Pen for Hire
With the domination of corporate-sponsored media outlets, truth and integrity in journalism is hard to find. Are there any journalists left who haven't "sold out"?
Mainstream journalism is one of the most powerful influences on public opinion today. Not only do the press take on the responsibility of telling and selling the stories, but it has the formidable and transformative power to shape, poll and showcase public opinion.
Journalism has long been viewed as a profession of integrity. Journalists have to be brave, bold, honest, and courageous. Millions of kids graduating from high school head off to university, proudly declaring themselves “Journalism Majors,” and spend four years obtaining a degree by studying the skills, techniques, and ethics behind this elite profession. They graduate from these universities with stars in their eyes, planning on changing the world. Yet when they get out into the work-force, they are hit with the sudden and harsh reality of the almighty dollar.
It all boils down to money. News channels and media conglomerates need sponsors. Sponsors come through corporations. Corporations have invested interest in right-wing policies. And so, one hand feeds the other in a vicious cycle of corruption and censorship. Journalists are forced to follow the editorial leads of the station. The sponsors behind FOX, CNN, and the BBC wield the privilege of deciding what the public hears. So, irrespective of the fact that many journalists may wish to report objectively and truthfully, they are often not given a choice. The journalists who do cover stories in their entirety face the reality of extreme censorship. Those who bite back face many obstacles. For example, many mainstream journalists such as Molly Ivins, Don Hazen, Mark Danner, Paul Krugman, Robert Scheer, and Colman McCarthy, who had the courage to speak out against the War in Iraq from the beginning, faced severe criticism from their mainstream contemporaries. Many journalists opposing the Afghan War in the aftermath of 9/11 even lost their jobs.
More often than not, those who do speak out are quickly removed from the limelight. The newspapers and media stations prefer instead to feature journalists who will serve as cheerleaders for the political interests of the station. They choose to employ journalists who meet the needs of the corporation rather than journalists who possess ethics and integrity. For many years, the BBC boasted a cache of journalists who were predominantly Oxford and Cambridge graduates. Successful in the world of academia, these professionals, with all of their pomp and circumstance, serve the needs of the corporation quite well; polished appearances and the Queen’s English help create the façade of a credible source. Yet this masquerade doesn’t alter the fact that they’ve completely “sold out.” And it makes sense, doesn’t it? We all have bills to pay. Who wants to give up their dream of being a journalist in the name of integrity, especially when you’ve already got your foot in the door? Maintaining one’s rank and station within the company takes priority, the pay checks are great, and what wannabe journalist would argue with headlining the BBC or FOX news each evening?
Gone are the days when journalists went into the fields, independently reporting and transmitting images and video footage to the stations. There was a time when journalists had power and respect, and the admiration of the public for reporting truth. Pioneers such as Walter Cronkite and Huyn Cong (Nick) Ut paved the way for real, hard-hitting journalism in the new-age of communication. Yet the Vietnam War era saw the devastating effects of independent war-zone journalism. As journalists sent the horrific images of the reality of war to the home front, public outcry against the war grew stronger than ever before. Politicians at that time understood the power of journalism, and it was a stance they both respected and feared.
In 1968, for example, following the Tet Offensive, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite traveled to Vietnam and created a report which would later go down in history as one of the most influential of its time. It was in part due to Cronkite’s report that the Tet Offensive soon came to be known as the turning point of the Vietnam War. Cronkite sent harshly realistic depictions of the war, not only showcasing the inhumanity and brutality taking place in southeast Asia, but, more importantly to the public, the utter senselessness of this war and the harsh reality that the possibility of a victory in Vietnam was merely a myth propagated by the US government. Upon Cronkite’s return, CBS launched a nationwide broadcast of Cronkite’s conclusions, in which he stated, “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.” That night, it is said that Lyndon B. Johnson told his closest advisors, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Shortly after the broadcast, Johnson’s public approval ratings dropped to a startling 36%. Four weeks later, Johnson declined his party’s nomination to run for another term as president. The power of the independent journalist had taken on unparalleled dimensions.
That was a time when journalists had power, and used that power to deliver raw, hard-hitting reports. The independent journalists of the 1960’s sought to expose truth through their stories. Their freedom from the censorship of government-controlled mainstream media corporations allowed them to report stories as they saw them, without influence from the war mongers in office. Hence, the images that blared across television screens and emblazoned the covers of newspapers and magazines in the 1960’s told a story which incited outrage, generating an active response and igniting a passionate mobilization of their audiences.
As a consequence, by the 1970’s, world governments had taken total control of their media stations. No longer were journalists given free reign in war zones; rather, they were removed from the fighting and restricted as to what they could and could not report. Additionally, the images and footage they did capture were sent to station networks in major cities, where they were cut in the editing room by corporate-sponsored, highly-paid editors. Politicians no longer wished to respect and fear the journalists; it was much easier to control them. And what better way to do so than through control of their funding?
Today, the mainstream media sources in the United States are controlled by a dozen or so very powerful corporations. The same holds true in Great Britain. Therefore, the images of war today are strictly censored by these government-backed sponsors in an effort to suppress public outcry. Today’s picture of war comes to us through the face of George W. Bush, ranting about the “haters of freedom.” Images of the Afghani sky under siege by US bombers appeared on our television screens more like a fireworks display than an image of death. Images such as burning villages in Saigon or “the Napalm Girl” were clearly more likely to launch a social upheaval than the censored images entering our living rooms today.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech last year, British playwright Harold Pinter spoke of the “tapestry of lies” designed by the US government and propagated by the mainstream media in recent decades. He stated: “The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven. Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it. It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis. I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever.”
And indeed, it makes no sense for right-wing supporters to invest time or money in reporting objectively. Why scorn the government that supports you? Rupert Murdoch, chief executive officer of News Corp, which owns FOX News, as well as over 175 newspapers and thirty-five television stations worldwide, is undoubtedly an avid supporter of the conservative right. Murdoch, a billionaire who clearly falls into the top tax bracket which the Republican Party so eagerly seeks to endorse, is an enthusiastic proponent of the Bush Administration. On April 9, 2003, Andrew Ross Sorkin, a journalist for The New York Times, reported, “The war has illuminated anew the exceptional power in the hands of Murdoch, 72, the chairman of News Corp… In the last several months, the editorial policies of almost all his English-language news organizations have hewn very closely to Murdoch's own stridently hawkish political views, making his voice among the loudest in the Anglophone world in the international debate over the American-led war with Iraq.”
The infiltration of this unjust media coverage has long since taken its place in our lives. Just look at the millions who watch news reports about death tolls in Iraq and then flip the station to the next reality-TV show. Or those who watch, with abated interest, the political pundits droning on about the impact of US and British forces on foreign bodies and the quality of human life, without ever stopping to ask why these so-called “experts” are not the citizens of these countries themselves?
Harold Pinter said it best when he said, “Early in the invasion there was a photograph published on the front page of British newspapers of Tony Blair kissing the cheek of a little Iraqi boy. ‘A grateful child,’ said the caption. A few days later there was a story and photograph, on an inside page, of another four-year-old boy with no arms. His family had been blown up by a missile. He was the only survivor. ‘When do I get my arms back?’ he asked. The story was dropped. Well, Tony Blair wasn't holding him in his arms, nor the body of any other mutilated child, nor the body of any bloody corpse. Blood is dirty. It dirties your shirt and tie when you're making a sincere speech on television.”
The power of the dollar is seemingly unsurpassable. Money rules it all. Everyone’s after the paycheck, even in the face of illegal war, exploitation, immense human suffering, and mass murder. The only way, it seems, to achieve the transmission of objective messages, is through the efforts of independent journalists who are free from the pressures of corporate war-mongers. But there’s no money in independent journalism. Independent newspapers lack funding and sponsors and so pale in comparison to the likes of the BBC and FOX. In spite of the dominance of the mainstream, however, many journalists have attempted to speak out. Grass-roots journalism and independent media is growing more popular. Reporters such as Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, and Amy Goodman have paved the way for bringing independent journalism to greater audience bases. Publications such as The Independent and The Observer have found success, in spite of the sponge-like absorption of the public to bigger mainstream sources. The internet has become a great tool for grass-roots reporters; it is the fastest, most reliable, and cheapest way to transmit news en masse. And it’s quite honestly easier for the public to log on to the internet than it is to walk to the local news stand. So the growth of independent journalism has potential. But only so long as the independent journalists themselves maintain the courage and integrity to walk the road much less traveled.