If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed.
— Denzel Washington (quoting Mark Twain)
For the last four years, President Trump has waged an ugly war with the mainstream media, accusing them of peddling “fake news” and being biased against his agenda. News organizations have launched an indignant counter-offensive, insisting that when the president attacks them, he demonizes freedom of the press.
Whether you think Trump is a devil or a saint isn’t important. What’s important is that his feud with the media highlights a serious issue we rarely discuss: there’s something very wrong with the way we get our news.
That most news media are corporate-owned comes as no surprise; it’s an open secret that corporations have been devouring newspapers and TV stations for years. But what is surprising is how highly-concentrated corporate ownership has become. And what’s truly disturbing is that almost no one talks about this.
We’ll work ourselves into a frenzy about any other issue that hits our radar, but on this subject, it’s radio silence. No one has anything to say.
This has to stop.
Our world is changing too fast for us to keep up. As the COVID-19 crisis intensifies and our economy slips into free-fall, we’re relying on the media, now more than ever, to suss out the truth for us. We’re trusting them to help us make sense of a world that’s making less sense. But if we’re going to keep trusting these people, I think we all need to ask ourselves some common sense questions that we’ve been avoiding:
In a country that grossly favors those at the top and is increasingly hostile to those at the bottom, why are we relying on media — owned by the most financially powerful people — to tell us what’s happening and what to believe?
Do we honestly believe their interests are aligned with ours?
And if they aren’t, can we really trust the media they own to tell us?
If the Founding Fathers were alive, they would probably think we’ve lost our minds.
They would wonder why we’ve forgotten that a free and independent press is meaningless if our press isn’t actually “free” from outside influence. They would remind us that independence is critical because it ensures we get unbiased information to make informed opinions. Otherwise, freedom of the press just gives others the freedom to control what we think and do.
And that’s what’s happening now.
Please wrap your head around this. Five companies give us most of the information we use to form opinions about people and events unfolding around us.
Do you watch ABC News? It’s part of the conglomerate that owns Disney theme parks and the Star Wars and Marvel Comics franchises.
Do you watch MSNBC? Its parent company owns NBC News, Universal Pictures, and Comcast.
How about CNN? It’s part of the TimeWarner empire that includes HBO and TNT, and which has now been absorbed by AT&T.
If you think you’ve gone “anti-Establishment” by getting your news from “niche” sources like the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, think again. HuffPo is a subsidiary of Verizon, which also owns Yahoo! News and AOL. The Daily Beast is part of the company that owns Newsweek.
In other words, it’s almost impossible to get news from a source that isn’t owned by a conglomerate that sells us a panoply of “stuff” or that doesn’t own a cluster of other media companies. Do you understand what this means?
It means a handful of companies influence the way we see our world.
And then there are the elites who own media:
- Billionaire Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post (he also owns 75% of Amazon, which recently acquired Whole Foods).
- Billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman owns US News & World Report and the New York Daily News.
- Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong owns the Los Angeles Times.
- Billionaire Warren Buffett has a controlling interest in Berkshire Hathaway, which owns 70 daily newspapers in the U.S.
- Billionaire Rupert Murdoch has a controlling interest in News Corp, which owns The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post
- Billionaire John Henry is the principal owner of the Boston Globe.
What do you and I have in common with these people? Absolutely nothing.
If COVID-19 closes half of all small businesses, billionaires won’t see their portfolios evaporate; instead, they’ll buy distressed companies at bargain prices. If the stock market crashes, they won’t flirt with homelessness; they might even make a killing by shorting the market. If A.I. overtakes jobs, these men won’t become obsolete; their companies will benefit from lower costs.
Billionaires don’t face the same challenges we do. They don’t even live in the same world. They may as well be aliens.
And yet we’re relying on the companies they own and control to give us unfiltered information about what’s happening around us — to tell us which policies and laws we should support, which politicians and experts we should trust, and what we should or shouldn’t believe.
In what twisted reality does this make sense?
Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.
— Jim Morrison
Let’s be honest about how the world works.
People and companies increase their presence in any industry for one of two reasons: to make more money or to gain more influence.
Anyone familiar with the news industry knows it’s a money-losing business. Many newspapers have gone belly up, and even the largest ones are struggling. While conglomerates and elites could be buying money-losing media as a public service to “save” them, they might also have another motive.
Which brings us to the second reason for increasing market share: gaining more influence.
As media ownership has consolidated, their owners face greater conflicts of interest in reporting on issues that affect their far-flung interests. Research shows that broadcasters exert “substantial political power,” not only through overt bias in their coverage of issues, but also through “covert biases that punish their political enemies.”
Moreover, these companies are incestuous. According to a 2003 study in the Columbia journalism review, News Corporation, Disney, Viacom, and Time Warner shared 45 of the same members on their board of directors. The Big 5 “cartel” even share 141 joint ventures, effectively making them business partners with each other. For example, Disney and Comcast jointly own the Hulu streaming platform. This means these companies can work together to further their collective interests. In The New Media Monopoly, Ben H. Bagdikian makes the case that their enormous influence has allowed them to “become major players in altering the politics of the country.”
If COVID-19 closes half of all small businesses, these billionaires won’t see their portfolios evaporate; instead, they’ll buy distressed companies at bargain prices. If the stock market crashes, they won’t flirt with homelessness.
Again, think about what this means.
Corporate-owned media giants now have unprecedented power to dispense news in a way that furthers their collective financial and political interests. Their slant can determine what we hear (or don’t hear), what we think (or don’t think), and who we believe (or don’t believe). In a cruel irony, our “free” press is now being used to undermine the foundations of our democracy. Forget Russian “meddling” and Ukrainian bribes; this should be the biggest story of the 21st century.
So why aren’t we hearing about this?
Because the journalists who “should” be breaking this story get bi-weekly paychecks from these news organizations. The people we trust to keep us “informed” are looking the other way. This isn’t just a theory, by the way; this is how the news media actually operate.
In her bestselling book Stonewalled, Emmy award-winning journalist Sharyl Attkisson explains how advertisers and lobbyists heavily influence judgment in news organizations, and that favoritism and bias now contaminate the media. A 2000 Pew Research study found that 50% of journalists avoid newsworthy stories out of fear of embarrassment or potential career damage. Nearly 20% have faced criticism or pressure for writing pieces that were “damaging” to their parent company’s financial interests. That was 20 years ago. Imagine the pressure journalists feel today.
The scrappy reporters who doggedly pursued the truth and went to jail to protect sources have been replaced by highly-paid, well-manicured celebrities who are focused on advancing their brand. According to Marketwatch columnist Brett Arrends, today’s journalists aren’t paid to break stories; they’re paid to “get access.” And no one who asks tough questions will get the “access” that boosts their brand — or their bank account. In the words of Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
This doesn’t make journalists bad people. Like us, they’re just trying to stay employed in this crazy economy. Some of them may even want to do the “right” thing. But this does give us reason to question whether the information they’re giving us is influenced by the powerful interests that pay them.
I think we can all “see” that something isn’t right with the mainstream media. We “know” that the relationships are too cozy and that bias is rampant. But we just ignore it. Not because we’re stupid, but because we’re insanely partisan creatures.
We crave the safety of news that reinforces our worldview. If we’re Democrats, we’ll discount whatever Fox News tells us and look to CNN or MSNBC for the the “truth.” If we’re conservative, we’ll do the opposite. As long as we’re hearing what we want to hear, we never question the sources giving us information. We never think to ask ourselves if there may be other issues, of much greater significance, that they’re not telling us about.
When news media is concentrated into the hands of a few, the industry moves as one and quickly follows trends. And these trends rarely favor consumers.
Comments were once commonplace in online articles, but that changed when news organizations forced readers to walk on eggshells to avoid offending others. After the Chicago Sun-Times suspended online comments in 2012, citing concerns over “tone and quality,” other outlets soon followed suit. Today, it’s rare to find a news site that doesn’t disable comments.
This hyper-sensitivity not only had a chilling effect on free speech; it also discouraged readers from questioning content. Ten years ago you might read an article and think, “Okay, maybe I’m crazy…but this doesn’t make a lot of sense.” If you scrolled through the comments you might find others who were thinking the same thing.
That’s not possible now. Now you’ll just think you’re crazy.
News sites assured readers that they could continue open discussion on Facebook and Twitter. But social media — which once promised a revolutionary expansion of free speech — have been tamed by the forces many hoped it would challenge.
Which brings us to the ugliest side of media consolidation: a monopoly on the “information market” gives corporate-owned news unrivaled legitimacy. Their domination makes us question information that comes from any other source. Because if we’re not getting the same news from the corporate media we’re supposed to “trust,” then the news must be fake.
Not long ago, looking to non-sanctioned sources for information only carried the risk of being branded crazy or stupid. Not anymore. The companies that monopolize the information market have taken their war on “fake news” to another level. Information that’s not dispensed by corporate media isn’t just suspect; it’s threatening. It can even be dangerous.
And non-sanctioned information that has the ability to go viral — reaching millions of users within minutes or hours — has become the most dangerous of all. Information like this can’t simply be disregarded or derided; it must be removed.
Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are part of multi-billion dollar platforms that now play a key role in the war on “fake news.” Like Disney, Comcast and other traditional media companies, these digital giants wield monumental power — in cyberspace — because they’ve dominated the social media landscape by absorbing dozens of sites under their umbrellas.
And with this absorption comes the ability to censor.
Armed with cyber truth squads, they boldly remove content that violates vaguely-defined and subjective “community standards” or that doesn’t come from “trusted” sources. The gatekeepers have ramped up their efforts significantly since the COVID-19 outbreak in an effort to eliminate “misinformation” that jeopardizes public health and safety. You Tube even removed an interview with a reputable epidemiologist who defended Sweden’s herd immunity approach to the pandemic.
But this full frontal assault raises troubling questions. Faced with a novel virus that’s confusing health experts who have been giving conflicting guidance, how can anyone know — with absolute certainty — what is misinformation and what isn’t? Or what is dangerous and what isn’t?
Keep in mind that the consensus of the scientific community has shifted dramatically in only a matter of weeks: the CDC didn’t think masks were necessary, then decided they are critical to slowing the spread of the virus; children were once thought to be super-spreaders, and now they’re believed to be low-risk vectors (although this guidance may be shifting yet again); we were warned that the virus could cling to steel or plastic for hours, but have since learned that it “does not spread easily” on surfaces or objects. There’s even stark disagreement on how to treat the virus, with some studies claiming success with the use of hydroxychloroquine and others denouncing it as dangerous. America’s doctor-in-chief doesn’t even know if a vaccine can protect most people from COVID-19.
So while it’s possible that the content gatekeepers are removing poses a threat to public safety, it’s also possible that it doesn’t. At this point, it’s difficult to know which guidance is correct and what we should believe. Now more than ever, we need the free and open exchange of ideas in our common search for solutions. But when a handful of companies monopolize the information market, our search narrows, and the truth becomes elusive.
In a free society, we must have the right to choose which information we want to believe and which information we choose to disregard, whether we’re doctors, scientists, or have no expertise whatsoever. Because when this decision is made for us and we’re not given the opportunity to decide who to trust or what to believe, then we’re not living in the country we tell ourselves we live in.
Sure, we can convince ourselves that we still have freedom of speech in this environment. We can believe that we still have a free and independent press. But we’re only fooling ourselves. We’re pretending we live in a world we don’t live in, because pretending makes us feel good, and safe, and comfortable.
But how much longer will we keep fooling ourselves? How much longer can we afford to keep pretending?
Tired of being plugged into a reality created by corporate-owned media?
If so, join me and unplug here.