News filtering 2

Project Censored director Peter Phillips refers to the ‘new form of media censorship.’ We’ve already addressed in class the concentration of media ownership. Phillips discusses how it is in the interest of the few corporations who control the vast majority of media outlets to make sure that their version of events ‘wins out.’ Censorship keeps the news coming (hmmmm . . . there’s something funny about that sentence)

So anyway, Peter Phillips offers a complementary explanation of censorship. He says that one of the driving forces behind the ‘new censorship’ in corporate-consolidated media is the desire to protect relationships between news sources and news outlets. We’ve discussed the expense of being a competitive media outlet. The news division requires constant feeds, access, and seems to emphasize dissemination over analysis–getting the scoop seems to be more important to getting it right. But more important to whom??

PR sites, news sources. If you’re in a hurry, go visit PR Newswire for the latest press releases, and package them as news. There’s even a page especially tailored to journalists’ needs for quick news. Conservative think tank Cato Institute has its own newsroom as well, as does the left-leaning Center for American Progress (and most think tanks–it’s one of their missions, to communicate with the press and influence public debate). We’ve talked about the importance of sources as filters, and the White House news site does a fine job of presenting the president’s activities as news, rather than marketing of a specific political agenda. But reporting what the White House says as news, without analysis or fact-checking, happens every day, in every outlet. Same with the Pentagon, which has multiple news feeds.

Phillips’ point? Predictability often trumps quality of reporting or integrity, and having news sources who are handy and provide that reliable predictability allows news organizations to claim they are reporting, for lack of a better word, news. Whatever keeps the ratings high and the news outlets competitive. The 24/7 news cycle in particular demands that, yet if you watched any of the networks for 24 hours, you’d see very little news relative to other content. When a symbiotic relationship between elite corporate media and powerful newsmakers is required to ensure a continuous stream of news, how easy is it for a reporter to turn around and ask tough questions, be confrontational or adversarial? What are the risks to the reporter, and to the reporter’s employers?

News divisions used to be protected from competitive sources, but as media outlets grow and consolidate, they fit into a broader profit-driven corporate model where they can be used to promote corporations’ other business and political interests. This doesn’t mean they’re blatantly marketing, but it does mean a lot of filtering can go on without the public being the wiser. As far as the war, embedding reporters in Iraq among US infantry soldiers gave the Pentagon more control over what was reported–journalists go through boot camp, bond with soldiers, and learn about self-censorship. The Pentagon also refused to protect independent journalists–essentially independent journalists were risking life and limb to report on the war. But all of the major outlets had begun running titles on war-related stories long before the invasion. They were ready with pre-packaged, pre-approved Pentagon coverage (here’s an independent take).

Why has quantity of news, timeliness, become more important than quality, depth, and accuracy?? Think ratings and money (and whatever maximizes those). Large corporations have shareholders, advertisers and executives to please, as well as the newsmakers who continue to provide the daily access. Also:

  • Investigative journalism is expensive, risky. What if a journalist gets a story wrong, like CBS did with George W. Bush’s National Guard record? Here’s Greg Palast’s minority take–that the contours of the story were well-known before the 60 Minutes story. The other side of the story was an effort to smear John Kerry’s Vietnam War record (and discredit him among war veterans) with the infamous ‘Swiftboating‘ campaign (here’s a typical campaign ad that aired).
  • Media are among the corporate elite. They benefit from free-market capitalism, and let’s face it–social transformation is not in their interest, especially if it leads to higher taxes, more government regulation and intervention in the economy.
  • Fox News vs Fox Film Division–News is editorialized and claims to reflect ‘mainstream American values.’ However, more recently Fox has toned down some of its news and shifted the heated rhetoric to its many opinion shows starring Fox pundits (O’Reilly, Hannity, Beck, etc.). Yet Fox’s film division will do what it takes to turn a profit (see Frank Rich’s insightful analysis). Just ask Fox Business Correspondent Neil Cavuto.
  • Phillips says: “a closer examination of this American media supported ideology reveals that ‘free market’ essentially means constant international U.S. government intervention on behalf of American corporations (read about Executive Order 13303). This public-private partnerships uses embassies, CIA, FBI, NSA, Dept. of Defense, Commerce, US Agency for International Development, US Information Agency, etc, to protect, sustain, and directly support U.S. business.”
  • Journalistic careerism-a journalist that attacks the ‘sacred cows’ threatens his/her career
  • Much of this is about flak, which fits in ‘nicely’ with Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. News outlets want to project the appearance of balance, and flak from the right is often used to make a point, rather than pursue any facts. It’s the Mighty Wurlitzer, the echo chamber–say it enough times, in enough outlets and media, and ‘liberal media’ becomes one word. But as we’ve discussed in class, perhaps the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are also convenient shorthand that reduces the complexity of bias, and diverts attention from what really matters in commercial news–a viable business model.
  • Could media challenge this form of censorship, even if it weren’t a part of it?
  • As Phillips says, the more corporate news you watch, the less you really know. It’s more about entertainment and ratings than information and public service. And making sure the corporate version of events is the ‘official’ version is easier when you’re the only ones with the megaphones.