What Does a Free and Independent Press Look Like?
By Phoenix Cloutier
We live in what many consider to be the heart of the free world, and an example of a free constitutional democracy at work. Often touted as the hallmark feature of this is the First Amendment, one that theoretically guarantees freedom of press.
The major TV news networks, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, are owned by Rupert Murdoch, Brian Roberts, and Jeff Bewkes respectively. These three extraordinarily rich men control these networks, and with three other men, virtually all media that you consume, including television shows, movies, and video games (1). This is down from 23 companies in 1989, showing a startling pattern of consolidation (2). This, in and of itself, should show that American media isn’t free. But, upon further examination, this already alarming situation becomes a demon of many facets.
“News” corporations make money almost entirely from advertisers. These are seen in two main forms. The actual ads that interrupt your program and sponsored content, stories and articles that are paid for by sponsors. Sponsored content is most definitely something that should be concerning, as it is huge corporations creating content masquerading as truthful and unbiased reporting. In reality, all content on these networks could be regarded as sponsored content. When journalists, papers, and networks run stories that these sponsors don’t like, they will often threaten to pull their accounts. The reasons behind these threats are not always purely capitalistic either. Often they are for seemingly ideological reasons. If the press seems to be allowing progressive or even anything beyond pale liberalism to seep into journalism, the response from advertisers is often quite impactful
The owners of these companies often violate the integrity of their press as well. As Robert Cirino said in his book Don’t Blame the People (3) “The owners and managers of the press determine which person, which facts, which version of the facts, and which ideas shall reach
the public.” At Fox News, prospective applicants are drilled to ensure that they are, at best, registered republicans, but at the very least abide strictly by right-wing orthodoxy. When journalists do run critical stories, they are often punished severely, which can come in many forms. David Mitchell, editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican paper, ran a series of articles about the dangers of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The owner of the tribunal was a promoter of nuclear technology, an unfortunate fact for David. He was fired for this offense (4). Violation of journalistic integrity continues even into off-the-job life. “Sometimes a journalist can be penalized for off-duty activities or comments. The San Francisco Chronicle fired a columnist for participating in a mass demonstration against the U.S. invasion of Iraq—even though California law explicitly states that employers cannot forbid or prevent employees from participating in political activities” (5). Writers, too, have expressed this in poll after poll. 86% of writers have said that from personal experience, censorship exists to a great degree in television (6). In addition, 81% believe that “television is presenting a distorted picture of what is happening in this country today- politically, economically and racially” (7).
When it comes to reporting on the foreign policy of the US, often what is reported sounds startlingly similar to the official US line. The role of investigative journalists is to investigate and to report their findings, not to parrot the state department. A million statistics could be cited, but it would be much easier for you to think about your own media intake. Thus, I would like to pose a series of questions. How many reporters in the syndicated press reported on the hundreds of atrocities committed by the United States in Iraq? How many reporters in the syndicated press reported on the Human Rights violations committed by the US and their allies in places like Palestine, Syria, and Libya? How many times have you heard the names Salvador Allende or Mohammed Mossadegh uttered? How many syndicated reporters ever told you that Saddam Hussein, the mass murderer, was installed and supported by the CIA until he stepped out of line and tried to nationalize Iraq’s oil(8)? My answer to the above questions is a resounding and consistent “none”.
In the back of their minds, all Americans in some sense or another understand the corporate bias of their media, so then why not turn to institutions such as PBS for more accurate and unbiased information? It is well known among those interested in fair press that PBS is anything but unbiased, earning the joking title of Petroleum Broadcasting Service. Around 70% of content that is run through its platform is in fact sponsored by four large oil companies (9). When it comes to commentary on the economy, 44% of sources were representatives of corporate American, and only 2% were activists, while labor representatives were nigh nonexistent (10).
There is no free and independent press in the US. All major news companies can be considered neither free nor independent, and these outlets are where most Americans get their information, knowingly or unknowingly. In the words of Dr. Michael Parenti, professor of Political Science, “Our free and independent news media are actually controlled by publishers and network bosses who see to it that their own preferred views prevail. They will refuse to run letters, guest columns, and occasionally even their regularly syndicated features and comic strips if the material does not suit their political proclivities. They punish editors and journalists by passing them over for promotion, transferring them to remote posts, and even firing them if they don’t learn soon enough what is and is not ideologically fit to print or broadcast. Such actions should be exposed for what they are: censorship. But news organizations are the last to publicize their own transgressions. Instances of censorship are simply not treated as newsworthy” [My Italics] (11).
- Democracy for the Few, pg 163
- Don’t Blame the People, pg 47
- Democracy for the Few, pg 165
- New York Times, 11/27/88
- Dirty Truths, 101
- Dirty Truths, 146