When another journalism professor and I bought The Preston County News, we didn’t have two discretionary nickels to rub together. He was just back from Vietnam with two children to raise and I had lost everything I owned in a divorce settlement.
But the newspaper owner was desperate to sell and the local banker, who was one of the original townsmen who started the newspaper, wanted to keep the paper going. And so he bent the lending rules and allowed us to borrow $5,000 each from other banks on the basis of our good names and then use it as collateral.
Thirteen years later my wife and I sold the paper and soon it was sold again to the owners of the other county newspaper, The Preston County Journal. The News was downgraded to a throwaway shopper.
I tell this story to show you in simple terms that our beloved freedom of the press is not free like freedom of speech. Freedom of the press is bought and sold on the real estate market. If you own the ink, you have the freedom. If you don’t own the ink, you don’t have the freedom. The same goes for broadcast media.
That was not the way the Fourth Estate was originally envisioned.
Free Press and Responsibility
In early Europe, society was first divided into three “Estates” – the clergy, nobility and commoners. These were the three primary elements of society that exercised varying degrees of power over public policy and behavior. In 1837, a Fourth Estate was coined to recognize the growing influence the press had on society. With recognition came responsibility. The media’s role in society was to inform and influence for the common good, equal to and offsetting the power of the other Estates.
Journalists understood the privilege they were given and adopted ethical standards to assure the role would be fairly followed.
Over the years, the press didn’t always behave as their self-governing rules required or that their various constituencies liked. And so, certain restraints against press freedom were imposed, the most important of which was a rule against monopoly.
Fast forward to America in the 1980s when the deregulation of print and broadcast media began.
Government took a neoliberal approach to regulation in general and media in particular.
Theoretically, the “neo” (new) approach to liberalism transfers the power and control over private enterprise to the “public.” All well and good if the public has any control. But the “public” turns out to be those who own the press. The Fourth Estate is owned primarily by unrestrained capitalists who control the government and rarely answer to the public.
Deregulation Enabled Media Empires
Unrestrained capitalists found deregulation highly advantageous, offering greater profit margins, reduced risk and a dominant competitive edge. Deregulation caused a series of fire sales, takeovers, mergers and lucrative buy-outs in the media industry, creating further concentration of media ownership.
This is the way freedom of the press became private enterprise and then monopoly.
Rupert Murdoch and family acquired a media empire that began with the inheritance of a newspaper in his native Australia at the age of 22, followed by the acquisition of half the media in Australia. And it now includes Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and The Times of London and various media outlets in 10 other countries.
Globally, large media conglomerates include National Amusements (Viacom and CBS Corporation), Time Warner, Disney, 21st Century Fox (recently sold to Disney), Sony Comcast, AT&T, Hearst Communications, MGM Holdings, the Lagardère Group, a multi-national group headquartered in Paris, and Grupo Globo, the largest media group in Latin America. Please note that these conglomerates are not just in the news business, leading to the fear that the goals and objectives of other enterprises taint the handling of news.
No wonder people are distrustful, if not paranoid.
So far there is little empirical evidence that media oligarchs are routinely exercising undue control over editorial policies. It is clear, though, that they are driven by profit, not public service, and it is profit that drives the media to bias on issues and doctrine favored by their subscribers as well as themselves. And it is obvious they are using their power over press to supplement the power of their wealth for the purpose of influencing public office holders across the board.
There is anecdotal evidence.
Reporters have often had their stories refused or severely edited without reason. Examples include the refusal of some networks to air advertising from anti-war advocates and liberal groups like MoveOn.org. Even religious groups like the United Church of Christ have been denied.
When former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg returned to his position as head of Bloomberg Reports, his name was not included in its annual list of billionaires and their worth. He is worth $46 billion.
What you see in these incidents is evidence that those who own freedom of the press are able to control content – without explanation – for their own reasons and purposes, not necessarily in the public’s best interest. It is a dangerous power in a democracy. Even worse in an oligarchy as the mainstream media has become.
Meanwhile, there are as many instances of media attempting to strike a balance with questions and critiques about their own performances. What this navel gazing suggests is that the media is schizophrenic on editorial duty but a remnant of ethical journalism is there.
Public Trust at All Time Low
Regardless of who’s at fault or how much is fact or fiction, the public trust is at an all time low.
In its most recent confidence poll, Gallup found that trust in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has reached an all-time low. Only 32 percent said they had a great deal or only a fair amount of trust in the media. The vast majority deemed them untrustworthy. Worse, the annual poll has shown a steady decline over the past 20 years!
At the same time Pew Research reported that only 18 percent of the people trust national news outlets. Local news enjoyed a higher confidence rating, still a paltry 22 percent!
People actually trust their newsmakers – the politicians – more than they do the press. But not by much.
While trust in the media establishment slipped over a long period of time, it hit an all time low in the last presidential election when the winner used the “dishonest media” as a campaign strategy that struck a chord on both sides of the political fence. It effectively turned heads away from his own dishonesty.
He took advantage of a free-wheeling alternative medium, Twitter, to effectively circumvent the media and communicate directly with his political base. He’s still doing it. His war on the media never stopped once he took command of the bureaucracy. It is invasive. Just after the election the new chief received laughter and applause in a meeting with intelligence professionals at CIA headquarters when he dissed the press.
This is a reckless game and we are all playing it as news consumers. A war on the media is a war on a key component of democracy. It is fraught with danger for the American people and for the world. A failing press is bad enough, but a war on the press is a war on the democratic process, like it or not.
And what about the alternative? The Internet?
The most recent surveys reveal that a large majority of us now get our news through social media, more than half through Facebook. And the researchers refer to Facebook as a “news platform.”
Transition from Social to News Platform
From its inception the developers of Facebook never considered it to be a news source. Rather, it was simply to be a place where users could freely build their own social networks for whatever purpose including the distribution of news and opinion. Over the years, Facebook managers have taken a few stabs at controlling content. At its best, Facebook is porn free. At its worst, it is laced with propaganda, misinformation and disinformation. Among them is the use of memes which always make unsubstantiated claims.
I should stop here to explain the differences in those terms.
Propaganda is reminiscent of the infamous “National Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda” run by Joseph Goebbels for the Nazi government of Germany. Propaganda may easily be based in fact, but facts represented in such a way as to provoke a desired response.
Misinformation differs from propaganda in that it always refers to something which is not true. It differs from disinformation in that it isn’t deliberate, it’s just wrong or mistaken. The blind leading the blind.
Disinformation is the lowest of the low. Never underestimate the evil intentions of some individuals or institutions to say or write whatever suits a particular purpose, even when it requires deliberate lies.
We see plenty of all three forms and that is why Facebook mangers felt the responsibility of becoming gatekeepers.
However, in an attempt to avoid using personal preference, Facebook used algorithms to patrol and there have been cases where perfectly innocent people have found themselves in Facebook prison with no right of appeal. The reaction from the users has been outrage. It appears people want their social media to be free-wheeling. Damn the consequences.
All this is about free speech, not free press. And one way to lose effectiveness of free speech is to abuse it to the point where everything becomes untrustworthy.
Meanwhile, the Internet has been the scene of news outlet startups offering an alternative to the legacy media once considered fairly responsible to the principals of press freedom but now suspect. In their exuberance to be different and to build audience, the new media have practiced a lesser level of no-holds-barred journalism to appeal to the audience they want to attract. As in the legacy press, you can find traces of good journalism.
Frankly, I prefer a news outlet that is straight forward about where it stands than one that pretends a devotion to neutrality or fair play. Though I want the latter. At least I know where the new media is coming from and I can weigh the value of their reports accordingly. But it is time-consuming and people these days don’t have the luxury of time.
Which is why I like news feeds. I love ‘em.
Finding the Truth
Given the instability in media, we must become our own filters. With news feeds, I can subscribe and choose the category of topics I want to follow
Before we get into the current hullabaloo about net neutrality, there is an interesting (actually critical) development happening behind this scene. All media are coming to grips with the fact that news delivery is rapidly changing and it is unstoppable. The model of offline media is sinking fast and loosing tons of money.
The realization is that offline media will no longer be able to earn a living through advertising. Ad money is gravitating toward direct marketing on the Internet. And it’s going to the distributors of news, not the generators of it. And the distributors are the ones that own online networks like Facebook and Google.
Established media, therefore, are attempting to save themselves by following suit, attempting to remain viable by joining the crowd online. But the question lingers, “How are they going to make it pay?”
One way is to establish their own distribution systems online. Just as wholesalers and retailers of goods are becoming dependent on Amazon.com, producers of the news are becoming dependent on external distributors who are earning the ad dollars.
Traditionally, newspaper distribution was paid for by subscriptions. Broadcast media had no such luck, but distribution was part of the business of broadcasting. That gave broadcasters an edge over print media. Now, with the coming advances in online video, the question rises; how does either print or broadcast media support press freedom online?
As ad revenue continues to shrink, the established media are thinking of loyalty as the future currency that will induce people to pay for their news online. As unlikely as this may seem, it opens the possibility that a responsible press might well earn more than trust. It might earn financial security by fulfilling its constitutional role.
All this may be moot depending on how the war on net neutrality turns out.
Net Neutrality is a Myth
Before we even begin this segment, let’s get this straight. “Net Neutrality” is a myth. Under FCC regulation, the Internet is not neutral. The proponents want to remove the FCC from Internet regulation! The label reminds me of political double-talk, confusing ballot referendums and skewed survey questions.
The label makes it look as though black is white and white is black.
Here’s the issue in plain language: To maintain neutrality while preserving integrity, the Internet must be responsibly restrained. The FCC does that, and those who want to control the Internet for their own gain want them to stop!
Again: Opponents want to preserve regulation. Proponents want to kill it.
Here I present the positions of the pros and cons regarding the power of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as Internet watchdog.
The cons against FCC rule
- There is no compensation for data and information provided by the producers and publishers of Internet content.
- Producers exhaust their bandwidth capability and have to rely on Internet service providers (ISPs) who would likely charge more for their services without net neutrality.
- The FCC prevents ISPs from exerting full and arbitrary control over content.
- Under FCC regulation the Internet is censored. Users cannot publish anything they want and hide under the protection of freedom of speech.
- Some say net neutrality isn’t what you think it is – that it’s “political theater” and if the FCC rules go away, not much will change.
I agree with the first half of #5, but not the second. Much of what you see in the pros that follow will change!
The pros for FCC rule
- If net neutrality continues, ISPs cannot block access, regulate content, or alter the flow of data.
- If the rules stay in place, illegal content will be restrained. As it is now, ISPs are treated as regulated common carriers required to protect against illegal activity.
- Freedom of expression on websites is protected including blogs, services and businesses that abide by the law.
- The absence of net neutrality would allow ISPs free reign to censor everyone, even if it’s only because they don’t agree.
- With net neutrality, both big and small organizations are on equal footing with themselves as well as individuals.
- Just as public utilities are available to everyone willing to pay, the FCC assures that the Internet is available to everyone.
I don’t want to be abrupt in concluding this class. But my purpose in sharing this information with you has purely been to make sure you understand the issue(s). It may not yet be clear how all this will affect us in the Yellow Zone where we consider the impact on our lives and our very souls. One thing is clear, however. If we are to rise above the din, we may not solve the problem of the messed up media, but we will have to solve the problem of our messed up minds.
Perhaps that will be the medicine the media needs.
Please move on to the next essay:
Sinking Civic Duty