Like in politics, it always seems to take scandals to usher in media reform. And scandal, forever part of a formula driven by sensationalism that spark circulation and rating wars, is now a permanent part of the terrain as so many media outlets across so many platforms furiously compete against each other for market share and mind share.
As a general rule, most media prefer to stay out of the media so as not to call attention to their choices or techniques. As corporate entities, they prefer to fade into the background, except when they are promoting their programming or hyping their personalities.
While focusing on their news offerings, they want to remain invisible in the news lest their own agendas and profit maximising strategies become too public. But, sometimes, media practices cannot be contained internally, thanks to disgruntled former employees and whistleblowers.
When they go public, the public often turns on the press.
Freedom of press
In Britain, the mighty Murdoch Press found itself raked over coals of indignation when phone hacking practices at its most profitable newspaper were exposed. Outrage led to the News of The World being closed, while a criminal investigation resulted in convictions that involved top editors and members of the police establishment. It even forced the resignation of one of Rupert Murdoch’s sons who was revealed to have been less than truthful in a Parliamentary probe.
|Murdoch admits ‘cover-up’ over phone-hacking|
Later, as the Economist reported:
“An inquiry into media ethics (or lack of them) by Lord Justice Leveson has heard in excruciating detail how tabloid reporters and their sidekicks bullied, stole and cheated with impunity, while their bosses hobnobbed with police officers and politicians. The public is rightly fed up.”
At the end of November, Leveson issued a report, no less than 1,987 pages in length, focused mostly on abuses by the tabloids which quickly agreed to new rules to quiet the debate, even as David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister – once a very public friend of the Murdoch machine – distanced himself in the name of freedom of press.
Few in the press denied there were problems, but, true to form, they challenged the Judge’s proposals in the name of higher principles.
Explained the Economist:
“Lawmaking at speed is seldom sensible. It seems especially weird to demand rapid action when the alleged tabloid crimes that so annoyed the public – hacking phones, bribing policemen and so on – are already illegal.”
I would add that these practices were not news and have been accepted and practised as if they were legal for decades, certainly back to the days when I went to the London School of Economics on the edge of Fleet Street, then the Mecca of print journalism, where the clever headline was always valued more than ideas of substance.
This was the pre-hacking era when newsmen were, ironically, even then known as “hacks” – and few denied it.
Soon, it was clear that it was not just the sensational press that had troubles. The mighty BBC went through its own crippling scandal that felt like one of its own soap operas after charges that a popular host had abused children, and then, that a well-known investigative programme got its facts wrong.
Recently, a Royal hoax call led to the suicide of a nurse and trigged yet new charges of media irresponsibility. The duo radio hoaxers went into hiding because of the furor over their shtick.
“Across the pond”, in the US, as the British say, there’s more surveillance by the government than the media. The Murdoch interests and the Fox News Channel, known less for news than partisan political babble, would in any other country be considered a scandal in violation of news ethics. In the US, it is #1 thanks to clever packaging and its appeal to angry white men.
It is also in America where Fox’s fortunes will, it is rumoured, contribute to Murdoch acquiring yet new major media titles, like the LA Times, Chicago Tribune and even the Financial Times.
A slap on the company’s wrist for its criminal practice in Britain has not slowed its momentum globally.
Here, there are no new rules or regulations being proposed. Quite to contrary, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appointed by no less than Barack Obama, wants more deregulation and is proposing to lift rules that have limited broadcasters from “cross ownership”, that is, owning newspapers in communities they nominally already “serve”.
“Every media reform group is up in arms against proposals that they say will lead to more monopolies and media concentration.”
Every media reform group is up in arms against proposals that they say will lead to more monopolies and media concentration.
In the US, the media is all about the market. Notions of public service are antiquated and only paid lip service to. Media moguls have little accountability and even less transparency.
At the same time, public dissatisfaction with media practices grows as a majority of news consumers abandon old media for new. TV channels now fight even harder for eyeballs by dumbing it down even more.
Recently, when channels worldwide (including Al Jazeera) devoted hours and hours to recycling live and mostly perspective-free coverage of the shooting of elementary school children by a 20-year-old who grew up in a media environment saturated by violence, I only saw one angry comment on all the exploitative media pandering.
All Giordano, a veteran media writer and critic, posted what he labelled a “rant” on Facebook to indict the type of media coverage that dumbs us all down, but at the same time, seems beyond any reform remedies and missing from the discourse.
“Before television, there were guns. Were there schoolyard mass murders back then? I really don’t know. But I would guess they were not as frequent back before the mass media noise machine made every schoolyard shooter an instant media star. So is it the guns? Or is it the TV? I refuse to watch cable news coverage of crises that only serve to make an entire public hysterical and shrill. You want to do something about it and you don’t have a gun to throw away? Turn off the TV! And until you turn off the TV you really have no moral high ground to tell other people what to do. (End of rant.)”
Sadly, concerns like this have few media reformers behind them or media outlets willing to hear them. They would insist they are only giving the people what they want.
News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at newsdissector.net. His most recent books are Blogothon and Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He hosts a radio show on ProgressiveRadioNetwork (PRN.fm). Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter: @dissectorevents