November 2, 2012


What is lacking from our mass media news is diversity of opinion. There are many reasons for this. We need to try to correct this problem, before it gets even worse.

Go to any metropolitan main public library and look at the newspapers from the various states in the United States. Although there are small differences, the news they present is amazingly uniform. If you go to Europe and perform the same test, you fill find very much more difference in what is presented, how it is presented, and what emphasis is given to different news items. There are many reasons for this.

In the first place, apart from purely local news, most US newspapers get their content from the wire services: AP, UPI and others. This comes in every day, requires no effort to collect, and it is very easy to just copy it into your newspaper. Many newspapers do this without substantial alteration. Most TV stations do the same thing, with the addition of news feeds they receive from their respective networks. In the old days, all this news feed stuff came in on teletypes, but now it comes in print and in video, complete with analysis and conclusions: Pay and Play journalism.

Another, more serious and scary development in US media in the past thirty years is the issue of ownership. 100 years ago there were thousands of independent news outlets. Each was individually owned. Of course, there were some big players, like Randolph Hearst, who owned dozens of major newspapers and eventually radio stations. But today those thousands of independent owners are reduced down to a few dozen and in some key markets you can count the number of owners of all media outlets, on the fingers of one hand. There were many more newspapers and magazines that confined their readership to a single town, or even neighborhood. Their news, like their classified ads, spoke to a specific audience, not the whole darn world.

So what? People who own big media conglomerates have different ideals, priorities, and interests than the majority of people in the regions where they operate. Their job is two-fold: to present the facts of the world at large, and to manage public opinion so that people come to the right conclusions on the issues of the day. This is why climate change isn't a big issue in the 2012 presidential election. This is why the damage to Wall Street business is covered all over the media, but the effect of the flooding of NYC's subways on the estimated 40,000 homeless people who live in them is not. We see a fair amount of coverage of the drone attacks in Pakistan as skirmishes in the war on terror, but we do not see pictures of the children and their grandparents killed in these attacks.

In this article, I am talking about the mainstream broadcast media, the major newspapers and most cable news. But, I should probably just mention, a popular organization that rhymes with BOX, which claims to provide news coverage of local, national and international events. Their coverage of things is so wildly skewed as to not even qualify under the heading of journalism. Don't take my word for it, Fox News is banned in Canada, because it is illegal to lie, and call it news, in Canada. (http://current.com/community/93886320_fox-news-banned-in-canada-its-illegal-to-broadcast-lies-and-label-it-news-according-to-canadian-law.htm). This is not illegal in this country.

Of course, there is the Internet, where you can find a substantial amount of alternative media, and some free thinking journalists who do cover stories thoroughly, and well, from a variety of angles. But their number is dwarfed by the legion of self-appointed pundits and wing-nut wackos whose output is constrained by severe ideological fantasies, but not by facts.

Not quite a hundred years ago, HL Mencken wrote an autobiographical story called "The Synthesis of the News" where he told some stories about how journalism actually was practiced in his day as a young reporter in Baltimore. It was amusing and revealing. He and another reporter regularly collaborated to make up news stories. Their editors would check the competing paper and if the story was there, too, then it must be true. Many editors today don't even do that much, except for purely local news, that gets checked for legal liabilities.

But there's something else going on here. If you look at how much is said about something, you get an idea of its relative importance, at least to the editors of news organizations. A news story that gets 45 seconds at the top of the network news is obviously fantastically important. But what about the news that barely gets mentioned, or never gets mentioned at all, that isn't even considered to be as important as a water skiing bird.

A few years ago, when the Tea Party was all the rage in the media, a few hundred people meeting in a public part in a major city would be front page news all over the nation. News reports of Tea Party events always used the highest estimates of attendees, while news stories of peace demonstrations, and civil rights events, were always quoted as the low-ball number. Before the outbreak of the Iraq war, literally millions of US citizens held demonstrations, vigils and marches in dozens of US cities with almost no news coverage at all. When the WTA met in Seattle, that got some press, almost all of it decrying the violence and destruction of a tiny minority of demonstrators. When the WTA demonstrations happened in Portland and thousands of US citizens got gassed and arrested, there was practically no mention anywhere of anything in the press.

So much for our liberal media.

And there would really be very little wrong with Clear Channel or FOX being wildly right-of-center, if there were corresponding organizations, that were wildly left-of-center. That is called diversity of opinion. What we have today is not diverse. It is increasingly concentrated and dedicated to the position of defending the status quo -- even more than the press in the witch hunt days of the 1950's, or during Woodrow Wilson's purge of the American left after WWI. This is dangerous because it leads to an uninformed electorate that is unready to exercise discretion or critical thought on any issue. It creates a mob for the Oligarchs to rule, theoretically by the consent of the governed. But the consent of the misinformed and ignorant isn't consent, it is Orwellian coercion at its worst.

Thomas Jefferson was right when he said that a free and vigorous press was essential to the proper conduct of a democracy. Open societies naturally produce liberty while closed societies eliminate liberty and lead inevitably to tyranny. To paraphrase Thomas Paine, Give me real media or give me death, for without real, critical media, all freedoms are endangered.

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