A few things have come my way recently about media freedom in a contemporary society. What got me started thinking about it was an article on znet by media lens co-founder David Cromwell, about the influence of advertising money on newspapers. It reminded me of a similar essay posted by Chris Shumway (now a journalist at the excellent advertising-free New Standard) on his webpage a few years ago, which got him fired from his job at WBNS. His webpage is gone now, but I found a copy of the essay here (and a more recent comment of his on the affair here).
The bit that got Shumway fired in July 2000 was:
The TV station I [worked] for allows a major bank not only to sponsor a daily financial news segment (called “Your Money”) they also get to supply the “expert” commentator (a bank official) and write the script! Each day, the bank selects a topic and faxes the newsroom a set of questions for the anchors to ask during the segment. Most of the questions refer to products and services sold by the bank; some even deal with public policy matters that directly affect the banking industry. On one particular day, our “expert” was asked about a hike in interest rates by the Federal Reserve Board. He explained that it was necessary “medicine” for the economy: an antidote for rising inflation. What he didn’t say was that banks and other lending institutions rake in bigger profits from loans when interest rates are higher. Of course, I would not expect a banker to say this on live television, but shouldn’t one of the “news” anchors have brought this up? And shouldn’t they have mentioned that the Federal Reserve Board is made up of banking representatives and that historically its policies benefit lenders and creditors (banks)? They also could have questioned his claim that the rate increase was needed to battle inflation. Many economists agree that inflation at moderate levels (say 5% or so, which is higher that we had at the time of the rate hike) is not a problem for most people, especially if it is corresponding to true wage gains. Additionally, the anchors could have mentioned that many consumer groups opposed the increase (even the National Association of Manufacturers called it “unnecessary shock treatment”). But no, our anchors did not seriously question or challenge anything our advertiser-appointed “expert” said. Instead, the anchors meekly followed orders–and the advertiser’s script–as all well trained lap dogs do.
The essential conflict of commercial news media was on full display when giant advertisers BP, the oil company, and Morgan Stanley, the financial services company, both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any edition of a publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general (AdAge.com, 5/24/05).
On the way they notice an interesting fact about reliance on advertising.
We noted that in his ‘Errors & Omissions’ column Keleny had omitted to mention that the quality press, including the Independent, is dependent upon advertising for around 75 per cent of its revenue. It would be irrational to claim that this has no impact on shaping the content of his newspaper.
All this is related (explicitly) to Chomsky and Herman’s 1988 propaganda model (in Manufacturing Consent). Despite the name, it describes a conspiracy-theory-free model of how the agenda of news outlets is partially shaped by government and corporate interests. Well worth reading about if you haven’t already.
So in the light of all this, what are we to make of media freedom and trustworthiness?