MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media

 June 13, 2002

 THE MAD MULLAHS OF THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA Corporate Law, Capitalist Fundamentalism and the Media


 Prologue - When Lies Are Killing People, Liars Must Be Exposed


As democracy and freedom continue to melt away beneath the withering  heat of state-corporate power, it becomes ever more difficult to tell the  truth. We live in an age when critical thought, honest dissent, speaking out  against absurdity, are rarely experienced by the public. This gives the  impression of a bland but civilised consensus, where in fact are found only  stifling power, cynical silence, selfish compromise, and unthinking conformity.


In these conditions, dissent comes to seem frightening and strange - we  have a sense of what is supposed to be said, supposed to be believed, of  what is expected of us, and we fear isolation from the safety of the herd. The collapse of honesty is such that even 'radicals' live in dread that  they might alienate the media gatekeepers whom they foolishly believe will somehow help them undermine the gatekeepers' own corrupt values,  interests and positions. Many of us have been persuaded that cooperating with  power is the only way to progressively enlighten and humanise power. We believe  that entering a dark room with the profoundly self-deceived is the best way  to increase the light.


This brings to mind the story of the Sufi figure, Mullah Nasruddin. One night some of Nasruddin's friends found him crawling around on his  hands and knees searching for something beneath a lamp-post. When they asked him  what he was looking for, he told them that he had lost the key to his house.  They all got down to help him look, but without success. Finally, one of  them asked Nasruddin where exactly he had lost the key. Nasruddin replied,  "In the house." "Then why," his friends asked, "are you looking under the lamp-post?" Nasruddin replied, "Because there's more light here." (Quoted, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking The Heart of Wisdom, 1987, p.95)


Working with systems born of unrestrained greed to undermine greed is  like looking beneath the lamp-post - it feels like there is more light  there, more power. But in fact the key to resisting selfish power is found elsewhere - in compassion, in selfless concern for others, in honesty  and courage. All the qualities that are filtered out by power.


When lies are killing people, liars +must+ be exposed. Even the most compassionate and peaceful traditions support vigorous opposition to  lies. An ancient sage of the Buddhist tradition notes of the truly spiritual individual:


"He will slander an unwholesome adviser of a person, and use harsh,  severe words to move someone from unwholesome to wholesome action." (Quoted,  Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.139)


 Corporate Fundamentalism And The Media


The term 'fundamentalism', or "strict maintenance of ancient or  fundamental doctrines" (Oxford Concise Dictionary), is generally used in connection  with belief systems deemed fanatical, intolerant, irrational and brutal.  Nothing could fit the bill better than the corporate system, the corporate  media included. This we learn from Robert Hinkley, who spent 23 years as a corporate securities attorney advising large corporations on securities offerings and mergers and acquisitions.


In his article, 'How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility',  Hinkley explains how every jurisdiction where corporations operate has its own  law of corporate governance. But, remarkably, the corporate design  contained in hundreds of corporate laws throughout the world is nearly identical.  This is it:


"...the directors and officers of a corporation shall exercise their  powers and discharge their duties with a view to the interests of the  corporation and of the shareholders....


Although the wording of this provision differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, Hinkley writes, its legal effect does not:


"This provision is the motive behind all corporate actions everywhere  in the world. Distilled to its essence, it says that the people who run corporations have a legal duty to shareholders, and that duty is to  make money. Failing this duty can leave directors and officers open to being  sued by shareholders.


"Corporate law thus casts ethical and social concerns as irrelevant, or  as stumbling blocks to the corporation's fundamental mandate. That's the  effect the law has inside the corporation. Outside the corporation the effect  is more devastating. It is the law that leads corporations to actively disregard harm to all interests other than those of shareholders.


"When toxic chemicals are spilled, forests destroyed, employees left in poverty, or communities devastated through plant shutdowns,  corporations view these as unimportant side effects outside their area of concern.  But when the company's stock price dips, that's a disaster. The reason is  that, in our legal framework, a low stock price leaves a company vulnerable  to takeover or means the CEO's job could be at risk. In the end, the  natural result is that corporate bottom line goes up, and the state of the  public good goes down. This is called privatising the gain and externalising  the cost." (Hinkley, 'How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility', January/February 2002 issue of Business Ethics: Corporate Social Responsibility Report How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility  A Corporate Attorney Proposes a 'Code for Corporate Citizenship' in State Law - see articles section


It is also called fundamentalism.


The media are businesses run by managers who "shall exercise their  powers and discharge their duties with a view to the interests of the  corporation and of the shareholders". 'Serious' broadsheets are such companies, and  are dependent for 75% of their income on other companies, advertisers, also  run by managers who "shall exercise their powers and discharge their  duties" in the agreed way. The media are also deeply embedded in the wider  corporate system as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky explain in their classic work  on the subject, Manufacturing Consent:


"In essence, the private media are major corporations selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers). The national media typically target and serve elite opinion, groups that, on the one hand, provide an optimal 'profile' for advertising purposes, and, on  the other hand, play a role in decision-making in the private and public spheres. The national media would be failing to meet their elite  audiences' needs if they did not present a tolerably realistic portrayal of the  world. But their 'societal purpose' also requires that the media's  interpretation of the world reflect the interests and concerns of the sellers, buyers,  and the governmental and private institutions dominated by these groups." (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent - The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon, 1988, p.303)


Within the media, taking the freedom of the press for granted is an important entry requirement for those who "exercise their powers and discharge their duties" in the expected manner. Declaring that the  'free press' is a lie does not "serve the interests of the corporation and of  the shareholders", because it erodes the credibility of the media  corporation itself (damaging credibility with the public, advertiser support and,  so, profits). It also threatens wider corporate control of society by  revealing precisely the facts and crimes of corporate control filtered out by the media. For the corporate media to tell the truth about itself involves undermining its own position as an individual corporation and as part  of a corporate system that is also thereby undermined.


The ugly truth about the media, then, is in a sense subject to a de  facto legal ban in a corporate media system legally obliged to serve the "interests of the corporation and of the shareholders".


Speaking recently at The British Academy Television Awards, culture secretary Tessa Jowell described how, "talented, courageous teams of reporters, producers and technical staff have brought us the news that  we need to know... 2001 showed the task gets no easier, the expectations  get higher, yet the standards still rise." (Jowell, The British Academy Television Awards, ITV, April 22, 2002)


Jowell's speech came two days before the Guardian devoted just 275  words on page 11 - sandwiched, appropriately enough, between two large adverts -  to the news that British newspapers are "the least trusted in Europe".  Research conducted by Eurobarometer, the polling arm of the European Commission, found that British papers were trusted by 20% of the population - less  than half the European Union average of 46%. Fully 75% said they "tended not  to trust" the written press. The next worst result was Italy - where the  media is dominated by billionaire prime minister Silvio Berlusconi - where  trust was 39%. (Ian Black, 'British newspapers are "the least trusted in  Europe"', the Guardian, April 24, 2002)


Much the same is true of the US media. A survey commissioned by the  American Society of Newspaper Editors, showed that 78% of readers surveyed  "thought the press was either not open-minded and neutral about facts, or  pursued an agenda and shaped the news to report it." 78% also said that "powerful people or organisations can shape or kill a story. The most frequently  cited groups to wield such influence were politicians and government  officials, big business and rich individuals".


Overall 73% said they had "become more sceptical about the accuracy of news". More than half of all those surveyed believed the press to be  out of touch with its readers. "In many ways - educational attainment, income, circle of friends and working hours - many journalists are in a  different class [to average Americans]," the study said. (Edward Helmore, 'Get it right and make it fair, readers tell reporters', the Guardian, January,  4, 1999)


The media is inextricably linked to the wider corporate system in many ways - for example, by its dependence on advertising. Roy Greenslade described how most media owners, "have been disproportionately reliant  on ad revenue..." (Roy Greenslade, 'Oh no, sales are up...' the Guardian,  October 15, 2001)


Writing in the Observer in 2001, Richard Ingrams noted that The Daily Telegraph had lost 100,000 readers over the previous year, adding:


"No doubt this alarming fall explains a recent meeting between  Telegraph executives and advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, at which the  admen attacked the poor old Telegraph editor Charles Moore for his outdated  Little England attitudes couple with homophobia." (Richard Ingrams's week, the Observer, November 4, 2001)


The consequences of a stock market-shaking disaster like September 11  are dire for a media so dependent on advertising. In the Guardian, Emily  Bell described how "For the advertising-based media industry, the current recession is best characterised as abyss-shaped. Almost from nowhere,  the ground has opened up under our feet and swallowed businesses, jobs, TV channels and magazines... The Independent on Sunday axed five  journalists. IPCC, the magazine company, axed six titles and 115 staff in one fell  swoop." (Emily Bell, 'Staring into the abyss',  Guardian, November,  19, 2001)


In the aftermath of September 11, journalists liked to present  themselves as independent voices of reason, caution and restraint. In fact they were spokespeople for an industry in desperate need of a rapid and decisive response to the threat of terrorism to calm the nerves of the stock  market and of advertisers. Peter Preston pointed in the direction of the truth  in the Observer:


"When the Times - and it is by no means alone - wants something  decisive done on the ground before 'the winter blizzards set in', something 'to  show that the US genuinely means to fight and win', it also wants a  resolution that will set advertising flowing again and slash the coverage costs.  When it excoriates the 'long-haul' thesis, it inevitably has the full price  of 'waiting till next spring' somewhere in mind." (Peter Preston, 'Too  much jaw-jaw on war-war - Colin Powell may be talking about a 'long haul',  but the media has neither the stomach nor finances for a protracted  campaign,' the Observer, October 21, 2001)


Just three weeks after September 11, a BBC news reporter said:


"The time for talking is drawing to a close and the time for acting is approaching." (BBC 1 O'Clock news, October 4, 2001)


In the United States, media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reported a similarly gung-ho approach. FAIR counted a total of  44 columns in the New York Times and Washington Post (the two national US papers) that clearly stressed a military response, against only two  columns stressing non-military solutions. Overall, the Post was more  militaristic, running at least 32 columns favouring military action, compared to 12  in the Times. But the Post also provided the only two columns in the first  three weeks after September 11 that argued for non-military responses; the  Times had no such columns. (FAIR, ACTION ALERT: Op-Ed Echo Chamber: 'Little  space for dissent to the military line', November 2, 2001)