Thomas Jefferson once said, “Our citizens may be deceived for a while, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.” For the past eight years, George W. Bush has been breaking both national and international laws with reckless abandon and lying repeatedly to Congress and the American people. He has started two ill-advised wars and authorized the torture of detainees from those wars. He has admitted to illegally spying on his own citizens. He has vetoed several pieces of legislation designed to improve the lives of low- and middle-class Americans, calling them fiscally irresponsible. Yet, he’s spending at least $12 billion per month on the illegal, no-win war in Iraq and is borrowing money from other nations to do so. In spite of all this, there is not much light being shone on this administration from the mainstream media.
There’s always a “honeymoon” period for a newly elected president, but President Bush’s honeymoon has gone on for eight years. The last journalist I remember challenging Bush on anything substantive was veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas. During a televised press conference, she had a heated discussion with President Bush about the war in Iraq. His irritation at her was palpable. It was almost as if she had no business challenging him. For the most part, however, the mainstream media uses ‘big picture’ journalism when covering the Bush administration. This approach allows our government to do exactly as it pleases because nobody is paying attention to the details. This is what President Bush and his minions are counting on.
The consolidation, and subsequent compromise, of the news media actually began during the Reagan administration, but it really hit its stride in the last decade. In 1983, fifty corporations controlled all of the news media in the United States. Back then, the experts found that alarming. By 1992, that number had dwindled to fewer than a couple of dozen corporations. Today, a mere five major corporations control the majority of the news media in the United States: Time-Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann AG (Germany), and Viacom (formerly CBS). For the sake of argument, add General Electric’s NBC, which comes in a close sixth. (1)
The door to media monopolization was opened by passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first major overhaul of the nation’s telecommunications law in sixty-two years. This ill-conceived piece of legislation eliminated most media ownership regulations. The FCC further relaxed the rules in 2003, allowing broadcast networks to own television stations that reach a combined 45% of the national audience. When citizens, who are largely opposed to media consolidation, voiced their dissent about the changes in 2003, their opinions were simply ignored. Then, in December 2007, the FCC again voted 3-2 along party lines to eliminate the ‘newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban’ that prevents a local newspaper from owning television and radio stations in the same market. These decisions may be good for big business, but they are bad for Americans and for democracy.Consolidation does not serve local communities and does not promote diversity
The media conglomerates that control our news use the public airwaves free of charge and reap billions of dollars in profits as a result. In return, they are supposed to be serving the public by producing quality programming that focuses on the concerns of local communities. They do not, however, hold up their end of the bargain. Instead, they have cut the staffing of local newsrooms and failed to address local issues. In Boston, where I live, I was surprised to find out a couple of weeks ago that three of the longest-serving members of a local television station were let go. When I phoned to ask why, I was told it was a “business decision.”
The consolidation of media outlets also results in limited ownership opportunities for women and people of color. In addition, coverage of issues important to women, people of color and other minorities, the working class and rural inhabitants have virtually disappeared.
If the public is to hold our leaders accountable, the news they rely on to do so must be unbiased and from independent sources. Consolidation, however, actually reduces the number of reliable and independent news, opinion and information sources. It also affects the way the news is reported to the public. In a study done by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Columbia Journalism Review, more than one quarter of the journalists surveyed said they avoided stories that might conflict with the interests of their news organizations or its advertisers.
News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s company, has had amazing success with Fox News Network, consistently thrashing rival CNN in the ratings in the battle of the 24-hour news networks. However, Fox feeds the general public a steady diet of right-wing commentators, like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, and is repeatedly accused of biased reporting. News Corp. gave $4,995,768 in individual, soft money and PAC contributions between 1997 and 2006, with $60.4% going to the Republican Party. (2) That’s where one would expect the money to go since Murdoch is a conservative. Fox network’s biased messages are then further disseminated to its affiliates. Time-Warner operates in the same manner, except that the lions’ share of its individual, soft money and PAC contributions go to the Democrats. (2) The point is that such far-reaching media influence on either side of the aisle results in bias and is unacceptable.Where have all the journalists gone?
To call today’s breed of newsperson an investigative journalist, would be a misnomer. They are more like talking heads regurgitating what they are fed. There’s plenty to investigate with this administration in power, but nobody is doing it. In the fall of 2001, a series of anthrax attacks further traumatized a nation already made shaky by the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Five people died and many others were infected. The attacks made news for a while, but the story simply disappeared from the mainstream media’s radar screen. It’s a still-unsolved crime, but do we know if the FBI is even working this case? Has any progress been made? We know military-grade anthrax was used. We know it was sent only to Democratic politicians and the news media. Could this be something that the administration wants the public to forget? Isn’t this enough to raise some questions? Is this not a story that begs pursuit?
It was the pursuit of the facts by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post that resulted in the downfall of Richard Nixon. Woodward and Bernstein knew they were onto something and pursued the facts, with the encouragement, support and guidance of their superiors (who, by the way, were constantly under pressure from the administration to back off). The journalism had integrity, the facts were corroborated and the stories ran day after day, keeping Americans informed and tying all the loose ends together. We have no such situation today. In fact, many feel that the Washington Press Corps have too cozy a relationship with members of the Bush administration. Several members of the press corps have admitted that, at the end of the day, they often wind up running what the White House suggests as a story. It just so happens that packaging the news is another specialty of the Bush administration.
In 2003, the same Washington Post helped to spread the Pentagon’s lie about Pfc. Jessica Lynch. The invasion in Iraq was beginning to hit some rough times and the Iraqi people were not welcoming us with open arms, as was promised by the Bush war machine. The rescue of Jessica Lynch would be just the piece of propaganda the administration would need to rally the American public. The Pentagon painted her rescue as a valiant Special Ops effort, replete with gun battles on the ground and Black Hawk helicopters firing from the air. The Washington Post, the New York Times and other media claimed that Lynch shot several Iraqis during her rescue and sustained several gunshot wounds herself. This could only have happened with the cooperation of a complicit media, a media that did not check the facts being fed it by the government. It was months later that the truth came out. Jessica Lynch had never sustained gunshot wounds. She had indeed been severely injured when her Humvee crashed during an ambush. Her captors took Lynch to a hospital, where she was apparently treated well. As far as her rescue was concerned, her captors actually left two days before the raid took place.
By the time the media found out it was misled and recanted the story, months had passed and to some the issue was not important anymore. Sadly, there were no great repercussions for the mainstream media. It is Jessica Lynch who received hate mail for making up the story, but it was not Jessica Lynch who was guilty. The Pentagon made up the story and the media went along for the ride, much like they did when our president decided to lie about the reasons for invading Iraq. The media didn’t question the Bush administration then either.
The Bush administration isn’t just adept at twisting the truth and lying to make its point. Apparently it is also pretty adept at pre-packaging the media.
In February of 2006, a GAO report (3) identified over $1.6 billion in public relations and media spending by the Bush administration during 2003, 2004 and the first two quarters of 2005. For example, the Department of Education contracted with Ketchum Communications, who then sub-contracted with conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to editorialize in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act. However, the most disturbing use of taxpayer dollars is in the creation of ‘video news releases,’ something the Bush administration is apparently quite adept at. These spots are made to look like independent newscasts and are designed to fit seamlessly into news broadcasts. While the issue of legality is not addressed in the report, prior GAO reports take the position that video news releases by federal agencies violate the ban on covert propaganda if they are broadcast to the public without revealing the role of the federal government. (4)
The Department of Health & Human Services hired a PR firm to develop a series of video news releases promoting the Bush administration’s Medicare Modernization Act. Another video news release filmed in Kansas City about reaction to the fall of Baghdad shows an Iraqi-American thanking Bush and the United States. Still another focused on the Bush administration’s diligence at strengthening airline security. This particular segment even utilized a PR person as a fictitious reporter espousing how remarkable the Bush program is.
Major media outlets further distribute this government-created, covert propaganda. For example, Fox uses Medialink to distribute them to 130 affiliates through Fox News Edge. CNN distributes video news releases to 750 stations in the U.S. and Canada via CNN Newsource. AP Television News distributes video news releases on a worldwide basis via its Global Video Wire.