do they want them undertaking expensive investigative reporting without reliable assurances that the venture will prove profitable.
Media "mission statements" are effectively to advance the special interests of the media corporations, their managements, their big paying clients, and their shareholders.
Journalists associating themselves with the Center for Public Integrity are not alone in recognising the threat that global media oligopoly poses to public information and democracy.
The left-wing communications co-operative New Internationalist devoted the May 2001 issue of its magazine New Internationalist to examining the present state of the global media.
One of NI's concerns was the attitude of the Big Six to the globalising ideology of economic rationalism:
"For most journalists neo-liberalism is not an economic ideology whose fundamental assumptions can be challenged, but simply 'reality'. Though they are occasionally willing to cover isolated problems of market economies and corporate rule, they greet systemic critiques of the global power structure with derision and incomprehension."
NI notes that when corporate CEOs, heads of state and other luminaries met in Davos, Switzerland this January for the "summit of business summits", that "also nibbling hors d'oeuvres with the architects of globalisation were a group of specially chosen 'Media Leaders' - about 200 editors, producers and commentators from around the world, who not only took part in the meetings but also attended special closed sessions".
New Internationalist examined the strikingly uniform way the big corporate media "reports" anti-globalisation critics, dismissing them as economic neanderthals and special interest pleaders. A common tactic is guilt by association. It is correct that the media spotlight should fall on activist minorities and violent acts. It is neither right nor honest reporting, however, to tar all protesters and critics with the same brush.
Media coverage of the anti-globalisation protests at meetings of the world's economic elite in Seattle, Washington, Melbourne and other places mostly epitomised a broad movement by its extreme elements. For example:
"The editorial pages brimmed with the apoplectic outpourings of the planet's leading opinion-formers. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times
called the anti-globalisation protesters, 'a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix'.
"Andrew Marr writing in liberal British broadsheet The Observer
described their demands as 'the Communist Manifesto rewritten by Christopher Robin'. The Wall Street Journal
joined in to jeer the 'global village idiots ... bringing their bibs and bottles to [Washington] this week' when the movement targeted the World Bank in April 2000."
New Internationalist responded by describing the ideological language of corporate journalism as "globaloney". George Orwell might have agreed. In the language of Corpspeak, freedom is eulogised, but translates as the freedom to do business anyway Big Business wants to do it.
Crusaders like the Center for Public Integrity and the coalition of groups around New Internationalist could do worse than take the advice of Oxford Univeristy's Timothy Garton Ash (The Age,
June 16, 2001).
Ash says we still need to keep reading Orwell. He is still relevant even though his attacks on "Newspeak" - manipulating language to deceive and confuse - were directed at the now defunct totalitarianisms of fascism and Soviet communism:
"The extreme totalitarian version that Orwell satirised as Newspeak is less often encountered these days. But the obsession of democratically elected governments with media management and 'spin' is today one of the major obstacles to understanding what is being done in our name.
"There are also distortions within the press, radio and television, partly because of hidden ideological bias, but increasingly because of fierce commercial competition and the relentless need to 'entertain'."
New Internationalist argues that because the Big Six entertain us - more or less - the profound lack of democracy at the heart of the new corporate global media oligopoly goes unexamined.
Orwell wrote that it was his experience of communist propaganda against the democratic socialists during the Spanish civil war that he first encountered people "whose profession was telling lies - unless one counts journalists".
Orwell said the language of honest and effective political writing should be like clear window panes. Garton Ash notes that through such windows citizens should be able to see what their rulers are really up to. Political writers, he says, should aim to be the window-cleaners of truth and freedom.