American media is in trouble. Plagued by ethical scandals and concentrated ownership, mainstream media needs to adapt or die. Michael Moore isn’t the only American who wants to reform how news is presented to the world.
Digital Journal — Remember when news was about real issues affecting your life? When news companies served the people rather than the profit margins? Today, news is dominated by vacuous celebrities who are only famous for being famous (Paris). News stories are saddled with distorted facts corrupted by big-name advertisers, all in the name of smart business. Many news watchers are lamenting the death of mainstream media’s credibility while also heralding a future of community-oriented journalism.
Attacking the press isn’t a new idea today (remember Jayson Blair’s snowball effect?) but a certain rabble-rouser is bringing the theory of media reform back to the front burner. It all started when Michael Moore appeared on CNN to chat with Wolf Blitzer about the new documentary Sicko. What should have been a straightforward discussion on the illness of the U.S. health-care system turned into a shoutfest: Moore criticized Blitzer for massaging the news during the Iraq war buildup; he complained about CNN's coverage of his last movie, Fahrenheit 9/11; and said CNN's coverage of Sicko was totally incorrect, writing later in an open letter to CNN:After what the public saw with your report on 'Sicko,’ and how many inaccuracies that report contained, how can anyone believe anything you say on your network? Then the proverbial feces hit the fan. CNN responded with its own defensive letter, and soon after a Moore fan begged the filmmaker to produce a documentary on media’s shortcomings. The fan wrote:Do it for something you're obviously passionate about and that is just as dangerous, if not more: the gross misinformation and manipulation of public opinion by the mainstream American media.After lambasting Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Michael Moore wrote a letter to the 24/7 news network, claiming "no one is keeping you honest" and requested a full apology for supposed inaccuracies in a recent report on Sicko.
After CNN's response, Moore posted yet another letter, writing:The mighty CNN, in a lengthy and sad online defense of their woe-begotten Sicko story of last Monday, has admitted that they did indeed fudge at least two of the facts in their coverage of my film and have apologized for it.In the same letter, Moore says until recently, he hasn't appeared on a single national TV show for almost three years, writing: After the attacks I had to endure three years ago, from a media intent on questioning my patriotism because I dared to speak out against the war when none in the media would, I decided I had had enough and would simply concentrate on making my next film. I had no desire to participate in networks that were complicit in the war because of their refusal the challenge the commander in chief.With CNN's admission it got some of the facts wrong in its report on Sicko, Moore has since called a truce in his war of words against the broadcaster.
So what happens now in the future of news media? Moore shouldn’t be the sole magician to whisk away the curtain to reveal the truths no one usually sees. It’s important to learn how mainstream media isn’t turning out to the bastion of truth-seeking integrity it once was. And recent numbers prove the people aren’t waiting around for change.
The News Ain’t Worthy
In 2006, the average audience for cable news dropped around 12 per cent in prime time. Close to 26 million Americans watch the network newscasts now, compared with 36 million 10 years ago. Newspaper readership was down 1.7 per cent in 2006. Magazines are closing shop faster than you can say, “Nice knowing you, Jane.”
America's media influence can be felt north of the border, too. The Hollywood-ization of news has compelled Canadian media mega-outlets like Rogers Publishing to dip its toe in the celeb-journalism water by introducing the Great White North to gossip rags like Hello!. The Canadian version of this popular tabloid doesn't even focus on Canadian celebs; for instance, an issue of Hello! Canada profiled David Beckham, Angelina Jolie and Rod Stewart. Is this what Canadians want from their publication of social discourse?
As the Web encroaches onto every aspect of news-gathering, the resulting experiments from the mainstream press have been paltry at best. The annual State of the Media report found the transformation in journalism to be so epic, media owners are reeling from the worldwide acceptance of the Net as a news source. The report said:No clear models of how to do journalism online really exist yet, and some qualities are still only marginally explored. What this amounts to is a crisis in U.S. media that is rippling across the world. As more American media outlets turn their cameras towards celebrity marriages and political partisan bickering, other countries follow suit in an attempt to satiate this supposed hunger for infotainment. But people will watch whatever is shown to them. So if Hollywood fashion is slotted as the top story, viewers will tune in. Or, as the above stats indicate, they’ll tune out and look elsewhere.
But that’s not to say mainstream media is dying. It’s simply in a rut right now, and several factors aren’t helping: for one, media concentration is choking editorial independence and creating a tight structure of ownership. That problem doesn’t belong solely to the U.S. — Canada is facing criticism for allowing media monoliths to buy up every competitor available, even if it’s well-known how a democracy is best served by offering people as many news choices as possible.
Turning back to the U.S., corporate influence is the second reason the press is floundering. Take the oft-told case of Fox News reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson. When these two investigative journalists discovered the harmful effects of bovine growth hormone (BGH) on Florida cows, tainting drinking milk, their Fox bosses immediately requested grand revisions. Evidently, BGH’s chief manufacturer, Monsanto Corporation, had filed a lawsuit against Fox to pull the “distorted story.” Akre and Wilson declined, standing behind every fact they dug up, and they both were then promptly fired from the station. Not willing to be squashed by Big Media, the reporters promptly sued Fox for wrongful dismissal and won a settlement. But Fox retaliated with an appeal and the verdict was over-turned.
And guess what Fox’s defence was? According to Project Censored, the creator of “fair and balanced” told the courts there are no rules against distorting the news. They argued the First Amendment Right protected broadcasters when they deliberately lie in their news reports. Yes, that’s right: the media can legally report bullshit.
The appeals judge ruled that distorted reporting is not illegal. This angered journalists at Project Censored so intensely, they wrote: The position implies that First Amendment rights belong to the employers – in this case the five power media groups. And when convenient, the First Amendment becomes a broad shield to hide behind. Let’s not forget, however; the airwaves belong to the people. Is there no public interest left—while these media giants make their private fortunes using the public airwaves? It looks as though Fox was worried about losing an advertiser and a lawsuit when Monsanto knocked on their door. But this problem isn’t only happening to an easy punching-bag like Fox.
Moore recalls the shady side of CNN in his open letter, writing:In 2002, the New York Times busted you [CNN] for bringing celebrities on your shows and not telling your viewers they were paid spokespeople for the pharmaceutical companies. Furthermore, the L.A. Times faced one of its worst financial quarters this year when cash flow sank by 27 per cent. In response, the publisher is trying to make a case for front-page ads to raise revenue. Even if you’re not a newspaper nut, understand the implication of this tactic: When A1 is wrapped in an ad, a news story is cut. Advertising crowds into editorial space and pushes important current affairs into the back pages. Weren’t the airwaves and the press for the people, not the companies?
And finally, another thorn in mainstream media’s side is its blatant cronyism. Besides journalists donating to political parties, and possibly affecting their objectivity, the advertiser-journalist relationship is increasingly becoming more intimate. Rubbing elbows with advertisers is now infiltrating our daily news broadcasts, as drug-hawkers like Joe Theismann offer expert opinion on air, even though those same celebs are pushing GlaxoSmithKline pills on consumers. According to Moore's open letter, $1.5 billion US is spent by drug companies each year for ads on CNN and the four other networks, making you just wonder where the fifth estate’s priorities lie.
Mainstream media is facing a crisis today: TV news and newspaper audiences have slipped, and the focus on celebrity gossip has hurt the industry's credibility
Time for a Revolution?
The media reform movement is gaining steam in North America. In Canada, the magazine-cum-activist group Adbusters has long pined for a day when media concentration rules were strictly enforced. Its Media Carta Manifesto decries today’s “toxic culture” of censored news and manipulative ads, and its ideas for change are often succinctly presented in several of its articles.
Also, a new website called MediaReform.ca was launched to provoke discussion on what Canadians think about media-related issues. While not meant to overthrow mainstream media, it moonlights as a forum for free expression on Canadian media’s complacency.
The biggest sign of how media changing is the rise of citizen media. Communities across the world are turned on to the idea of seeing the news they care about, of being close to a story in a way they haven’t before. Whether we’re looking at the booming popularity of OhMyNews in South Korea or the increasing tendency for traditional news media to incorporate reader blogs and photos, the press by the people for the people is becoming a powerful alternative to the norm.
A few recent examples: Le Monde has instituted reader blogs onto its site; NowPublic signed a deal with Associated Press to use citizen photos; the Washington Post recently launched a hyperlocal site that allows bloggers and amateur videographers to work alongside regular staffers; and blogging role model Arianna Huffington announced a project where she will employ citizen reporters to cover the 2008 presidential campaign.
How appropriate that community-oriented journalism should find favour in a year when we celebrate a decade of blogging. Ten years ago, Jorn Barger committed the first act of blogging when he collected links to items he enjoyed, unwittingly sparking a revolution of writers fed up with the straight-laced information dissemination of the past. In the time since Barger posted his first thought, we’ve been witness to an energetic buzz over citizen journalism and the return to news stories that actually matter. What’s fascinating is not only how a blogger can be a teen or a senior citizen in the era of anytime-anywhere journalism; more empowering is the realization that mainstream media will have to change its archaic ways to adapt to the changing face of news viewership. When everyday people can force massive corporations to overhaul their operations, it’s a good sign the heavyweights are listening — even if their solutions can be slightly misguided.
Watch a local news broadcast and ask yourself two important questions: Is this something that concerns me or my fellow humans? Why is this being reported? You can learn a lot about how U.S. media is created once you realize that journalism doesn’t serve your interests anymore. The worst journalism caters to advertisers and billionaire bosses; but the best journalism turns to its indie roots and tries to report stories the public should know about. If most media outlets fall somewhere in the middle, it still should be reason enough to look elsewhere for your daily updates.