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Corporate News: We No Longer Have a Free Press

Knowing that I'm a student of the media and culture, a number of people have asked me in recent months, "How did it get like this?" By "it" they mean the news media in the United States.

Bill Clinton lied about having (consensual) sex with a woman in the Oval Office. He was crucified by the supposedly "liberal" media and impeached by part of the US Congress. George W. Bush lied about intelligence and got us into a war that's already cost hundreds of American and thousands of Iraqi lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and who knows what kind of non-quantifiable costs to our collective national soul.

Where is the American press? Why is George W. Bush getting a free ride from the people who are supposed to be out there reporting on the information the public needs to know in a "fair and balanced" manner? How did it get like this?

Two main factors are at work, tied inextricably together, to choke off the flow of information to the American people for the benefit of a small group of power brokers.

First the historical background.

Newspapers exist to sell. Whatever noble sentiments get tossed around about the public service of journalism, every newspaper wants to boost circulation so it can make money off its advertisers. Television news is no different. Television news, be it a news program on a network or an all-news network, wants to get high ratings and more viewers. The more viewers the news can promise, the more they can charge advertisers. Media is all about making money.

That being said, there has always been an underlying idea of public service working alongside the profit motive in news production. Newspapers strove to gain more readers by having great reporters telling important stories. Well, that and having the good comic strips.

In the early years of television broadcasting, network news departments were a tiny portion of the company. Even when the evening news was expanded to half an hour, the news division was usually not nearly as large as the entertainment programming divisions. More importantly, during this period of time, news divisions were not expected to turn a profit.

Let's stop and consider that for a minute. Certainly all the news divisions wanted to make money for the network; no one was putting on news programs trying to lose viewers. But the climate of the times did not put an exorbitant amount of pressure on news broadcasts to make money.

The broadcast networks in the US, while they pay fees to the government for their licenses, basically get the airwaves they broadcast through for free. In the early days of the networks, it was expected (and to an extent legally required) that the networks provide a certain amount of public service programming in return for having this huge gift from the citizens of the country. The news broadcasts were part of this public service, which is why the network honchos were not overzealous about the bottom line at news divisions.

This situation began to change in the 1970s as larger corporations began to buy up broadcast networks. The brilliant and frighteningly prescient film "Network" (1976), dismissed at the time as being far too extreme in its depictions of the industry, illustrates the results of corporate takeover in a way that was intended to be darkly funny and over the top, but now seems normal. As corporations bought networks, the men who ran the corporations began to exert more pressure on all divisions to turn a profit. News divisions were not going to be allowed to consistently lose money any more. In order to preserve their jobs, the heads of news divisions had to work harder at boosting ratings quickly, which meant less in depth news reporting and more publicity-friendly promotional work.

This trend filtered down through the industry from national news programs to local channels. If you have any doubts, keep track during one week of the promotions for local news broadcasts. Count how many times they use alarmist language and story promos along the lines of "what you don't know about your drinking water could kill you." The old newspaper editorial saw, "If it bleeds, it leads" has been taken to new heights, or lows depending on your point of view.

Corporations became global conglomerates during the 1980s and 1990s. It is no exaggeration to say that the US media is controlled by half a dozen old white men. That "media" includes not just television channels but movie production companies and distributors, music groups, publishing of books, magazines and newspapers, etc. The only area that exists outside of their control so far is the Internet.

So, as we entered the 21st century, the network news had gone from a public service to just another entertainment division, responsible to corporate honchos whose primary concern was with the bottom line and making themselves more money.