posted on January 22, 2002 03:10:24 AM new
A Sorry Excuse for News:
The Making of the Corporate Media
by Cheryl Seal
"News Chains" -- Literal and Euphemistic
About 30 years ago, after the nation emerged from the nasty pit that was the McCarthy era, the
news media was the nation's most effective guardian angel/watchdog, making sure that the other
so-called guardian angels/watchdogs -- the government, military and police -- did not slide too far
into corruption. The bad guys, like cockroaches, quivered at the idea of having "The News" put a
spotlight on them. Nixon, with all his multi-tentacled power, was no match for Woodward and
Bernstein. The corporate "Masters of War" (big defense contractors and oil companies with
vested interests in the Asian region), seeking to keep one of their most lucrative enterprises ever
going -- the Vietnam war -- were no match for the work of folks like Bruce Morton and Walter
Cronkite -- or even the photojournalists at Life Magazine, who made sure the nation saw the
faces of the boys killed month to month, in a silently eloquent photo spread.
Alas, the spotlight is no longer as motivating a threat, because now the bad guys control the
spotlight. Even if this horrendous conflict of interest didn't exist, the wheels of our bureaucracy
turn so slowly (mostly because so many people are competing to turn them in opposite directions)
and the powers that be are so devoted to "spin", that getting at the truth, even without active
opposition, is a monumental challenge. An effective, dedicated news media is our nation's only
hope for real "truth, justice and the American way." But, right now, instead of vigilant Clark Kents
and Lois Lanes manning the news desk, we have at the worst, minions of "The Joker" or, at the
very least, wimpy versions of Dilbert.
There are many reasons for the decline in the quality of journalism. I can break these into five
• The corporate model dictates that corporate yes-man types are more likely to
get jobs on the news desk that someone likely to be tough-minded, resourceful and
• The penalty for asking too many questions as a non-name (i.e. unprotected by
star status) journalist is death (career-wise, anyhow).
• Laziness: This is the most insidious, because it knocks out a huge block of
potentially competent journalists who, through sheer force of numbers could turn the
• Censorship from above. Many good stores are written everyday, then promptly
killed at the daily or weekly "editorial" meetings.
• Downsizing: Instead of cutting out fat at the top where it is most expendable,
news corporations routinely downsize the news room. Worse yet, downsizing is used
as an excuse to weed out the best journalists (those who ask too many good
Covering all of these things in the detail they deserve would require a book -- and I can
recommend one: Drive-by Journalism: the Assault on Your Need to Know, by veteran journalist
(for real!) Arthur ("Ted" Rowse. I think it says it all that Ted had a helluva time getting this book
published. In the end, a small but truly independent press in Maine took it: Common Courage
Press (very appropriately named). Read this book!!!!!
But I will try to give you a general outline of the sad state of affairs, starting with an overview of
just where the stories presented by most mainstream news outlets come from and how this
process has changed in recent years.
Back before the era of computer-disseminated news, newspapers, radio stations and television
networks relied on their own reporters and editors for the news. Almost all stories were written
"from scratch" by the staff, with a few syndicated features such as the "funnies" thrown in. Every
media outlet had its own personality and its own distinctive voice. Most communities with more
than one main intersection had more than one newspaper, most of them independently owned and
operated. The competition kept editors and writers on their toes. Whoever dug deepest and most
diligently got the best story -- and sold the most papers. Diligent reporters who asked tough
questions were generally prized. Advertisers were a consideration, but not the end-all-be-all. Some
fast-breaking major national stories and international stories came in through the "wire" from New
York or maybe even abroad and were used as a story framework, which could be developed
further in a feverish burst of activity by editors and writers, who would hit the phones and or the
road in search of additional "scooplets."
Today, there are almost no independent community newspapers left, no television station not
owned by a corporate conglomerate, and extremely few radio stations that maintain a news staff at
all. The only competition that remains between news media sources is for advertising dollars. Ever
wonder why the news on every TV station and in every newspaper seems to be the same? It's
because they are the same. Instead of teams of go-getter reporters and editors, news media relies
on stories coming in from the same sources. For newspapers, most stories are "pulled off the
wire" -- AP (the biggest), Reuters, or UPI (now owned, incredibly enough, by the Rev. Moon, an
avid Bush supporter). The only thing that varies is the placement of the stories in the paper (ie.,
which page), the type of headline used (which can spin a story one way or the other), and how
much of the story ends up being cut out by the copy-editors.
Ah, yes -- that's another interesting point: the lowly but outrageously powerful copy-editor. I
worked as as a part-time copy-editor at the Portland Press Herald one spring, and discovered that
copy-editors -- who could be part-timers with perhaps a great grasp of the English language but no
news background at all! -- routinely decide what part of a news story you will see. You are given
a story off the "wire" or from a staff reporter, and told how many inches the final version should
be. I've been given 50-inch stories loaded with vital information and told to crop it to 10 or 20 --
as if we were selling material by the pound, instead of as something having meaningful content!
I've also seen some results that would have been funny if they weren't so sadly indicative of the
inadequacy of modern news. For example, there was the time that a copy-editor was given a long
story about the ten candidates running for city offices and told to trim it by so many inches.
Taking the approach used by many copy-editors, he simply took all the extra inches off the end.
The next day, the phones were ringing off the hook because three of the candidates had been
trimmed right out of the story!
It used to be that once a day -- at least once or twice a week -- there would be a meeting of the
editorial staff, where the crew would hash over the candidate stories for that day/week. The
decisions were largely based on story quality, story importance, balancing coverage (not too much
or too little national news, not too much or too little human interest, etc.) and space constraints.
Once in a while, a really hot story would come along that required the review of the newspaper's
on-retainer legal folks (no one wants to be sued for liable if it can be avoided!). But by and large,
the editors made the decision based on the news and nothing (well, almost) but the news.
Everything began to change in the 1980s. Advertising space began to eat up more and more space
in the paper. A conscious decision was made across the industry to make stories shorters (which,
of course, usually means less informative). This was not just to accommodate more ad space,
either, as one might expect. Instead, most papers shifted to a much larger type face, shrinking
word count even more. Across the back of the Bangor Daily News room during this time was a
banner that proclaimed "write tight!" It was the dawn of the era of the shrinking sound -- and
word -- byte.
A whole new set of ground rules was laid down. Today, "editorial meetings" at big newspapers
and most smaller ones are dominated not by editors and writers but by the presence (actual or in
"memo" form) of people from advertising, from the corporate offices, from marketing. It isn't
anymore "is this story good, is it important?" It's "Does this story offend an advertiser? Does it
help protect the political interests of the corporate owner?" "Will it create the "right" climate in the
public's attitude." As the relationship among corporations and between corporate America and
Washington become more incestuous, the range of what sort of news material makes the final cut
into print has grown narrower and narrower. Worse yet, at some point in the not so distant past, a
line was crossed and instead of just suppressing news content, the corporate offices of the media
now actively direct the tone of the stories, and what it will and won't permit to see the light of day.
Anyone who knows the sorry state of affairs in the mainstream media was not surprised when
they heard about how CNN sent a directive to its news teams to not report the Afghan side of the
conflict. Nor did they raise an eyebrow when told that TV news teams across the country were
being forced to deliver scripted "my country right or wrong" lines during every newscast. It's all
part of corporate packaging. It is a glaring case in point that Bush did not hire a veteran journalist
or political expert to help him shape public perspective on the war: he hired an advertising agency
whiz whose foremost claim to fame was a successful ad campaign for Uncle Ben's instant rice.
Yep, even a war can be packaged. But, the fact remains that hidden within this little
red-white-and-blue package is a damn ugly "present." Bush is an oil/energy company man all the
way -- everything in his history, in his list of supporters, in his family background, in his activities
since being in office (the energy plan, for example) screams this as loudly as any headline. There
has been evidence all along, available to all news outlets, showing that Bush and his energy
buddies, including Ken Lay, have long been jockeying for position in Afghanistan, which sits atop
an estimated $3 trillion worth of oil reserves (not to mention its vast natural gas reserves). There is
hard proof that both Enron and Bush dealt extensively with the Taliban, trying to cut deals,
months before September 11. But all of this has been ignored by the media, just like the
euphemistic "elephant in the living room" ignored by the codependent family members of a
When war was declared on the Taliban, with the pretext of "getting Osama Bin Laden," it was of
course in the interests of corporate America to prosecute this war to the fullest, to encourage the
razing of every iota of infrastructure in Afghanistan and thereby clear the way for the U.S.
corporations who will make billions of dollars on rebuilding. The $270-billion in aid (U.S.
taxpayer dollars) pledged this week for rebuilding Afghanistan will be funneled right into the
pockets of U.S. corporations which will, like a swarm of carpetbaggers, descend on that
devastated country. (The same thing happened in East Timor, where the U.S. stood by in the late
1990s and allowed 80% of all structures in some towns to be leveled. Now U.S. companies are
cleaning up big time in the "rebuilding" game).
But does the press question any of this? Hardly. Instead, they read from scripts written for them
by their corporate puppeteers. I am stunned by the fact that every restriction placed on the media
seems to be accepted by editors and writers with bowed head and bended knee. Cheney won't
reveal the names on the energy list? Well, a few mild editorials, maybe. Military tribunals? Same
thing. The only thing that has seemed to cause a flicker of character in the media is the Enron
scandal -- and maybe it's only because so many editors and writers lost money on Enron stock!
Television news has sunk so far into a corner of the corporate pocket that it is indistinquishable
from the lint there. There isn't even any real attempt made any more to try to present real news.
Nearly everything you see now is cooked up to a lesser or greater extent in a corporate board
room. It is then packaged by the marketing folks, and sent down to the newsroom for a talking
head to spout. Any time public opinion starts to pull against the corporate leash, the stops are
pulled out. That's happening right now, in the wake of the Enron revelation, and the growing
realization that the war on terrorism is little more than history's most expensive corpolitical (a new
term to describe the chimeric beast created by the fusion of corporate America and the American
In response, network news has become so outrageous it is hilarious! Right now, as I type this,
CBS (Corporate #*!@ Seller) is on in the background, trotting out some Cold War relic with a
really bad toupee called Lippman, from American University, who claims that the pretzel incident
proves Bush is like Abraham Lincoln! Talk about trying to lower the common denominator to
make your boob-in-office look better -- choking on a pretzel is a sign of greatness! I hear that the
big focus on 60 Minutes tonight will be proving why most Americans really are for torturing
suspected terrorists. Now we're seeing some real energy! It must be taking more and more
creative footwork to find "people on the street" willing to spout the corporate line!
Radio is dominated by right-wing talk show hosts. Most people don't know this, but the right-wing
talk show was created during the 1935 presidential election by the Republican party to push their
candidate, Alf Landon. These "radio spots," as they were called then, supplied the public with a
steady stream of anti-FDR and anti-labor propaganda. In fact, just about every tactic the
right-wingers are using right now was originally developed during the 1930s. But instead of being
"spots," these turkeys are now given three- and four-hour daily slots to spew forth their venom.
While Associated Press and United Press International are (supposedly) run by mainsteam
newspeople, they are simply an arm of the corporate media cartel, with which the cartel feeds
itself. These "wire services" amount to centralized stables of writers who crank out stories that are
each day disseminated to every subscribing newspaper across the nation the same way that the
same old frozen burgers and fries are trucked daily to McDonald's franchises across the nation.
AP, which has what amounts to a monopoly on the news, now feeds stories to 1,500 newspapers
and 5,000 broadcast outlets in the U.S. Worldwide, AP serves 15,000 new organizations. All the
same news... all the time... everywhere. All of it tailored to the news corporations it ultimately
serves. Go up onto the AP site, and just try to find the names of the people on the board of
directors or even the newspapers they supposedly represent. You will find only one name -- Louis
Boccardi, CEO. So, almost every news outlet buys news from one source, run by people who are
not even listed on the corporate website, and thus whose connections are unknown? Sounds about
The scary thing is that there is no real oversight of news outlets. For example, on election night,
there was some question as to what role the news media played in making early election outcome
calls. Boccardi had to appear before Congress and testify -- he of course testified that AP behaved
in a manner above reproach. But who is going to say otherwise: the news? Har-har. However,
there are some distinct clues as to which way the wind blows at AP.
I talked to one young man last May who worked as an AP writer in New York, and asked him
why they had not covered the protests of Bush's election (and those which occurred afterward
around the nation) -- protests that were far larger and more vocal than any news outlet in the U.S.
portrayed. He told me that the writers are directed by their editors (who, of course, act on orders
from "above" not to cover protests and any other sort of activist event. I could not believe my
ears. Why not? "Um, well... they say that would be encouraging that sort of thing."
"That sort of thing"? Networks can show Osama Bin Laden "secret videos" night after night,
newspapers can print endless coverage of anthrax scares and the aftermath of 9/11, every media
outlet going can present endless lurid accounts of murders, rapes, pedophila and God knows what
other aberrations and that doesn't count as encouraging undesirable activity. But, showing 5,000
Americans turned out to protest an illegal election is "encouraging" something undesirable --
undesirable as in speaking out against injustice or showing how a community really feels about a
given situation. Polls sure as hell aren't an accurate meter anymore -- not since the media caught
on to how influential these "instant public opinion" surveys are. Now a new pro-Bush (and thus
pro-corporate) "poll" miraculously shows up within days of any negative coverage of the
administration. But then, if polls are now rigged, too, how else besides protests, rallies, and picket
lines is the American public supposed to make itself heard?
The answer: They aren't. They are supposed to go along with the program, and assume that
everyone else is going along with the program, too. The News -- as in Corporate America --
doesn't give a damn what Joe and Jill Public thinks or wants. It only wants their money.
posted on January 22, 2002 10:38:33 AM new"The only thing that has seemed to cause a flicker of character in the media is the Enron scandal -- and maybe it's only because so many editors and writers lost money on Enron stock!
Maybe that's the answer then: stop attacking politicians who are likely to to get squashed by the corporately-owned media and instead, focus our efforts on editors and writers.
You may argue, rightfully so, that there are no longer a lot of people writing in this forum. That the requirement for exposing your identification chased many away is a real causal factor, and the other is that only the dimmest-minded conservative/Bush supporter still is too blind to see that they are making a grave error.
Yet, I am willing to risk being arrested by Ashcroft and the Office of Homeland Security for speaking out about what's on my mind. You didn't really think that the OHS was created for any other purpose, did you? That after last summer on here in the RT, I can bet that AW felt the heat from outside sources. Hence: the requirement of exposing your identity to the authorities if you want to post anything on here.
But, as I said, that won't stop me. I can't speak for you, but for me, without Freedom and Liberty, there would be no point to living. I refuse to become a corporate lackey, or slave in any form. I refuse to give up a single right, no matter how mandated from Washington it may come. And since I and others have no Voice, except over the Internet -- such as AW's Round Table, I intend on continuing to scream, yell, and complain about the system.
But just because many refuse to reveal themselvews and participate directly is no rreason for us to give up. Just because we log back onto the RT and discover that no one has made a reply to a post that we make is no reason at all to stop. Realize that before the new requirements, the vast majority of readership of the RT were silent browsers and the debate that we created got around and we had quite a following. Please don't abandon them now!
A small group of protesters from a coalition of peace and justice groups march their banner in front of the White House in Washington Sunday, Jan. 20, 2002 moments before being arrested by police. The rally and march which begin at the Lincoln Memorial was organized by the DC Anti-War Network to protest the continued bombing in Afghanistan and attacks on civil liberties in the United States. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Roggenbrodt)
posted on January 22, 2002 06:03:26 PM new
Well, it's tough when you have to go to the Moscow Times to find out what's happening in America.
"Pretty clever, huh? And you thought he was too stupid to feed himself. Listen, Bush may not know how to operate a pretzel, but when it comes to lining elitist pockets with loot, that boy don't miss a trick."
posted on January 22, 2002 08:55:19 PM new
My dear chococake, one does not have to be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to get listed by the FBI! Nor do you have to plant explosive devices anywhere (SLA). While in the past you may have had to work hard to get noticed, the Office of Homeland Security was created for social agitators just like you and me. I'm sure that we're concidered "mild pests" in contrast to other more visible personalities who dare to speak out against this corrupt government of ours (Larry Flynt). But know that all of us who agitate the wrong folks end up on someone's List to be sure and until they come kicking in my door, I intend on being the biggest pain in their arse that I can be! Smart people were watching us this last year, enjoying what we wrote. We provided real news stories through links and discovery that has not been available in the mass media for some time and we had quite a following. If we had pushed a bit harder for a revolution back then, we would have ended up with a lot of volunteers! Right now, with so many that have left the RT -- lurkers included, that we can't give up! For every bit of light dampened with dispair brings us ALL just that much closer to total darkness. I think that if we go on as if nothing has changed, then those who read will drop in for a debate -- and we should make every effort to NOT chase them off. We can once again provide for many those things that they miss more now than ever and wether or not they make themselves known, you can be *SURE* that we have been appreciated! Right now, the RT is safe. But why keep it that way?
[ edited by Borillar on Jan 22, 2002 08:55 PM ]