Monday, December 08, 2008

How to improve the media?

Outfoxing Broadcast News

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 08, 15 Qawl 165 BE

  An essay series on consultation is in order. At least three currents in my life push me to this decision. One is a movie documentary I saw last night called "Outfoxed." The other is my experience yesterday at our local youth drop-in center, and the third is an abortive attempt to introduce informal logic into our daily study session. Today, let us look just at the first, the movie.

  "Outfoxed" is about the right-wing American television news network Fox. It strings together interviews with former and current employees with selections from older shows. It argues that Fox News has had a polarizing effect on journalism and broadcasting in general, turning the entire industry in the U.S. into thinly disguised propaganda.

  It all started back in the 1980's when the new Fox Network hired real journalists, who proudly touted slogans like, "Impartial reporting, you decide." At the time, the catch phrases meant something. Then Rupert Murdoch bought the operation and Fox became wholly partisan, nothing more than the propaganda wing of the Republican Party. Having given up all pretence of balance and objectivity other than the now-ironic slogan, which turned into something ironic and sinister, like Hitler's Big Lie, Fox's example has influenced other privately owned American broadcasters to do the same, that is, to stop even trying to give two sides of a story.

  The dramatic climax of the film comes with an on air confrontation between one of Fox's commentators-disguised-as-reporters and the son of a victim of the 9-11 attacks who was invited onto his show because he opposed the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. This gentle young man takes on the show's host, a tall, intimidating, roaring lion of a man. The little young man has his say and shows the host for what he is, a blathering bigot wrapping himself in the flag.

   He admits that he came off so well against this patriotic blowhard on his own turf because he prepared for the interview meticulously, using a stopwatch to time the delivery of his message. In spite of that, I think he could have done better by pointing out that the host's fanaticism mirrors his bugbears: the fanatics who flew planes into the WTC and Pentagon in the 9-11 attacks. Even with the powder-puff approach he did take, though, he barely got out of the building without being assaulted by the "reporter."

   As another Fox product, Futurama's Zap Brannigan, said, "Your neutrality sickens me."

  The softest powder-puff of the film, though, is the set of solutions that the slightly-left-of-extreme-right-wing filmmakers suggest as ways that we can "outfox Fox." Call Fox and other media outlets up and protest the loss of the pretence of fairness and objectivity. March in the streets; protest our loss of objective reporting. "Give us back the pretence!" we should be shouting.

  No, no, no. Pretense is not enough, we need reality. There is only one way to solve this problem, and solve it fast; that is to abolish exclusive ownership, public or private, of mass media and press outlets. Broadcast news should be owned by a combination of several stakeholders, including local and world governments, family organizations, faith groups, as well as business. And the controling interest, the majority owner always has to be everybody.

  As the film points out, the news business is just that, a business. John Dewey said that government in America is the shadow of big business; today media and news reporting have become the shadow of business too, as this documentary demonstrates. This should not be the case.

  The purpose of information is surely to discover truth, not to edge out our neighbour or lord it over others. In view of that fact, it is ridiculous to allow the mass media to have anything to do with competition or capitalism. Information outlets should never have anything to do with making money. That only makes sense, especially with the news. We all know how criminals can be attracted by publicity and how they force the spotlight onto themselves. The more egregious the crime, the more attention it gets. Ditto for terrorists. "If it bleeds, it leads."

  If there were no media hype for violent acts there could be no terrorism. How could there be terrorists if news were not sensationalized by corporations as desperate for gain as the most slavering thug? It should be impossible to communicate messages through violence. A newspaper with the slightest concern for the public interest would never blow up lurid crimes, it would publish only statistical breakdowns of the crime rate of every neighbourhood.

  What is more, many studies show that the very structure of modern electronic media makes them by nature into monopolies,

  "The BBC's Public Policy Report warns that new technologies create strong pressure `towards a broadcasting industry that is not competitive, but where audiences are fragmented yet ownership is concentrated. This is because high quality multimedia content is expensive to produce but relatively inexpensive to edit or to change, and trivially cheap to reproduce. It therefore has high fixed costs and low marginal costs -- the natural creators of monopolies.'" (Introducing Media Studies, Ziauddin Sardar, Icon Books, Cambridge, 2006, p. 170)

  It is, then, ridiculous to talk about "competition" as part of the mass media process. Do my eyes compete with your eyes? Does any organism farm out its sense organs to compete with other sense organs? No, that is why they are called organs, because they serve the organism. Same thing with the organs of mankind; they have to serve the whole first. This principle applies most of all to sense organs. The communications media cannot be allowed anywhere near profit.

  Here is an idea, not only ownership of the media should be open and non-exclusive, the material and data that it makes and uses should be open too. That is, if news is produced for general consumption at public expense, let the recorded material automatically go into the public domain, or at least into the creative commons. That way, the corruption of profit will be disinfected and completely expunged.

  That is why I believe that reporters should be the front line shock troops of the educational system. News organizations should be staffed and controlled by teachers and researchers, not shadowy tycoons with their apparatchiks and spin doctors.

  Any sort of lobbying, be it of government or the media, should be as illegal as theft. In fact, they are worse than thieves. A thief takes away you stuff, but lobbyists steal our collective mind. They poison public fora of thought and expression. This is surely a worse crime than absconding with mere possessions. Just as highway robbers are a thing of the past, so should anonymous, partisan pressure groups.

  Michael Creighton proposed that the funding of science be indirect. That is, instead of a perfume company or car manufacturer funding a study of its own, they would instead have to join with competitors in their industry to fund studies as a whole. A single car maker would have no choice but contribute to a single research fund benefitting the whole automobile industry (or, better still, all transportation companies). Research money would then be distributed to fund studies designed and run by objective, disinterested scientists. Thus all competitors would benefit from what science has to say about their specialty. This is to some extent already being done in strategic industries in some nations; for example forestry research in Finland is thus restricted, as we saw here on the Badi' Blog recently.

  Similar checks and protections could easily be built into news media, just like what Creighton suggested for scientific research.

  All possible expedients are needed to prevent direct pressure or what the Guardian called "mischievous manipulation." The process of assimilating opinion and values from all directions should be guided by responsible educators. The news agenda, formulated by doctors and teachers, would be influenced not by spin doctors but only by duly elected and appointed officials representing every area of expertise. For example, points of view about religious values would be put forward only by representatives of the world parliament of religions. No particular church, mosque or synagogue would be authorized to intrude upon the process.

  That way the agenda of the media would be as identical with the common interest as humanly possible. Science, education, business, politics and religion would all have legitimate, moderate influence, but they would have to put their ideas in a flexible, consultative, non-confrontational way. All sides would be able to contribute freely, in their own voice, but as part of a comity of human interest. The overall result of their coming together must be a unified point of view for all humans on the entire planet earth.

John Taylor



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're right about everything, except that Fox had no say in what Zapp Brannigan was going to say. You can read that right before the episode starts. "The content in this episode does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Fox and its partners; or something like that."