Whose Interests do the Media Serve?
Is the media using it's widespread accessibility and power in order to serve the public, or simply to meet the demands of its corporate sponsors?
The earliest forms of news reporting came in the form of town criers, who traveled through villages, loudly announcing births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and other information of relevance to the public interest. During war time, messengers ran from battlefields to nearby villages to deliver news of victories, defeats, and deaths as quickly as possible. News traveled by word-of-mouth in pre-literate days and was often delivered at marketplaces, taverns, crossroads, and around campfires. From Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to the telegraph, telephone, television, and of course, the internet, the term “news” has taken on new dimensions and has found itself at the heart of a multi-billion dollar media industry.
Today’s media circus seeks not to serve the interests of the public, but, rather, the interests of its funding sources. Throughout the world, these backing forces vary from corporate sponsors to government bodies or government-backed agencies, but the common ground is that the agenda served is that of the bodies in power.
Conflict Zone reporting has taken on an entirely new model since the devastating effects of free reporting during the Vietnam War. Since that time, journalists have not only been banned from areas of fighting, but their footage has been heavily censored by the editors receiving their transmissions from the ground. Gone are the days when a reporter could watch from a hillside and race to the nearest village to recount the tale of the battle. Gone, too, are the days when independent war-zone journalists had free reign to travel with any battalion and capture the realities of war on camera. Images of war today are void from the raw realities of the events, but are transmitted to major news networks where they are carefully fluffed out before being presented to the public on a sugar-coated silver platter.
Yet media biases are not exclusive to war zones, or even the huge conglomerates of the West. In North Korea, for example, where the public is strictly censored from world events, international press, and even the internet, the news comes to the public as sporadic and seemingly meaningless messages; the public is told that Kim Jong-il, the country’s leader for the past decade, had a second brain sent to him from God because one brain was not enough to rule the country (reports outside of North Korea revealed that “the Great Leader” had a brain tumor but that the North Korean media did not report this so as not to show “the Great Leader” as a fallible human being). Meanwhile, the people are kept completely in the dark about the country’s nuclear power program and the major tensions between their country and the US. According to independent journalist Ben Anderson, North Korea is an “absolute hermit society- there’s only one newspaper and one TV channel. And the cover story every day is what the dear leader said the day before. One cover story I saved from a newspaper when I was there was something about how the Dear Leader had visited a goat farm and professed ‘goat farming is important because our children need protein.’ That was it! And there wasn’t much beyond that.”
Here in the West, the media is controlled by a dozen or so very powerful corporations. Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp is the dominant force in the new industry and is indisputably directed to serving the agenda of the conservative right. In the US, the networks responsible for ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and FOX are an inter-connected network of massive corporate conglomerates whose editors filter already manipulated news coverage in order to serve the interests of the international banking agenda. News which does not serve this agenda winds up on the editing room floor. Mainstream journalists are no longer educated, informative, or investigative reporters, but rather, actors hired by the stations to deliver pre-approved scripts which are produced by the same select few wire services. Opinions of military, CIA, and other government officials are more often than not reported as facts, and the stations air mass-produced press releases created by industry-funded public relations firms as the truth. Very rarely is any fact-checking done prior to publication or airing. Media networks have fallen into a state of dormant compliance with this corrupt system, not only due to a lack of funding for anything else, but also out of fear of retaliation for any other type of reporting. In the US, big businesses have been known to file massive lawsuits against news outlets who air or publish anything which portrays them in a less than favorable light, and the news stations can not afford the loss of time or money to fight back.
In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman published a book entitled Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, in which they argue that the systematic biases in the mainstream media are all routed in the economic interest of the corporations which they serve. In this book, Chomsky and Herman explain “The Propaganda Model,” which suggests that, since the mainstream media relies heavily on the revenues of advertising, the interests of the respective advertisers take precedence over the interests of reporting objective, balanced journalism. Since the reporting of anything which portrays these funders in a negative light could be damaging to the funding source, the biases slant in the favor of the corporations, such as Westinghouse or General Electric. The news is therefore considered a product to be marketed, and the filters are therefore applied to advance the best interests of the funding company.
In the rare instances where the public interest is seemingly at the forefront of news reporting, it is almost always the interests of the middle-class white public who is served. In the US, school shootings in urban communities go virtually uncovered, while school shootings in white suburban areas garner media attention for weeks, often delving into the stories of the victims and their families, with featured interviews with local authorities and child psychologists offering insight into the so-called "phenomenon." In the UK, the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Ryce Jones, a white child from Liverpool, garnered hours of media attention, while the murder of Toni-Ann Byfield, a seven-year-old black child in Harlesden, went virtually unmentioned a few years prior. In the US, when union strikes of predominantly white middle-class workers take place, the media is right alongside the picket-lines, but when Asian workers protest their unjust wages in the food service industry, there is rarely, if ever, a video camera in sight. An examination of Chomsky and Herman’s theory suggests that the news is therefore designed to appeal to the most likely consumers for the advertising bodies, which would be the white working class. Appealing to a community of consumers certainly makes more sense than appealing to a community of the working poor; hence, the media caters to the interests of their most likely consumers.
Meanwhile, news stations such as Al Jazeera face double persecution: the biases of their own governments’ interests and the fear of retaliation from the Western War mongers following their stories. Al Jazeera has a clear agenda of its own: the fears, paranoia, and interests of what they assume Muslim public opinion to be, as well as the agendas of the various governments from whence they report. Hence, the retaliation Al Jazeera has faced since 9/11 has been unprecedented. In 2001, the Kabul office of Al Jazeera in Afghanistan was bombed after the station showed a tape of Osama Bin Laden. When the station aired photos of mutilated Iraqis following US air raids, the Al Jazeera Baghdad office was attacked by a US jet and a reporter was killed. Al Jazeera reporters have faced ongoing harassment and violence at the hands of US military officials since the onslaught of the so-called “War on Terror.” According to independent reporter Robert Fisk, “These events, seen by much of the international press as a deliberate bid to murder Al-Jazeera staff, mean that reporters regard themselves at risk if they offend Americans.” Yet, in spite of this ongoing threat, Al Jazeera has held their ground, continuing to cater to the biases of their funding bodies rather than the biases of their threatening counterparts.
The bottom line is that truth ultimately becomes what the most convincing speaker says truth is. In the world of the mainstream media, the most convincing speaker is the one with the most power, finances, and accessibility. And, although the internet has enabled the massive growth of grassroots endeavors, the mainstream media, with its massive bankrolled sponsors and endless accessibility, remains the dominant force on every corner of the globe. The interests of the government or corporation come first and ultimately become the voice which speaks to the public about world events. Through these means, the dormant complacency of millions of the world’s population has been born in a time where the outrage and protest of the world’s citizens is needed more than ever.