Press On for Real Press, Colltalers
In these strange times, even meaningful expressions ring a bit hollow. Like, a free press is essential to democracy. Or a nation is measured by its well informed citizens. Or lies become trusted if repeated often enough. All genuine memes but, now we know, easily manipulated.
On the surface, the U.S., Norway, Italy, and Japan have all dynamic, independent media institutions. And Costa Rica, Jamaica, Estonia, and Russia likely sit on the other end of the spectrum. That’s not quite true, though, according to the annual Press Freedom Index. Surprised yet?
Granted, Norway indeed tops the list, put together by the independent Reporters Without Borders group. And you probably knew at least something about Russia’ fierce control of its media. But the U.S. is stuck at number 43, way below sixth place Costa Rica and Jamaica, 8.
More, some of the most stable regimes in the world, such as Italy (52), Japan (72) and Israel (91), are not even expected to crack the top 50 any time soon. How come? They all have autonomous paper and broadcast companies, often critical of their governments. But even though the index doesn’t track the quality of reporting or human rights violations, none can be considered havens for independent journalism.
Two points could be argued about this sort of index and the overall function of media within any society: the whole of its democratic structure can’t be reduced by whether it is freedom of expression-compliant. And governments can still serve and represent their citizens’ needs and aspirations without being accountable or transparent. After all, many a dictatorship provides bread and circus to most people’s contentment.
So what’s the beef? For starters, what looks like freedom of expression may be just a simulacrum of conditions that mimic such freedom, without really allowing channels for questioning and effectively operating change into any given government. Or rather, people may vote in the ‘lesser of evils’ candidates, while those representing radical opposition are prevented from running by bureaucracy or phony technicalities.
The U.S. is by now a textbook example of what it means for a country to have a powerful Fourth Estate, which nevertheless, fails to account to, prioritize, or provide critical information to the American people. And, by managing a steady, overwhelming stream of inconsequential news, it actually turns people into a commodity that only needs to be fed a certain range of entertainment news in order to maintain patronage.
Although all media organizations manage a concession theoretically granted by taxpayers, they act as de facto owners
of the information data, subjected to advertisers’ veto power, and/or ideological whims of its proprietors. Either way, Americans are out of luck. But there’s more.
When the president wondered aloud, a few weeks ago, whether the broadcast license of a mega news corporation should be suspended, in typically fashion, he added a yet even scarier prospect to further damage the credibility of the American media and citizens’ rights to be properly informed. For in a democracy, it’s never up to the Executive to determine the merit or level of compliance of its news institutions.
That’s up to the people and their representatives, i.e., the U.S. Congress. Yes, given the current crop of mostly spineless, sponsor-hindered politicians now at the helm of the Legislative, there’s no reason for hoorays. But it’s what we’ve got, all unfair campaign laws notwithstanding.
Feeling hopeless yet? Don’t give up: for all traditional news outlets which, at this point, are too far gone to turn into vehicles of public interest, there are two ways common citizens can exercise their right to impact policy and government direction: supporting small, independent news organizations, and putting pressure over those aforementioned spine-challenged to sponsor laws that curtail power of the established media.
And that’s why there’s the Federal Communications Commission, a government agency in charge of protecting the American people from being fooled into believing they’re being given the whole picture of what’s happening. Again, don’t be discouraged with the agency’s current chair, Ajit Pai, an avowed soldier for big media, bent on doing away with Net Neutrality, for instance, and laws that prevent media monopoly.
It’s still an organ that exists solely to address public interest and can’t ignore direct pressure from citizens. For if it were up to the information establishment, and Pai himself, we’d be paying for the Web by now, besides having just a few companies determining what we should know.
While about the former, big media seems to have given the chairman a mandate of sorts to kill free expression and cheap Internet, the latter has just being revived. At a hearing last week, the FCC proposed to abolish media-ownership rules, which limit the number of stations or papers one company can own in a single market. All under the hypocritical excuse of leaving the government out of the news business.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth since the government in this case, is the consumers, who’d risk winding up getting the news generated by one single, all-too-powerful news source. In many markets throughout the U.S., this is already happening with dire consequences.
If many point to Fox News style of conservative coverage, one to which Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s spectacular indictment of the president’s close allies over collusion with a foreign power – Russia – is not even happening, few know about the Sinclair Broadcast Group, for instance, an obscure but powerful company, and what it’s capable of doing to further erode credibility of the news business in the U.S.
If Pai has his way, the group will be allowed to purchase 42 TV stations from Tribune Media, another conservative company, to add to its more than 170 lineup, which would bring Sinclair to 72 percent of U.S. households. As for its radical-rightwing bent, it’s just rejected the conservative blowhard Bill O’Reilly’s job application, and unlikely for him having been fired from Fox after years of sexual misconduct.
This is but an example of the media establishment betraying its constitutional role. Alas, efforts to deregulate markets and kill competition to the ultimate loss for consumers, is surely not limited to media, and hasn’t even started with the administration that, to most of the population’s chagrin and despair, is about to complete its first, unspeakably disastrous year. As other areas, it only exacerbated what was already bad.
Another marker that could be used to qualify how one society values press freedom is, of course, in the persecution and downright assassination of journalists. Unfortunately, the U.S. and many Western nations have a less than stellar, if not less disturbing record on the matter. Yes, no journalist has been murdered in America this year for his or her reporting, but many face undue government persecution.
Any attenuating fact is better than the despicable killing of 48 news professionals so far in 2016, around the world. But while that tragic figure shows the lethal contempt authoritarian and/or liberal-perceived governments – Brazil, for instance, is the seventh most dangerous place for journalists – have for the press, it can’t excuse that, since President Obama, the U.S. has been leading the world in journalist prosecutions.
It’s easy to blame ‘ignorant Americans’ for being taken by a president who acts like a con man, but they are also victims of insidious news coverage vices. Take false equivalence, for one, the not so innocent habit of news to frame every issue into a falsely balanced two-side view which helps nuts and conspiracy buffs to confuse everyone, and dilutes the argument of those who actually study the issues.
Thus flat-Earth advocates get the same air time as astronauts who actually saw that the argument has no merit. And climate change deniers find shelter on the Weather Channel, while scientists are alarmingly left out of discussions. And this all after a truly harrowing hurricane season has left no doubts about the matter. Instead, Scott Pruitt’s EPA has just fired half of its environment advisory board.
‘Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.’ Thomas Jefferson was not speaking to Russians, or Brazilians, or even to Americans of his time; he was speaking to us, who can hear and still do something to honor his words.
Another week, another gun massacre in the U.S., and given all the above, it’s unlike that the San Antonio, Texas, tragedy will lead to an open discussion about guns. For one of the functions of a free press is to question the party lines the entire country is fed, and bring a critical edge to everyone’s assumptions. Instead, there’s more of the same: ‘prayers for the victims,’ and silence over what maimed them.
When a reality TV personality got elected ‘leader of the free world,’ a year ago this Wednesday, talk about Russian interference on the electoral process, hacking, and paid trolls spreading falsehoods on social media, was already at full tilt. But as most people were being overwhelmed by such daring corruption of our democracy, the media was merely airing ‘both sides’ non sense, and collecting dividends.
That night, Yoko Ono took to Twitter and, as she wont to do, launched a 19-sec continuous wailing in protest. For those who wish she’d kept at it through the year, other artists will hold a public rendition on the anniversary of that primal scream, around the U.S. and the world. It may at least be a cathartic event, but of a good nature despite the noise, one Americans have been in short supply in 2017.
Sadly, Ms. Ono won’t attend due to illness, which is another reason to join in. Also, it’s not expected to attract the kind of news coverage public performances that she and her husband, John Lennon, produced in the 1970s, which against most odds, wound up being part of the movement that finally brought an end to the Vietnam war. Here’s hoping such a good humored and timely attitude hits the spot.
This has been a year of hearts tightened in fear and sadness, yesterday’s shooting included. Our collective breath is half suspended, as the media’s fails the grieving, and a nervous world eyes the U.S. and what its president may do next. But one thing is non-negotiable: hope. Let’s not let anyone steal that most precious of our strengths, so we may start wishing a happier new year right away. Cheers WC