POWER OF THE PRESS
It has been said that information is power. It appears that most people still rely on television as their source for news. Cable television news channels reach millions of people each with their own set of biases. This is especially true with Fox and MSNBC. The Fox mantra of “fair and balanced” is laughable and MSNBC is not in the least apologetic for their liberal bias. Then there is CNN who does one story per week. They frequently announce a breaking story, which continues to break every few minutes for days until some new catastrophic event occurs. These three have taken viewership from the major network news programs which attempt to portray themselves as objective in their reporting.
The print media is suffering a slow painful death. I recall when as a kid there were three newspapers in our small town, only one is left now with the obituaries its only meaningful news, and even it is no longer locally owned. Throughout the country there is a massive consolidation movement underway. One radio station in our viewing area has been purchased by Fox, and the FCC has been petitioned to approve the purchase of all manner of news outlets throughout the country.
Jefferson is frequently and wisely quoted as follows: “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic”. That enlightenment depends in large measure on the existence of an active and free press unfettered by the restraints of corporate interests or federal legalisms. I find it scary that some reporters have actually been jailed for refusing to disclose their sources. The denial of access to government information by using the national security ploy also distresses me. Although there is obviously information which must remain secret, it appears that this excuse is often used to hide information that might be embarrassing to government entities.
Yesterday, I learned that Al Jazeera had given up on their attempts to break into the American market. I was initially encouraged when they arrived on the scene, for they seemed to be actually reporting the news. I felt that I could give up watching the BBC to find out what was going on in the world. It should not have come as a surprise that they were giving up, as my cable provider (Time-Warner) had assigned them to channel 376, which could be seen only by those who subscribed to the higher priced premium plans. Most friends with whom I talked had not even heard of Al Jazeera. Competition may be good for the public, but not so for one’s adversaries, and after all CNN is owned by Time Warner. I also recently heard of another start up news channel which was trying to gain access to Time-Warner cable. They were complaining to the FCC to no avail. A similar situation exists with NBC which is now owned by Comcast.
I fear that soon news reporting will be in the hands of a very few large corporations. If such were to occur I worry that objectivity would suffer when corporate interests were involved. If information is really power then the big guys are carrying a big stick. There are times when use of that power can produce unexpected results, and some have learned how to use that power for their own benefit. The most recent con was perpetrated by Mr. Donald Trump. He followed the dictum of the ad agencies that there is no such thing as bad publicity. He also realized that to get publicity, one must either buy it, do something outstanding or be outrageous. As a good business man, he preferred not to spend money and had much experience at the third option; consequently he proceeded to take outrageousness to a new high (or a new low depending on one’s point of view) with spectacular results.
Since the announcement of his intention to run, Mr. Trump has been an almost constant feature on the news networks without spending a nickel. Meanwhile his competitors are spending millions of dollars for time on TV. He has gone from being viewed as a joke to a serious contender. Of course he has also counted on the notorious short memory of the American voter and has gradually moved from outrageous to saying something sensible frequently enough to keep sane people interested. However; he has been able to preserve the outrageous tradition by adding Sarah Palin to his stump speeches. It raises the question as to whether these outlets realize their power is used to influence public opinion , even if unwittingly.
Conflict must increase viewership since television goes to great lengths to promote the discussion of differing views usually by people who are extreme in their beliefs, while those with moderate opinions are rarely heard. This is particularly common with politics as there is no shortage of politicians or their surrogates who are eager to get some free TV time. The custom is presented as an effort to promote fairness, but some posit that it helps to promote divisiveness among the populace, and may cause even more unwillingness for opposing political parties to resolve differences. Could this be a contributor to the governmental paralysis which has resulted in the lowest congressional approval rating in history?
Tyrants have long been aware of the power of the press, and have rightfully seen it as a threat to their control over their people. They need to control what information is available to the populace in order to perpetuate their propaganda, and limit dissent. This puts journalists in danger, and they deserve our highest praise for their willingness to put their freedom and even their lives on the line in their search for truth.
During my lifetime there have been several stages in the development of news delivery. Prior to that the invention of the printing press must have been hailed as a great technological development which allowed information to be propagated to the masses. In my childhood newspapers were still the predominant method for reaching the people. There was a complex network of delivering the papers to virtually every residence and business in the country. I along with thousands of other kids delivered them house to house, and for most of us it was our first experience with business. Although we were assigned a route we were required to buy the papers needed to deliver to our customers. It was our responsibility to collect the money from our customers and if they stiffed us, it was our problem. The markup was two cents per paper so it was not unusual to lose money for a week’s work. Nevertheless the system worked. Papers were available everywhere. There were “news boys” who walked the downtown streets of most cities hawking their product. Most cities produced both morning and evening additions in addition to “extras” when there was something sensational to report. It was common to hear newsboys shouting: “extra, extra, read all about it”.
While I was busy with my paper route the latest technological invention was already with us and gaining increasing prominence as a news source. Living rooms throughout the country had been rearranged in order to provide space for a radio some of which were the size of a large chest. The evening news became a part of daily routines with names like Lowell Thomas, H. B. Kaltenbourne, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Winchell quickly becoming famous. With the advent of world war II radio became even more important as a means to follow the progress of the conflict. There was a rapid proliferation of stations throughout the country, and soon local news would become part of their programming.
Most of us were even more awe struck by another invention which would occupy much more of our time. I recall listening to a conversation between my Father and a friend in which my Father was relating a story he had read about the invention of a radio with which one could not only hear but see the person who was talking. The friend replied that this was the most ridiculous story he had ever heard. Imagine his surprise were he see how we now get the 6 o’clock news.
Now it appears that younger people are attracted to the latest medium for information propagation. This fills me with a lot of hope and some trepidation, as it has the potential for anyone who can access the internet to express their views or transmit all manner of information. It also appears to be much more difficult for bad guys to limit its use and thus suppress their efforts to keep people ill or uninformed. The bad side is that it has already become a means to promulgate misinformation, and promote nefarious causes. The most recent example being the ISIS propaganda and recruiting broadcasts. In any event its availability should help prevent such messages from going unchallenged by wiser heads .
It is true the power of the press can be manipulated and perverted, but without it we are vulnerable to those seeking domination. It rests upon all our shoulders to insist upon diversity and independence in our sources for news. To paraphrase Jefferson, the power of the people is dependent upon the power of the press.