Baring the Emperor

September 14, 2008

For centuries, political theorists have pointed out that the beating heart of democracies is the existence of a free and vigorous media system that effectively informs polities about issues relevant to the welfare of the nation. In the current presidential race, however, we see that American televisual media – and print media to a slightly lesser extent – fail as providers of this public service necessary to the existence of democracy. In this post, I will focus solely on the televisual media due to the recent report stating that 46 percent of Americans’ have a “heavy reliance” on TV news and the medium’s power to elicit emotional, impulsive reactions through the transmission of symbolically powerful imagery (which I will touch on in a future post).

In democratic systems, the televisual media must serve the public, not corporate interests or those of the governing institutions and parties – which oftentimes go hand in hand, as Robert McChesney examines in Mass Media, Poor Democracy.  Coverage of the Iraq War, for example, has been almost non-existent since the primary season began; hence, the lack of the conflict’s visualization has produced the faulty perception of a “successful surge” in spite of continued violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq (as Dr. Juan Cole draws attention to here). All the while, the leadership of the mass news media giants (GE, News Corp, Time Warner, etc.) cross-pollinate the news’ supposed interest in public service with those of oil, defense, finance, and other politically-sensitive industries by sitting on multiple corporate boards and shuffling ad revenue to the mass media; thus succumbing news agencies, if they can be so-called, to their leaderships’ multiple corporate interests and/or the perils of the market. Essentially: no share of the market = no ad revenue = no news. As a result, policies that maximize the news media’s earning potential are implemented irregardless to its benefit to the public good.

Additionally, news outlets’ engage in self-censorship because of financial shortfalls (resulting in staff cuts), the prestige of securing a high-level source (and the fear of losing the source), and, in some cases, laziness. In the end, they fail to research stories and rely solely on government sources or “researchers” from non-profit organizations (they too, in many cases, only use government sources) instead. Hence, the that-would-be humorous-if-the-stakes-were-not-so-high observation of an LA Times article by The Independent writer Robert Fisk:

Here are the sources – on pages one and 10 for the yarn spun by reporters Josh Meyer and Mark Mazzetti: “US” officials said”, “said one US Justice Department counter-terrorism official”, “Officials … said”, “those officials said”, “the officials confirmed”, “American officials complained”, “the US officials stressed”, “US authorities believe”, “said one senior US intelligence official”, “US officials said”, “Jordanian officials … said” – here, at least is some light relief – “several US officials said”, “the US officials said”, “American officials said”, “officials say”, “say US officials”, “US officials said”, “one US counter-terrorism official said”.

Considering that Fisk is commenting on the print press, just imagine (or watch) the folly that is the televisual news.

It can be safely argued that the perception of the current system as a medium for informative news is ludicrous. Of course, the news can never be totally objective but, according to McChesney, a publicly financed news media – though not government controlled – would exorcise the for-profit corporate interests from the industry. I, however, do not believe that McChesney’s proposal goes far enough to correct the ills plaguing the existing media system.

The televisual news media, which is misleadingly sold to the public as impartial and effective, must be completely delegitimated in order to encourage political inquiry and restore constructive political debate. The way this proposition can be achieved is by baring, in full, the reality of democracy’s metaphorical emperor for all to view. I propose a media system in which the televisual news is government-owned and directly controlled by the executive office; thus removing any pretense of the media as impartial (meaning removed from government/party and/or corporate interests) and “informative.” It simply becomes obviously propagandistic.

The masses’ acknowledgment of the government-managed televisual media’s illegitimacy will spur individuals, whose natural inclination is to discover the truth, to seek out alternative sources of information in print form.  The print media has one significant advantaged over the televisual media sources: it is not constrained temporally by the nature of the medium; therefore, the textual media (a term in which I allow to encompass the print press and the Internet), has more potential as an informative agent and, according to my proposal, must remain under private control. Even more, publication on the Internet incurs drastically reduced costs for the publisher and, as a result, offers a multitude of information providers. The individual’s natural desire for truth will drive them to locate multiple sources of information in order to discover what is factual.

Some may argue that my proposal is faulty because the true nature of individuals are not as I describe. In response, I point to the case of the Iranian media system. All televisual media, including news and entertainment, is government-owned and -operated. With this being the case, the average Iranian understands that the government pursues its own agenda via televisual transmission and, as a result, turns to print media which remains partially free. Despite the imposition of some restrictions by the state, journalists energize the nation’s political debate by providing a wide selection of newspapers (in fact, they have more nationally-distributed newspapers than the United States) addressing a variety of topics relating to the public good. Even further, many Iranians consult multiple news sources in a search for truth.

Due to the current nature of partisan politics and the near-universal affinity for neoliberalism, the likelihood of implementability of my proposal is slim. At the same time, though, it may be too early to discount a measure as radical as complete government control of the televisual news media. With the help of grassroots movements and Internet assistance, pressure can be applied against the ruling elites in an effort to enact media reform.


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