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By Alexandra Kitty
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2005 Alexandra Kitty & Robert Greenwald
All rights reserved.
"There should be no limit to diversity."
Without free speech there can be no accurate news: people generally do not want to air dirty little secrets about their dangerous, immoral, corrupt or vile practices, and if they have the power to censor any unflattering dirt that can hurt their reputation, bragging rights or careers, they will do it. Why face scorn, punishment or accountability when a sunny press release touting your latest pseudo-achievement works more in your favor? Human nature craves secrecy and self-preservation, but society's preservation depends on transparency and the freedom to expose and express.
Personal or collective inconvenience can put a damper on a person's aura, yet those self-serving reasons aren't enough to justify the blacking out of information. If a government obstructs the press from investigating an army's atrocities or a politician's illegal and corrupt dealings, then news is reduced to propaganda, carny tactics, lies, delusions and advertising—all of which may be perfectly useful to those who are scamming the public, but are useless to those who are being fleeced.
People need unfiltered and accurate information to navigate through and make the right decisions in their lives. Without knowing the real story, the public is lulled into believing that everything is all right with their world, even as all the subtle, muted signs are desperately screaming that a cataclysm is fast approaching. Lies hurt both individuals and society in the longrun; that's precisely why journalists are supposed to tell their audience exactly what's happening around them. Anything less can do irreparable harm to both journalistic credibility and the audience's quality of life.
For a profession that prides itself on being objective, truthful, accurate, unbiased, fair and balanced, journalism is shamelessly careless and vague with its terms and definitions. Exactly what does objectivity mean? What is defined as a credible source? Precisely how many facts are supposed to be included in any news report? Who can be considered a qualified reporter?
The answer to all these questions is simple: it depends on who you ask and at what time of the day you ask them. Though journalism is supposed to rely on hard facts, it is often muddled with qualifiers, speculations, vague terms and waffling. Objectivity means being fair and balanced for some journalists, but not for others. Some believe in objectivity; others renounce it, but both may have vastly differently ideas of what it means.
The realm of journalistic ethics is also a quagmire of ifs, buts and maybes. Is it ever all right to interview close colleagues? What are the rules of disclosure? When is it ethical to interview parents of murdered children? Is it moral to name an alleged rape victim? Should obituaries dredge up past sins? Should ethics and morals even be a consideration?
In other words, the purveyors of precise data have never had the discipline to work within well-defined and precise boundaries.
The American model of journalism has been both one of the most liberating and most confining paradigms for the profession. This model is based on the honor system and the fundamental belief that a free market, lax regulation, freedom of expression and a strong commitment to objectivity will all inevitably lead to reporters producing reliable and credible information. Both journalists and their employers will work together in harmony: the first group free to disseminate information, the second free to make as much profit as they can and regular citizens free to use their products without suspicion. Just leave reporters and news owners on their own to do their jobs, and they will be compelled to report the Truth.
But neither how that truth will be uncovered and presented, nor whether journalists and media owners will have clashing interests, has ever been adequately addressed by the American model of reporting. In fact, the economic realities of the news business never come into play in the theory of how journalists are supposed to do their jobs. Economics is economics and journalism is journalism, and the two schools are kept separate. The focus on the editorial side of the business was key to the American model. The paradigm was supposed to give journalists the freedom to report the news as it happens—the way it happens. Truth and transparency were the reporter's main worries, not the profit margins, branding fancies or the consolidation aspirations of their employers. What the news consumer ultimately read in the paper or saw on the newscast was the unvarnished truth. Journalism focused on the reporters, producers and editors who were uncovering and processing the news, not the ones who owned the news.
Except that reporters and editors aren't the ones who have the ultimate say in how they deliver information; they are hired by others to deliver the information. Audiences almost never point an accusatory finger at media conglomerates when a journalist goes astray; they blame the reporter, his editors and perhaps the individual outlet itself. Few news consumers cast a wary eye on the people who issue the reporter's paycheck—they write abusive e-mails to journalists, not to the Chairman of the Board. Theorists never envisioned a media landscape where only a handful of companies controlled the flow and slant of stories. Somehow, in all of the various debates as to how journalists should do their jobs, no one remembered to think about the biggest constraint and obstacle reporters contend with: their own employers.
Journalism theories have a tendency to assume a reporter's biggest oppressor is the government—whether the oppression takes the form of censorship, denied access to classified information, stifling laws or the promiscuous misuse of slander and libel suits. But governments are not the only ones who have the power of oppression, censorship and intimidation. A corporation that pulls in billions and employs thousands of people has comparative powers to a government: it can not only discredit, banish and exile the heretics, but it can also propagandize, sanitize, demonize, bureaucratize and do just about any otherize it feels is warranted.
But in a country of many mini-nations, oppression doesn't have to necessarily come from the media conglomerate: it can be attacked by another corporate state that feels threatened. Sometimes the oppression comes from industries and corporations who will pull advertising from a media outlet for informing readers and viewers about a company's dangerous or unethical conduct. Other times the oppression comes from the public relations department of a company that bombards reporters with press releases and VNRs, but denies access to crucial interviews and documents. Still other forms of oppression come from confidentiality agreements that ensure that the weak and the fearful take the company's disturbing secrets to their graves.
Not all companies fudge their books, expose their workers to appalling conditions or dump toxic sludge into the environment, but with many audiences offended by bad news, reporters are often attacked by the very people that would benefit most from their warnings. Focus groups will frown on long stories. Keeping advertisers happy means keeping audiences happy. News is supposed to be important and useful information that helps citizens know who to trust and who to avoid. But with the number of internal and external factors hovering over journalists, sometimes that mandate is difficult to execute.
And if those obstacles weren't enough of a headache, reporters have to concern themselves with how they look and how they package their information. Depressing and offensive news items are taboo, longer stories are shunned in favor of snarky sound bites and a television reporter with bad teeth can lead to a plunging audience share and an exodus of advertisers. More and more, image is king; so long as things appear safe or at least solvable, then everyone is happy. Pictures of limbless soldiers are banished in favor of prettier pictures of scantily-clad starlets. That hard bodies take precedence over hard news is a fact in the newsroom, but they don't always teach this to the new recruits at J-school.
When public service is a private business, flash will inevitably be intermixed with fact. Editorial content takes a back seat to profitability, yet that corporate mindset is nothing new. Lord Thomson of Fleet once quipped that owning a television station is like having a license to print money. Though the theory is that news is a vital tool used to enlighten a mass audience, those who own media properties seem to see their product as a commodity such as crude oil or pork rinds.
The core beliefs that drive journalists are obviously not the same ones that drive their employers. Journalists still concern themselves with the news; owners concern themselves with their empires. Expanding and maintaining empires to stay competitive is key to survival. That can mean that the line between news companies and other media companies is virtually nonexistent: companies who own news outlets also own entertainment ones. It doesn't matter what type of bricks are used for building the fortress: it's only the size that counts. Journalists no longer make the bulk of a media outlet's work force: the paycheck they receive comes from the same account that pays reality show contestants.
Most newspaper publishing companies used to have flagship papers that were considered crown jewels: these days papers are traded back and forth between companies looking to stock up on profitable vehicles. News outlets get gobbled up to build communications kingdoms: Viacom owns CBS, UPN, Comedy Central, Paramount Pictures and King World Television; Time Warner owns Time, People, CNN, HBO and America Online; and Gannet owns USA Today, Army Times, a score of community papers and twenty local television stations. No American network is without a conglomerate overseeing the expense sheets: Disney owns ABC and General Electric owns NBC. Big may not always be beautiful, but it is a way of journalistic life.
If the press is supposed to be immune to the maneuvers and shenanigans of parent companies, many have been bitterly disappointed in that regard. For many news outlets, the ones who control the purse strings also control the quality of the editorial product. Every media baron wants to be the one with the biggest kingdom. The drive to expand leads to battles for mere survival. In the world of business, there is no room for a tie. The quality of the news product isn't even tertiary: what counts is the bottom line, and the influence a behemoth media machine can bring its rulers.
For some news outlets, being a little fish in a big pond means that the pressure to succeed economically, rather than editorially, drives the news product to new lows. It doesn't matter if the circulation department wildly overstates the number of newspapers sold; it doesn't matter if a journalist fabricates stories whole cloth or disseminates whoppers without an ounce of trained skepticism. What matters is printing more Lord Thomson currency, not the quality and thoughtfulness of stories. Whether improving the journalistic product itself while ignoring the branding and paid consultancy urges would result in a real increase in circulation isn't considered; after all, one tactically careless exposé and the outlet's biggest sponsor may just decide to advertise in another newspaper.
The lecture halls at J-schools have professors who still teach reporting, ethics and the importance of objectivity, but they don't focus on what their students will have to face once they find employment in their chosen profession—editors or publishers who will exclusively talk about scoops and angles, branding, leveraging, synergy, focus groups, attracting key demographics and psychographics, and partnerships with advertisers. How any of that relates to improving the quality of the news is anyone's guess. What counts is improving profit: beefing up a news product won't necessarily make a significant impact on a company's earnings.
The solution to improving the bottom line seemed simple enough: keep buying and getting bigger until you are the biggest and most influential empire on the block. Consolidation looked promising, but there was just one hitch: if you weren't devouring fast enough, there was a very good chance someone else would eat you instead. For others, getting bigger was easy, even if there were borders, competitors and government rules to contend with. The ones who knew who played the best were the ones who could insert their own rules into the game.
The King of the Giants
News Corporation happens to be one of those players that seems to have an uncanny knack for growing exponentially: it's one of the world's largest media companies, owned by Rupert Murdoch, a man who began his empire in Australia before he expanded it to include properties in Britain, China and the United States. Murdoch has seen his kingdom flourish, despite the fact that government regulation would have normally stopped his expansion dead in its tracks.
News Corp's Murdoch has many talents, yet for someone who owns as many journalism products as he does producing quality news isn't one of them. Most of his holdings are hopelessly schlocky, simplistic and vapid yet he has managed to capture an audience around the world.
King Rupert: The world is watching.
Murdoch's News Corp is a global media outfit: its outlets reach billions, meaning that more people than not are being exposed to a Murdoch product at any given moment. Murdoch owns newspapers (the Times of London, the Sun, the Australian and the New York Post), magazines (the Weekly Standard, TV Guide), television stations (WTTG, KTTV, WNYW), television networks (FX, FNC), book publishers (HarperCollins) and even a movie studio (20th Century Fox). In 2004, Fox News began to offer programming for radio. With Forbes magazine pegging his personal worth at almost seven billion dollars, Murdoch is truly a multimedia king.
Yet the Kingdom of Murdochian Media is revered for its sensationalist and/or right-wing leanings. Just look at News Corp's print holdings: the New York Post has a nasty track record for publishing hoaxes and erroneous information (the paper once gloriously declared on its front page that Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry chose Dick Gephardt as his running mate when Kerry in fact chose John Edwards). The paper serves its job as a quick fix for daily gossip; Liz Smith, Cindy Adams and Page Six are as salacious and gratuitous as the British tabloid the Sun's "Bizarre" section (also a Murdoch-owned publication). On the other hand, the Weekly Standard is the right's trusty voice, dutifully preaching to the converted.
Murdoch's broadcast holdings haven't fared much better in the editorial content department, either, particularly News Corp's all-news vehicle Fox News Channel. The title promises news, but what kind of news isn't specified. It doesn't take long for a viewer to pick up the nuances of the kinds of stories that this allnews channel specializes in—a thirty-second investment in watching the July 15, 2004 edition of Fox News' biggest hit, the "O'Reilly Factor," tells the viewer everything he needs to know about where the network's priorities lay—in sounding more like the National Enquirer than Newsweek:
O'REILLY: Tonight, Whoopi Goldberg loses a million bucks. She's canned as a spokesperson for Slim-Fast. We'll tell you what happened.
Will Martha Stewart go to jail? The smart money says yes. Tomorrow is her day of destiny.
Judge says the Kobe Bryant tapes are admissible and there's a lot of sex talk on them.
Also, what is the truth about J.F.K., Jr. five years after his tragic death?
As for objectivity, the FNC has its own ideas on the subject—and none are in agreement with the status quo. Why settle for detachment when a crowd loves a good taunt? Why worry about keeping emotions in check when unleashing them attracts bigger crowds? The September 29, 2004 edition of the "Factor" showed that newsmen can let off a little steam on the job:
O'REILLY: "Factor" follow-up segment tonight. How the Bush-Kerry race is playing in Europe. This survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, an independent group, shows the following. In France people favor Kerry over Bush sixty-four to five. No wonder we're boycotting those people.
Has nothing to do with Bush, but come on. Germany, seventy-four to ten. In Italy fifty-eight–fourteen. In the Netherlands, sixty-three–six. Remember, drugs are legal there.
Excerpted from OUTFOXED by Alexandra Kitty. Copyright © 2005 Alexandra Kitty & Robert Greenwald. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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