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Commentary :: Media
01 Apr 2005
Amid ever more aggressive criticism of our ‘democratic’ mass media the question we should ask is whether our media’s much vaunted impartiality has become blatantly partial over the last years or whether the mass media has always been the serf of particular interests, interests camouflaged as the struggle to preserve the freedom of ‘our’ democratic world.
By Uli Schmetzer
March 28,2005

Amid ever more aggressive criticism of our ‘democratic’ mass media the question we should ask is whether our media’s much vaunted impartiality has become blatantly partial over the last years or whether the mass media has always been the serf of particular interests, interests camouflaged as the struggle to preserve the freedom of ‘our’ democratic world.

The answer is partly contained in the communications revolution which, for the first time in human history, has given the public, or at least those interested in a more profound analysis of events, not one but many alternative sources of information - almost instantly. This capability has raised the hue and cry that what our mainstream media report is mostly one-sided often contrived and serves almost exclusively the interests and policies of those in power and their corporate allies. The justified charge then is that the mainstream media has been turned into a propaganda machine, so blatant, so efficient that some critics complain it now resembles that of the defunct Soviet Union.

These critics should accept the media has basically been the same for decades. The concept of an independent impartial media is an abstraction as illusionary as the concept of real democracy. But the public became increasingly conscious of the flaws once the sources of information became pluralistic.

Grandfather read the one newspaper all his life and listened to the one state-run radio station. Today this kind of dependence may be still conceivable though unlikely given the variety of publications and channels. The conservative American in the Redneck heartlands who voted for Bush was more liable to be exposed to conservative and partial media outlets. Instead the more open-minded and better informed coastal States voted Kerry.

(Not that Kerry may have turned out to be a better choice. But he would have represented a thumbs-down sign for the Bush administration and a warning voters will not accept Bush’ unilateral superpower politics that have, in just a few years, converted America into the most vilified nation in the world.)

One of the main charges today is that the media is embedded with our own forces in Iraq and thus incapable of reporting fairly. But in all our wars or conflicts the Western mass media has always been embedded with the U.S. troops or allied forces. There were rare exceptions, the most prominent Israel where access to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the possibility of contact with resistance forces and on-the-spot reporting was and is still responsible for a less one-sided picture of the conflict. This, and not any resurge of anti-Semitism, can be blamed for the sharp criticism of Ariel Sharon’s militant policy – at least outside the United States.

In the past the media loyally perpetuated the scare of the communist bogeyman just as it loyally perpetuates today the scare of the Muslim terrorist. We talked of media objectivity when objectivity meant near-blind credibility in our governments, their interpretations and decisions. The ‘others’ were subjected to skepticism or downright ridicule.

We, the media, build-up dictators as our loyal allies only to tear them down a few years later as villains - once the administration had no further use of them or saw their continued presence in power as an obstacle to national strategy or a barrier to control of coveted resources, like oil. We saw the world in black and white in which the West was the noble hero and its opponents the villains. In the name of freedom and democracy we voiced virtually no objection to the occupation of other nations. Like religious fundamentalists who invoke the Bible and the Koran to justify their militancy the media invoked a version of democracy whose basic fundaments have been corrupted, betrayed and pressed into the services of egocentric economic and political interests.

Access to news has always been the media’s lifeblood, one reason why military and government publicists have ferried media contingents to pre-selected showcases for years and administrations flood reporters with their interpretation of the truth. Unlike academics, researchers or investigators the reporter has to feed the instant, insatiable and highly competitive maw of its printing and video network. There is rarely time to check the other side of the showcase or investigate more then superficially the facts dished out. Editors are waiting for copy. Subscribers want to see and read. So governments are quick ‘credible’ sources that require little or no checking.

Back thirty-eight years ago when I started as foreign correspondent our battle cry was objectivity, objectivity heavily weighed, still today, in favor of official statements, statistics and casualty figures. The ‘enemy’s’ claims’ were considered, and are still often considered, propaganda - not so our own ‘unbiased’ government statements. We perpetuated the myth our ‘democratic’ media could be trusted to tell the story as it was. There were few challenges to this ridiculous credo. The great majority of the public still trusted their news suppliers who then enjoyed a monopoly. Besides in those days the world was clinically divided by the Cold War. This made patriotism, defense of democracy and national interests an unchallengeable prerogative. We saw “the others” only through the eyes of ‘our’ media. Before the communications revolution our public had no access to the ‘propaganda’ from the other side, only our own. We were on the just side. They were on the wrong side. This false truism permeated the craft of the mass media.

The war in Vietnam was never defined a war of resistance or unification but a response to evil communist expansionism that threatened all our lives. In the end the reunification of Vietnam under the communists in Hanoi made no difference and posed no threat to our way of life, did not affect the status quo of geopolitics or negatively influence our economies. But in subsequent years the media continued to regurgitate the threat formula in other global conflicts where U.S. and allied intervention was considered paramount to save us from ‘the enemy.’ In Iraq we even invented the threat of WMDs. The revolutions in Nicaragua and Cuba were not seen as wars of liberation from cruel and corrupt dictatorships but as the products of Soviet expansionism. Salvador Allende’s democratically elected Marxist government had to be destroyed, at an enormous cost of human life. Washington saw it as a menace to U.S. capitalist interests in the region – after Allende nationalized U.S. companies - rather then a Soviet plot to gain a foothold in South America, the convenient idea peddled to the gullible public by a gullible -or cynical - media.

As the public, fed on alternative information, became more skeptical about this unsanitary symbiosis between media and government, the mass media, at least in the United States, began to adopt a fake domestic morality criticizing political leaders for peccadillos committed at home though the same media rarely attacked their blatant deceptions on foreign policy. Nixon and Clinton were pilloried for months while the contrived lies of the administration of Bush Junior - the blatant misleading of the western public that led to tens of thousands of deaths, an increase in global terrorism and the destruction of countries - was white-washed in such an astute way it convinced the majority of the American public the President had been justified and merited another term in office.

The new media barons, presiding over merged media empires, in general threw their muscle behind the Bush administration whose wars and unilateral decisions they obviously see as beneficial for business – their business. (One major media conglomerate endorsed the re-election of Bush and lost thousands of subscriptions in the two States it dominated. The States voted Kerry despite the endorsement). Today a profit-obsessed tycoon like Rupert Murdoch has emerged as the heir to the arch-conservative and reactionary Randolph Hearst of pre-World War II days. Like Hearst in the old days the Murdoch media, grown out of the tabloid press, supports the hegemonic ambitions of Murdoch’s adopted homeland, the U.S. Its rabble-rousing nationalist rhetoric appeals to the lowest human instincts. Less partisan media conglomerates found Murdoch’s lucrative recipe so profitable in the ratings they now tend to copy it. This reactionary trend, only interested in profits, has further eroded the dwindling opposition to the unholy Axis of Media-Politics-Corporation now running global affairs. The only alternative, still uncontrolled at least for the time being, is the Internet.

Not unexpected in a profession run by hypocrites the U.S. media barons launched a witch hunt along their reporting ranks, an effort to sanitize the image of a media in crisis. They offered rogue journalists, the guilty and the innocent, up to public indignation and adopted a holier-than-holy moral attitude. This was in bizarre contradiction to their reluctance to pursue and investigate the more lethal crimes committed through the misinformation peddled by the administration and repeated, unchecked, by their own organizations.

Not since the McCarthy era has the U.S. media issued as many codes of conduct for its personnel or muzzled its own reporting techniques to the same extent. This comes at a time when investigative and critical reporting is badly needed to constrain Washington’s unilateral global bullying. The old Greeks said: “The more corrupt a government, the more laws and regulations it issues.”

In a world where armchair moralists can be triggered with a phone call and columnists are prone to tow the official line, soon a lively debate raged of what is acceptable and what is not in the pursuit of news. In fact, if these new codes had been applied in the past it is unlikely we would have seen an end to the war in Vietnam, criticism of the Central American fiasco or the resignation of Richard Nixon. Worse, as the media crucified in public its own little rogues (a species that exists and will continue to exist in all professions) it ignored its major rogues, those who broke basic journalistic rules by taking for granted the claims of Iraqi exiles (despite U.N. inspectors’ insistence to the contrary) that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction and had links to Al Queda.

It speaks volumes that the New York Times sacked and exposed junior reporter Jayson Blair as a serial liar but neither censored, suspended or fired Judith Miller and her co-writers whose series on WMDs in Iraq was printed nation-wide, so spawning the paranoia that offered the Bush administration enough public consensus to launch its deadly war.

The problem of media credibility today is closely associated with global economic changes. Like the manufacturing industry the media has gone corporate, sometimes global. Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp has world-wide publications and TV channels. The New York Times’ now is exclusively tied-up with the International Herald Tribune. This gives European readers only the Times’ point of view, unlike previously when the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times were partners in the Herald Tribune. The emphasis therefore, even though denied strenuously by the media corporations, is for a uniform voice and the common use of copy. Given human nature and today’s instability in employment and the lack of job safeguards, it is unlikely an editor will baulk at executive directives. The editor has ambitions to become publisher or even a vice-president. The editor also knows baulking the system excludes him or her from a media in contraction. The ready argument is: You can not eat ideals or pay the mortgage with them. Of course there are courageous exceptions.

In the past newspapers and broadcast systems were more likely to print or air an alternative point of view. Voicing different opinions on a news item was marketable at a time when fierce competition welcomed divergence. The yellow or tabloid press was born in that era. It thrived on sensationalism, bizarre news items and exclusive tell-all tales, the so-called check-book journalism. The tabloid press was and still remains a scourge to journalism, caring little about reality and objectivity, operating under the tacit code: “Don’t let the facts spoil a good story.” It is no coincidence Murdoch was the king of the tabloid press before he graduated to media tycoon.

The empire-building of these media barons has offered them an opportunity to use their entire media network to support or oppose. The media in opposition is today a lone whimper pitched against the roar of the mass media organizations. This opposition is only too readily dismissed by reactionaries as leftwing misfits. In the 1970s and 1980s criticism, if presented in the prescribed form of giving both sides a voice, was still considered acceptable even though it may have clashed with official policy. But beginning in the late 1990s and escalating after the attack on the Twin Towers items critical of the administration or its allies had a way of being sub-edited, relegated to the back pages or simply dropped for ‘lack of space.’ News items were shortened, sacrificing background, investigation and analysis to the bare bones of the current issue or news event.

At the same time lobby groups began to use the Internet to bombard a media organization with outraged messages demanding retractions, corrections and apologies. Intimidated and conscious of the lobby’s potential to ask the like-minded to cancel advertising, the media, particularly the dailies, print these retractions and corrections, frequently contradicting facts in their ardor to appease the lobbyists. In New York the Jewish media watch became so effective towards the end of the 1990s and the early years of 2000 editors became loath to print anything detrimental to the policy of the Jewish State, hoping someone else would print it first, allowing them to piggyback on the story already in print. How often did the U.S. media quote Ha’aretz, the courageous Israeli daily, so they could argue: ‘It wasn’t us who said it, it was your own publication.’ This cowardice in turn alienated a growing segment of the reading or viewing public who had access to alternate means of news or, as in the case of the Palestinians, felt their cause was not fairly or proportionally represented.

To avoid chagrin, especially in foreign reporting touching on U.S. policy, editors have begun to deploy to news scenes abroad ‘conformists’ - reporters they can trust to tow the pro-American line. Many of these hit-and-run hacks are anxious for a spell in a volatile situation abroad. This serves them as a medal of valor for their personal CVs. In previous decades a foreign correspondent would be kept abroad for years, accumulating knowledge and savvy about a region. This experience was often reflected in their copy. The correspondent with experience in the field was more likely to avoid the trap of official propaganda and was better equipped to assess the significance of a news item. He or she saw both sides, not just one. The new hit-and-run hack, with few exceptions, is not interested or curious about the local situation. This type provides slick and patriotic copy, anxious to build up a personal reputation that can be marketed on their return from the assignment. Their lack of knowledge and dedication is reflected in the banal and uninformed replies they offer on global TV networks. More negative: As media Networks and major papers cut costs, more and more ‘cheap’ amateurs or pretty faces are hired abroad and at home, one reason why faces talking into videophones during the initial days of the catastrophic tsunami in Asia blabbered such nonsense, repeating what they might have read or heard on news wires, utterly incapable or unwilling to step into the mud, find their own stories and bring the drama alive. If one happened to browse through the plethora of information on the Internet at the same time one could understand why a growing number of the public have turned their backs on the mainstream media.

But even then, in the subsequent days of the tsunami tragedy there was a glaring contradiction. Dailies and networks dished up a plethora of corpses, grieving mothers cradling dead babies fathers carrying dead children slung over their shoulder, horrendous scenes of mud-caked bodies lined up along communal graves. One then wondered: Would the media have published the same images after a similar disaster in our own society? When have we last seen a Western mother in print or video cradling her dead baby? Come to think, when have we last seen the corpses of U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq or been allowed to see flag-draped coffins return home? I guess that would be undermining the war effort and might lead to a public backlash to the war, just as the images of the victims of the tsunami kindled public generosity.

How obedient to government orders our media has become!

But once the tsunami tragedy was turned over to more professional reporters it showed the positive side of a mass media when it works for a worthy cause. The amazing donor generosity around the world was the direct result of a media blitz, aided by new communication technology, able to galvanize massive support for the survivors, illustrating once again the human species is at its noblest in times of adversity.

Yet when it became obvious public compassion had outstripped government aid to the survivors (in Australia private donations easily exceeded that of government aid at one stage) the dominant countries fell over each other to dispatch key political figures into the devastated region, simultaneously raising government aid. Our leaders had become conscious public compassion with the poor hit by the tsunami had not matched their own. Suddenly major international networks broadcast news clips with American warships and helicopters participating in the relief efforts. Our politicians were shown stumbling through the debris mouthing the usual platitudes. The whole montage gave the audience the false impression the U.S. had taken the lead in the relief campaign – while virtually ignoring the hundreds of cargo planes and aid workers pouring into the region from countries around the world. As our Western politicians tried to win political kudos over the corpses of the tsunami victims it was once again obvious who runs the mass media.

It is a sad fact we still offer disproportionately extensive media coverage to our political figures and institutions creating a make-belief image of their value. It is also a sad fact - though loudly disputed - news organizations today are no longer motivated by informing the public or battling injustice but by making profits.

These corporate media organizations pay fabulous wages to their senior executives but trim the news gathering staff at the bottom. One reads with horror of more redundancies in the newsroom, wage freezes or cuts while the perks at the executive level become more and more lucrative for the few. One then wonders why one U.S. media company pays out over $600,000 a year as consultancy fee for its retired publisher. The same company, after a disastrous financial year, still awarded generous end-of-the-year bonuses to its senior executives. These bonuses - so one of these executives admitted - would have sufficed to keep at work the 500 employees the company laid-off ‘to cut costs.’

In fact the consultancy fee awarded to the publisher would have allowed the same media conglomerate to maintain three additional foreign bureaus. This would have beefed up the dwindling knowledge of its readers about the affairs of a global fraternity which the United States is so eager to dominate, though the majority of Americans have scarce or no knowledge of how other people live – and think.

But then, as the mass media discovered long ago, ignorance is far more malleable then knowledge. (ends).

*Uli Schmetzer worked as foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune.

This work is in the public domain
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