|Leftists are often heard saying that the mass
media/corporate media lies. I don't know that it really
lies as much as it swallows lies told it. The media
should be viewed as a funnel that channels together lots
of crap, which must be squeezed out into tiny droplets.
If the mass media is a part of Corporate America, it will
obviously replicate the attitudes, values, and interests
of that system.
More frequent than censorship (although this happens), the media omits information. It might do this out of a need to cram in a small space (on paper or in airtime). Or it could be because of time limitations from deadlines, editors, or the relevance of the story. Often reporters aren't intentionally lying, but merely haven't double-checked facts or searched out other viewpoints.
However, other more structural constraints contribute to these omissions: corporate concentration, consolidated privelege, authoritarianism, and the status quo.
Ben Bagdikian's enlightening book Media Monopoly shows how, year after year, the makers of mass media (radio, newspapers, magazines, TV, film, etc.) are becoming more heavily concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer multinational corporations. The same corporation that makes weapons of mass destruction, also owns the National Broadcasting Company (General Electric). The very same corporation which provides millions of people with internet access also controls the Corporate News Network (AOL-Time-Warner). Now, more than half of the aforementioned mediums are owned by corporations that can be counted on one hand!
The media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) released a study in May 2002 showing that the primetime news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC are dominated by White male Republicans (not surprised, eh?). Even though the study didn't even look at Fox (Faux) News, FAIR found that 92% of all guests (i.e. informational sources and analysts) were White, 85% were male, and 75% were Republican-identified. If that weren't bad enough, in a country where less than half of the people vote, non-partisan guests appeared a paltry 1% of the time (post-9/11 however, this number dropped to 0.1%), with Democrats appearing the remaining 24% of the time.
Mass media frequently takes things directly from the horse's mouth, and repeats it in a highly uncritical fashion. Witness every single US military action in the last 15 years for evidence of the journalistic critical thinking fly out the window. I.F. Stone, a legendary journalist, who worked for years in the mass media before turning independent in scorn, would often speak before journalism classes. He would caution them that of all the things he could say to them in an hour, only two words bear have to be remembered: governments lie. This authoritarian worship of power leads talking heads, columnists, and shockjocks to become nothing more than unpaid spokespersons for the US government.
Finally, the deepest of structural constraints, is all the previous media reporting. If the status quo is all that people have heard, it is incredibly difficult to counter years of training and education in believing the party line. The soundbite has shrunk in the past few decades to around a minute to a few paltry seconds, there is less opportunity to explain things in depth. Since our own lives are complex-- let alone the world-- how is someone supposed to explain new (to the media consumer) and complex ideas when sandwiched in between two commercials? Noam Chomsky refers to this in his book Manufacturing Consent as concision. When you have only seconds to be concise, one can only repeat commonly held and oft-repeated interpretations.
So, how does one know what to believe and what not to believe? The surest approach is the one that scientists have been practicing since the Enlightenment. In essence, find an opposing viewpoint that does a good job of arguing against your own beliefs. This is the process in which scientific knowledge is acquired or discarded over time. Think of it as a form of mental triangulation. Go ahead and read Time magazine, but suppliment it with an issue of Z magazine. Listen to conservative talk radio (if you must), but also tune in Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! Since much of the mass media is given to simplication and superficial coverage of dissenting viewpoints, find more elaborate coverage which comes directly from the dissenters themselves. Then consider what all the media sources offer, and come to you own conclusions.
Finally, in a culture where everything is commodified and for sale, we must be ever-vigilant with our consumption of the mass media. We don't want to become passive receivers who only absorb information and analysis. We should also become producers... Jello Biafra has said, don't hate the media, become the media! Whether this is in the form of zines, pirate radio, agitprop (agitation propaganda), culture jamming, community newspapers, the Independent Media Center (IMC) movement, or speaking from a soapbox, Biafra asks a lot of us. His cry for people to create their own modes of expression and communication is an essential component of any society which values the free press. What good is freedom of speech if you don't use it?
Based on a media presentation at an anti-war teach-in at the University of Akron, on April 14th, 2003.