"Don't fool yourself into thinking things are simple. Nobody's lying and still the stories don't add up. Why do you try and get ahold of
what you'll never get ahold of? You wouldn't try to put the ocean in a paper cup." - Ani Di Franco, "Hour Follows Hour"
She may have been singing about love, war and world strife, but when indie rocker Ani Di Franco belted out these lyrics, she could've just as easily been talking about our mainstream news media. After all, it seems like the information out there is an ocean -- one full of unexplored depths. In many ways, the role of the press is to navigate that seemingly endless ocean of information, stimulating discussion and debate. Ideally, citizens in a democracy should trust the press as a tool to lead them in the right direction, giving them an understanding of where they are and what's around them. Ironically, studies show that an increasing number of Americans think the news media is doing more misleading than navigating.
"Based on what people tell us -- and we get hundreds of e-mails and letters a week -- people are extremely unhappy with the mainstream press," says Don Hazen, executive director of the Independent Media Institute and executive editor of Alternet. Hazen's organizations act as media watchdogs, monitoring the circulation of news in the United States and working to rid today's mainstream press of bias and censorship.
A 2002 study by the Pew Center for the People and the Press revealed that only 35 percent believe the news media "usually get facts straight," and 56 percent believe the press "usually reports inaccurately." That's not promising, particularly because the same report shows that a majority of Americans also think that news organizations are becoming more powerful. By a margin of two to one, the public says the media's influence is growing.
"The public is increasingly aware of the problems of consolidated corporate ownership in the media," says Rachel Coen, communications coordinator with Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a nonprofit media watchdog organization. "This new awareness crosses left, right and center. Even relatively apolitical families are upset by the bombardment of commercials and they become aware of media issues."
It's no surprise that America's mainstream media is owned by a few major corporations. Media conglomerates include AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and General Electric. Viacom, for instance, owns the CBS network, Paramount Pictures, Simon & amp; Schuster book publishers, Spelling Entertainment, the MTV and Showtime cable networks, the UPN network, Nickelodeon, Black Entertainment Television (BET), VH-1, TNT, Comedy Central, the Sundance Channel, the Blockbuster video rental chain, seven theme parks, retail stores, all CBS online sites and services, about 200 radio stations nationwide and a vast international movie theater empire. Even with this vast array of holdings, however, Viacom is considered small compared to GE, AOL Time Warner and the Disney Corporation.
"At first thought, one might ask, 'What's wrong with a few companies becoming so big? Isn't that how business works?" writes Anup Shah of the Pew Center for the People and the Press. "The concern here, with democracy-enhancing principles and institutions such as the media and journalism, is that when there are very few media owners in the mainstream, the diversity of issues and perspectives risks being reduced, and political influence and interests from a few can affect the many."
Recent deregulations in the FCC allow companies even fewer restrictions in media ownership. Groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Green Party are concerned about what this could mean for the future of news media.
"You have the irony of deregulation creating more monopolization instead of the opposite, which is what's supposed to happen," says Hazen.
Corporate ownership isn't the only concern people have regarding the news. Recent incidents, such as former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair's admission to making up stories, the unraveling of the Jessica Lynch rescue fairy tale and the national press's parroting of the Bush Administration's claims about Iraq buying uranium from Africa, have made more people distrustful of the media than ever before.
How can we find out what's happening if we can't trust our news media to give us the straight goods? The news media is a complex industry, but knowing how to use them for your own purposes, as with any navigational device, is the key to its usefulness.
Making Headlines -- Last Friday, July 18, AOL's Netscape homepage featured shots of J-Lo and Ben and promised to reveal "who wears the pants" in their relationship; Kobe Bryant nabbed a bold top page header for his recent scandal, and a link to the "Lifeline Calculator" was juxtaposed next to hot celeb pics.
Off to one side, in small blue print, was a one-line intro to a major news story: "WMD expert found dead in woods." If you clicked on that, you found out that the man found dead was British scientist David Kelly, who had recently been interviewed by Parliament regarding allegations that the government exaggerated intelligence to justify war in Iraq. In the days that followed, Kelly made international headlines, and speculations regarding his death were well discussed in the news. But what's clear is that on the day the Kelly story broke, it wasn't important enough to boot Lopez and Affleck from center screen.
"That happens everyday," says Coen. "I think that generally characterizes most news we get. This is Junk Food News (JFN), commercially oriented, celebrity-focused pseudo-news. Executives in the media business often defend JFN, claiming, 'It's what the people want.'" Indeed, the ratings support this claim.
"You may get good ratings from running reality shows or looping footage from car crashes and tech scandals, but it doesn't mean you're serving the public or exercising news judgment," Coen says. "That argument is dodging the responsibilities of journalism. It's insulting to the public."
Many times, mainstream news puts hard-hitting news second to the obligation to advertisers or the principal objectives of parent companies. A compilation of censored stories in the U.S. media gets turned into an annually published book, called Censored: News That Didn't Make The News, written by Peter Phillips, a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. For example, Phillips reported that GE refused to let NBC, which it owns, examine any of GE's business or manufacturing operations. In 1998, ABC news, owned by the Disney Corporation, wouldn't air a report exposing labor and safety practices at a Disney theme park.
Censorship is damning evidence, but equally concerning is the prominent positioning of trivial news stories. Americans know more about the private lives of their movie stars, politicians and sports figures than they know about world geography. Coen says this is one reason Americans are often clueless when it comes to world events.
"One example of this is how completely by surprise the country was taken by 9/11," notes Coen. "Not that any media could have predicted it, but when the crisis coverage started, we had to start with, 'OK, where on the map is Afghanistan?' [It's] not because Americans are stupid, but because [those issues] were totally off the radar screen. It was a sad and telling lesson in what happens when you lose your international coverage."
In his book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, author John McChesney reports that in 1898 the front page of one edition of the London Times contained 19 columns of international news and eight of domestic news. By contrast, the front page of a London Times in 1998 contained just one international news story: an account of actor Leonardo DiCaprio's new girlfriend.
Though bleak, the flip side to corporate-run news is the amount of free, independent news. Never before have so many people had access to so much information from around the world. Never before have so many alternative and independent media sources done so well. Though Junk Food News ratings are higher than ever, so is the support for independent free press.
"We get about a million and a half visitors a month," notes Hazen, referring to Alternet, the alternative online magazine.
Critical Thinking -- The bottom line regarding any news is this: Read between the lines.
"The fundamental thing is to know that there are many sides to every story," Hazen says. He offers this advice to news readers, no matter what the story is, or where they are getting it from: "Critical thinking about the media [means asking], 'Am I getting the full story? Who do I trust? What other points of view are there? What agendas do the [media sources] have?' "
"If you see a story that's problematic or you have issues with it, write or call in," says Coen. "It does make a difference. You are [the media's] customer, and they take public feedback seriously."
Being critical doesn't just apply to mainstream media. It applies to the numerous independent news sources.
Accuracy in Media is a conservative, nonprofit, grassroots organization that's "concerned about the inaccuracies and liberal bias of the mainstream media." Accuracy in Media's founder, Reed Irvine, currently its chairman emeritus, speaks openly about his quest to "set the record straight" on current news in America.
From detailed explanations of why global warming is a fabricated media conspiracy supported by the government, to how the media failed to prove that the crash of TWA Flight 200 was caused by a missile, it's clear Irvine has sources that aren't used in mainstream circles. Whether the reports are valid is up to readers of Accuracy in Media's reports: For media consumers today, it's becoming a do-it-yourself world.
While it's certainly possible to feel helpless because news is forever changing, the important thing to remember is that the news, by its nature, is transient. The key to making the press a successful navigational tool is to have multiple news sources, to question reports, to write letters to the editor. Take it all with a grain of salt, or two... after all, the ocean is full of it.