April 30, 2008
Originally appeared at Speak Out California
Are you following the election coverage? Here are some recent stories: The media pounds candidate Hillary Clinton to release her tax forms, because the public has a right to know. And she does release her and her husband's returns, going back a decade. The media trumpets how much income they have been receiving, how rich they are, and drills down into details. If you follow the news, it is inescapable. At the same time candidate John McCain releases only partial forms that show all assets are now in his wife's name, and he won't release his wife's tax returns. The media is mostly silent on this; most of the public has little opportunity to learn of this.
Another story: Candidate McCain won't release his medical records. Again from the media there is mostly silence; most of the public has little opportunity to learn of this.
And here is the big story: Unless you have been in a coma you know that for several weeks video clips of statements by Barack Obama's former minister have been aired nearly 24 hours a day on the news shows, especially on FOX News. These clips are considered scary by certain demographic groups who are not familiar with the speaking patterns of black ministers.
Interestingly, at the same time as this "Obama's minister" story is saturating the news there is another Presidential candidate with a "scary minister" problem of his own. But the news media is not providing the public with any information at all about the things this minister has said. In this case the Presidential candidate is John McCain and the minister is John Hagee. This minister has issued statements condemning Jews, is described as "virulently anti-Catholic," and says that 9/11 and Katrina are examples of God punishing America. Yet John McCain sought out this minister's endorsement and insists that he is "proud" to have received it.
While saturating the airwaves with scary video clips of Obama's scary minister the corporate media is providing the public with almost no information about McCain's. In the article, The McCain-Hagee Connection, the Columbia Journalism Review asks, "Why is the press ignoring this hate-monger?"
A well-functioning democracy depends on an informed public. There is no question that the public deserves to know these things about Senators Clinton and Obama. The information in the examples cited here could and should have an effect on the election, because the public will weigh these factors into their voting decisions. But the public also needs the information about Senator McCain, presented with equal emphasis. And clearly this isn't happening.
So with nearly identical stories -- a relationship with a minister who makes scary and hateful statements -- the corporate media chooses to present the information about only one to the public, and does so in a way that is guaranteed to scare the ... excuse me ... bejeesus out of everyone. The other is given a pass and a free ride, and the public is left without the information it needs to make an informed choice.
Why is this happening? Here is some background on our media:
In the United States the broadcast media used to be required by law to serve "the public interest" ahead of profits. Use of OUR airwaves was licensed out to private interests that were allowed to use them to profit to a limited extent in exchange for providing the public with information and news. We did this because it served our interests and those of our democracy.
The rules allowed very limited commercialization of this public resource. For example, in exchange for the license to make a profit from the use of the public airwaves the companies were required to provide educational content for children, news coverage, documentaries, arts and other public interest content. And by law the information had to be objective and balanced.
At certain times of the day the companies could then present commercialized content. But even then the commercialization was to be limited. They were limited in how much time during a show could be used for commercial advertisements -- and the shows themselves were not allowed to be commercialized. There were even restrictions on what the commercial advertisements could say. Public benefit was the priority, commercial profits were limited.
It was an exchange - they get to make some money using our resource, and we get news and information that educates us and strengthens our democracy. Why else would we have allowed private companies access to our airwaves, but to serve the public?
This changed. In the early 1980s the Reagan administration unilaterally dropped the requirements that broadcast media serve the public interest and these companies promptly stopped serving the public interest and started serving their own corporate interests. As happens with any for-profit corporate interest commercialization became the only use of our public airwaves.
Shocked by this seizure of a public resource for corporate commercial interests the Congress immediately voted to restore the public benefit requirements, but Reagan vetoed this. Then, under President George H.W. Bush the Congress again voted to restore the public benefit requirements, and this was again vetoed. Under President Clinton the requirement was against brought before the Congress and again a majority voted to restore placing the priority on public benefit but Senate Republicans filibustered and blocked the bill.
So today there is no requirement that our mass media serve the public interest. Instead the only interests that are served are private, corporate interests and the only information the public receives through these outlets is information that benefits the corporations that control them.
Is this why we are seeing such dramatic disparities in the way information about the candidates is presented to the public? Should we be surprised?
Control of our information sources is now in the hands of corporations with no requirement that they serve the interests of democracy. So shouldn't we expect that corporate interests are placed ahead of the public interest? If for-profit enterprises control the information the public receives then why wouldn't they promote candidates who would be more favorable to their commercial interests?
Let me provide a clear example of how this affects all of us: When was the last time you saw or heard on a corporate outlet information about the benefits of joining a union? Of course you haven't, and you wouldn't expect to. And, in the years since the requirement that the broadcasters serve the public interest by providing balanced information, we have seen a dramatic decline in the percent of the workforce that is unionized. At the same time we have seen a dramatic increase in commercialization of everything, and in the power of corporations over the decision-making of our government.
What else should we expect?