Is mass media a mass of manipulation?

Monday November 5, 2012

The United States has a population of over 314 million as of October 2012 ("Demographics"). Such a large country requires an information system of enormous size and scope to keep its residents informed on local, national, and international events. This system, which we call the "mass media," is made up of thousands of radio stations, television stations, newspapers, magazines, and websites that dispense information to the public about the world around them. We often blindly think of the "news" as inherently factual, rarely considering that the American mass media is highly censored and manipulated. The question is, who decides what our "news" really is? Is our freedom of press and free information really as democratic as we think? Or does the mass media weaken our democracy?

Many of the nation's major media networks rely on corporate funding to operate. This simple connection is the single most dangerous threat to our democracy, and there is overwhelming evidence that it gravely affects the information that is broadcast to the public. Former CBS president Frank Stanton, quoted in Michael Parenti's book, Democracy for the Few, eloquently sums up the detrimental relationship between corporations and the media. He remarks, "Since we are advertiser-supported we must take into account the general objective and desires of advertisers as a whole." Clearly, large corporations manipulate the media with facility. In one example, automotive advisers complained to KCBS-TV Los Angeles about one of their consumer reporters' critical reports on car safety. The reporter, who was disclosing the truth in the interests of the general population, was fired -- no questions asked.

Corporate sponsors are constantly censoring the media this way, even when it has nothing whatsoever to do with a poor reflection of their product. The PBS Kwitney Report, a news show that revealed the U.S. backing of death squads and dictators in Central America, was forced to go off the air for lack of corporate funding. Corporations (and the government, of course) tend to be pro-military, and the media certainly reflects that influence. "In 1998," writes Parenti, "CNN producers April Oliver and Jack Smith ran a story accusing the U.S. military of using sarin, a highly lethal nerve gas, in an operation in Laos in 1970 that killed about one hundred people." The Pentagon was instantly enraged, and, after many abuses, prompted CNN to fire the producers.

Besides being easily manipulated by external forces, the mass media itself is biased, projecting the views of certain ideologies over others. Being a conservative is a boon to American news people; those "who consistently support the worldview of capitalism and the national security state are the one more likely to be rewarded with choice assignments, bonuses, and promotions," according to Parenti. One study found that conservative guests outnumbered liberal ones three to one on network opinion shows. Additionally, "expert" guests appearing on newscasts are predominantly current or former government officials, corporate heads, and members of conservative think tanks. Those who regularly consume mass media, which is most of us in this country, as its influence is virtually inescapable, do not get a balanced portrayal of the goings on in the world.

"There once did exist," says Parenti, "a ‘Fairness Doctrine'" which was "a law requiring that time be given to an opposing viewpoint after a station broadcasted an editorial opinion." Obviously we still show some desire in this country to hold on to what threads of democracy we have left. The Fairness Doctrine was certainly not the only attempt to level the playing field in our mainstream media, but like many others, it was short lived. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the doctrine in 1987 when Congress endeavored to renew it.

Unless we rally together and demand ownership of our own system of information, unless we fight against corporate manipulation and fight for a broad spectrum of conflicting views, the mass media will continue to choke our nation's democracy until it is nothing but a sham, a façade no more real than reality TV.

Aurora Phillips is a senior in Tim Kipp's Elections and Government class at BUHS.


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