Media meltdown 

Perhaps the most important function our media serves is to provide voters with the information they need to make sound decisions in the voting booth. If people don’t know what they’re voting for, our democracy is in serious trouble.

Unfortunately, it appears that we’re in serious trouble.

This election has been marked by a staggering amount of voter ignorance. Polls show that voters — especially Bush supporters — were grossly misinformed about their candidate’s position on a broad range of issues. Surveying supporters of the president, a University of Maryland PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll found:

• 72 percent still believe that there were WMDs in Iraq.

• 75 percent believe that Iraq was providing substantial support for al-Qaida.

• 66 percent believe that Bush supports participation in the international criminal court.

• 72 percent believe that he supports the treaty banning land mines.

The catch? None of these beliefs are true.

How do we know who our candidates are and what they stand for when the media fixate on polls, controversy and spin instead of the issues? How do we have meaningful elections when people don’t know what they’re voting for? Our founders understood this; that is why they inscribed freedom of the press into the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Our media are responsible for giving us a balanced inspection of all claims, careful fact checking and reasoned analysis. But that was all but abandoned in this presidential campaign. And it is exactly what we would expect. As a result of media consolidation and pressures to cut costs, media corporations have gutted investigative journalism and hard-hitting analysis. Hence we get hours and hours of coverage of the baseless and idiotic Swiftboat Veterans for Truth story, and barely a look at what the actual policies of this administration are and how they affect the people of the nation and the world.

The complicity of our major media in subverting public discourse runs even deeper. The handful of enormous media corporations that own most of our major local television stations and networks raked in $600 million from presidential TV ads alone, shattering previous records and subjecting voters to half-truths and distortions from both sides. Political ad revenues now constitute well over 10 percent of commercial broadcasting revenue, up from less than 3 percent in 1992. Overall, federal elections cost $3.9 billion this year, representing a near 30 percent increase since 2000.

An iron law in commercial broadcasting is that you do not do programming that undermines the credibility of your sponsors. The result: more political ads and little to no critical journalism that exposes the spin and lies in these ads. A more brash insult to our intelligence can hardly be imagined. This also explains why the corporate media giants are as enthusiastic about campaign finance reform as the National Rifle Association is regarding gun control.

Lastly, media companies have a conflict of interest; they benefit from seeing the re-election of George W. Bush and his industry-friendly policies. Viacom owner Sumner Redstone made it clear when his CBS was enmeshed in “Rathergate” that he was a supporter of the president — because the president would allow Viacom to get much larger and face less competition.

All in all, we face a situation that could scarcely have been imagined by our nation’s founders. Our Fourth Estate is hardly an independent sector in service to the citizenry. It is a massive industry dedicated to serving the needs of its owners. It is a central tension in our democracy, and one that we must address if we are to get off this downward spiral of misleading political campaigns driven by massive contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals. Reforming the media is not the only issue that faces our nation, but it is an unavoidable one.

So what are we going to do about it? Reform means giving citizens more outlets of independent news and analysis that isn’t beholden to the bottom line. It involves giving citizens more access to their own airwaves to let Americans know what’s really going on in their cities and neighborhoods. It involves making sure that access to information is equitable and affordable.

For the most part, the Bush administration is no friend to media reform, but there is cause for hope. Liberals and conservatives alike oppose letting big media corporations get bigger, and we are going to work hard together to prevent further consolidation of our media. Liberals and conservatives alike favor journalism over spin and dislike the commercial marination of our culture. There was a reason Bush did not brag about his plans to let media companies get bigger and have less competition on the campaign trail — he knows Americans from all walks of life oppose the idea. For him, this is an issue best kept behind closed doors.

While the short-term prospects for structural reform at the federal level are limited, there is important defensive work to be done. Remember that 3 million Americans organized in 2003 to stop the FCC from relaxing media ownership rules. And we are much stronger as a movement today than we were 18 months ago. We can continue to make headway on a number of issues and plant seeds for eventual victories. Now is the time for the media reform movement to do the foundation work to prepare for big fights coming years down the road. We have to think in terms of the long haul if we are going to be effective.

In addition, there is a great deal of optimism for a number of victories at the state and local level. If we get enough citizens to take a stand, politicians will be forced to act. There are promising, activist-driven efforts under way to challenge local cable providers so they ensure funding and channel “set-asides” for independent and diverse programming. Amazing noncommercial wireless technology has the potential to deliver more diverse TV offerings, and provide phone and Internet as an affordable public utility like water, sewers and electricity.

The past few months remind us again that media reform is not a left-versus-right, technocratic or obscure issue; it addresses the singular importance of media to a self-governing society. Never again should we allow our media system to send the voters to the polls without the information they need to make well-reasoned decisions. There is a national emergency when voters go to the polls ignorant of the most elementary facts about our economy, foreign policy, health care and environment. It is unacceptable.

Now is the time to plug in and take action to create a better media system so that when the next big election comes along, Americans actually have a clue about what their candidates stand for. As Saul Alinsky put it, the only way to beat organized money is with organized people. Remember this, act on it, and we will prevail.


Founder, president and board chairman of the Free Press publishing house, Robert W. McChesney is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author or editor of 11 books.

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