What’s the Matter with Modern Media?
Just six corporations own 90 percent of all media in the U.S.: CBS, Disney, General Electric, News-Corp and Time Warner.
Media concentration are among the greatest yet most under-appreciated threats to a democratic republic. Lockstep coverage in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, after 9/11, is but one indication that media diversity has eroded beyond acceptable limits. A more recent example is the cookie-cutter fashion in which the crisis in Ukraine has been covered during 2014. “Press release journalism” is a term I coined to refer to messages that are widely disseminated yet inadequately scrutinized before they are passed on by gatekeepers because they are thought to have come from reliable sources within the White House, State Department and elsewhere. Complicating matters, the 24-hour news cycle and the instantaneous nature of social media has made it difficult for editors and producers to resist pressure to run with a source before it has been corroborated. This, in turn, has given rise to situations in which major media outlets give voice to what are later determined to be false or misleading sources — pranksters, even. Finally, the rise of new technology has cut into traditional revenue sources — be they newspapers, books, magazines or print advertisers — whereas efforts to reliably translate online page views into healthy bottom lines remains elusive. Taken together, these trends have diminished the capacity of the mainstream media to perform its essential public service as the Fourth Estate.
It can and should be asked: What happened?
There are many reasons, both technological and social, but at the root of mass media’s transformation lies the same phenomena that has transformed every industry in the United States: the rise of transnational corporate empires, which typically lack local identity, management and ownership. The Federal Communications Commission, The Federal Trade Commission and The Department of Justice sometimes object to mergers that allow corporations to extend their reach, but in recent decades merger mania has become the norm, most recently to include a mega-merger between Time Warner and Comcast.
Without bipartisan Clinton-era efforts to deregulate many industries — from banking to utilities, to media — the degree of ownership concentration and globalization we see today would not have been possible. Is this good for consumers? If product pricing is the only criteria, perhaps. But in media, particularly, the quality of service is rarely improved by efficiency aims alone. Diversity is a necessary component of useful, informative and honest dialog. The larger and more formulaic mass media becomes the greater the risk that a dwindling number of sources’ views and interpretations will be conveyed to a widening audience, conferring legitimacy to propagandists and pranksters alike. Only through a multiplicity of discrete voices and sources — robust competition — can media perform a valuable check-and-balance between what authorities and officials would have us believe and the personal and regional impacts of such actions and policies.
We live with a paradox: On the one hand, mainstream media has never been bigger and more powerful. On the other hand, the vacuum left by the disappearance of independent, locally-owned media have given rise to citizen journalists within the blogosphere who work, typically, with even fewer resources — remotely, without editors, fact checkers, primary sources and often with little to no compensation. Social media, meanwhile, perpetuates a grapevine of unheard of proportions. These trends may represent an advance as we come to appreciate ideas and perspectives that would not have seen the light of day otherwise. But it may not bode well for social cohesion in that it has become that much easier to spread misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy under a factual guise. At best the disparity between “Mega Media” and “Micro Media” confuses consumers. At worst, it makes us vulnerable: cautious consumers of niche news, segregated from outside views for fear no one can be trusted. In the end, however, the juxtaposition between formal and informal media may perpetuate public malaise — making it difficult to build the level of consensus necessary to achieve otherwise worthy social, economic and political goals.
What’s your take? Do you believe citizen/micro media and mainstream/mega media complement one another — or undermine one another?