Media Special: Introduction

We are probably all familiar with the notion that a lively, informative media is an essential, perhaps key, component in maintaining our democratic ideal of informed self-government. Equally likely, it seems, is a general awareness that the media often fails to live up to the standards we require of it. But what appears to be less well understood is that far from making well-intentioned mistakes, the mainstream media are inherently and systematically biased. Indeed, despite an increasing number of books and websites dedicated to analyzing the corporate/establishment structure of mass media, even activists still pay scant attention to a phenomenon that plays a crucial role in limiting any positive gains they might hope to achieve.
July 2004

The combination of a corporate stranglehold on mainstream media ownership and its dominant role in media policy-making should alarm us all. The corporate drive for profit maximization ultimately necessitates the existence of media conglomerates and their attendant exponential increases in influence. As a result of this structure, the importance of advertising revenue produces conflicts of interest between providing a service to the public and advertisers. Demands for increasing shareholder dividends result in fewer staff covering greater ground. Naturally, journalists will gravitate towards "official" sources for information, usually corporate and governmental press offices, which provide a steady diet of "press releases". Journalists who refuse, or are unable, to follow the "right" story face "flak" from a PR industry solely devoted to maintaining positive media images for their clients. Furthermore, mainstream media companies are themselves inexorably linked with the establishment, indeed they are the establishment, and have an obvious stake in reflecting elite interests and opinions.

It seems then, that even a cursory glance at the institutional structures of the mass media should leave us unsurprised at the end product: news that has been filtered to provide very limited debate which overwhelmingly favours elite perspectives. Stories framed in a manner that usually fail to question establishment assumptions and censorship occurring simply through omission. And the oft-used excuse of "time constraints" is wheeled out to explain why major stories often lack any background or context and leave the average recipient of the news no more informed than before the information was imparted.

As Robert McChesney points out[[Robert W. McChesney, 2004, 'The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century', New York: Monthly Review Press.]], the public-at-large also face a barrage of well- practised media myths aimed at maintaining the anti-democratic domination of news production and dissemination. Among these myths are the notions that the media doesn't really matter that much and that, anyway, they merely reflect reality rather than shaping it, that the corporate/commercial media system has arisen naturally and that, furthermore, it provides the people with what they want. As McChesney retorts, one might wonder why advertisers spend billions of dollars to be highly visible in an arena with such little impact. Furthermore, the assertion that the mass media and their end products have naturally arisen in the free market carefully obscures the fact they are, rather, the result of policy which has been steadily reformed to suit the requirements of big business and profit maximization. Unfortunately the ease with which one can refute these myths doesn't appear to diminish their potency.

The following articles, then, turn their collective spotlight on mainstream media performance, illuminating many of its woeful inadequacies and suggesting various methods to make a difference. Ultimately, too few people are watching the watchers. Democratic media institutions don't evolve by Darwinian natural selection. Only a combination of continuously checking and challenging corporate media performance and public participation in policy-making processes will provide us with the media we really desire and help us on our path to the democratic politics we so desperately deserve.






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