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The mass media and their logic

1) The mass media, having increasingly become a business, sell information in more or less the same way as any company sells a product. Forget the responsibility-to-the-public part. The media produce the information they think we want to buy, whatever the cost. They do not answer to the public interest any more than a car manufacturer does.

2) The mass media are part of the global economy. They are businesses, disguised as independent public services. NBC is owned by General Electric, ABC by Disney, CBS by Viacom, CNN by AOL, AOL by Time Warner until it was spun off as its own company in 2009, and soon they will all change hands again.

3) Our media-soaked society gives less and less accurate information (cf. Laulan 1993). The larger the media company, the less the chances of conveying the truth, because the greater the concern for commercial interests.

4) All useful information has a cost. Like any other business, the mass media aim to keep these costs to a minimum. Long investigative reports demand considerable resources. Accidents, other peoples' miseries, are the only kind of information that is really free.

5) As citizens in an affluent society we need to know what is going on in the world around us. We look for this to the "news" (also called the "so-called news" because focus is not really on what is news, or in countries with strong public broadcasting channels, the "national messages" because the stories that are being told first of all have a national perspective, if not always only a national content). The problem is not that what is being conveyed as "news" is lies, but that the selection of what to include fails to answer our questions, because:

• we prefer entertainment to genuinely valuable information

• we are easily bored by in-depth explanations

• through increased commercialization of the mass media, pressure groups are able to influence the news agenda in their own interests.

When advertisers or donors reach a certain size they tend to want to control the way that media are run. This is no different from how election campaigns in many countries are run:

If you give a certain amount of money you get to dine with the president. If you give more, you might get to spend the night in the White House. If you "put him in office", you get to influence the political agenda - not officially, of course, but that hardly matters. You will be a "friend of the president".

6) The mass media provide information, without creating space for reflection. When we begin to let the mass media be our main source for knowledge of current affairs, we develop a passive and submissive attitude towards information-gathering, and ignore our duty to try to understand world events. This trend is increasing:

• we are reading less and less

• we prefer to listen and watch, so we have less spare time to think

• we are allowing ourselves to be conquered

• when in addition to that we lose our sense of history, this makes us wide open to manipulation.

7) Most mass media pursue the same story at a given time : the lead story. The person or institution which manages to set the choice of lead story controls the media focus that day, not only nationally, but internationally. This position is referred to as media dominance. When the media agenda for the day is set, all channels retail the same stories over and over again in what are called editions. Only a new day breaks the pattern. It is a 24-hour logic. The networks then try to turn the story into a serial which might last for several days.

8) Rule of thumb: if you are being attacked by the media you need to keep afloat for five days in order to survive indefinitely. That is the time limit for a serial follow-up.

9) It is the date, not events, which decides that news stories change. There are deep socio-psychological reasons for this. We have a sense that each day should have a story: in the same way as, when we meet someone, we feel that we ought to have something to tell or discuss that shows we know what is going on. ... But it is a practical issue too: reporters want to go home with a good conscience, knowing that they have covered the story of the day.

10) This is the first lesson of PR: "reporters just want to go home", so we will do their work for them. The second lesson of PR is "hire someone mean", someone who knows how reporters think. Do not hire an intellectual (=interested in ideas) or an academic (=interested in the truth).

11) Since we prefer using our eyes to using our rational abilities, a news reporter will be where the action is. He will be somewhere that enables him to give the impression of knowing what is going on - even if that is a hotel room in the next-door country (that is close enough). Reporters are happy when they can tell us what happened ("a bomb exploded killing 34 people"); they are seldom able to tell us why it happened.

12) We are all moved and terrified by death, so we are given it again and again every day. In reality it teaches us nothing. It is just horrible. Too many pictures of starving and helpless children, or suicide bombers, just increase our frustration and feelings of injustice. Because of this type of reportage, our fear of violence has grown far greater than the actual threat warrants.

13) Because the mass media, especially television, are the single most important means of molding public opinion, it is the political parties and the politicians with the most favorable media coverage who will win the election. All politicians know and accept that logic, even when they see that voters are losing interest in politics altogether. The development has jeopardized our democracies by making much of the electorate cynical.

14) For several decades now, the mass media have been in the hands of a few large private companies. The best way to win an election is to own the media, or at least to control it. Berlusconi knew this, and so does Putin. (If the public do not like what they see, or if the constitution does not permit you to continue as leader any longer, and you still want your country to look like a democracy, you set up a puppet in your place, someone like Medvedev or Reagan.)

15) The corporate domination of the media is a serious threat to many democracies today, notably the USA (cf. McChesney 2004), Italy, and Russia. The increase in mergers and acquisitions in the media industry has eliminated most individual, critical thinking in newsrooms and replaced it with compliance and market-research considerations.

16) The art is to make the news appear less commercial than it really is. The best advertisement is always the one which is not labeled "advertisement". Product placement is a good example.

17) Not merely political debates, but even wars are conducted by using the mass media. In crisis situations truth is less important. There are many good examples of this. The USA lied about the reason for going to war in Vietnam and Iraq.133 In the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we are not killing people, but terrorists. It is our elected leaders and their organizations who fabricate these lies: organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the US, or in Russia the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI).

18) A few years working in an intelligence organization will teach you to be a manipulator. You will lose whatever illusions you had about political ideals. Your job will be to hide, distort, and recreate the truth, to act as a "conjuror of realities". Many individuals lose their humanity in this process.

19) America has been attacked twice by outside forces in its history. On both occasions, none of the intelligence organizations were much help. The CIA was created to prevent a second Pearl Harbor. As such it failed to fulfill its sole mission. Some say it was Mission Impossible, others say that intelligence was available about was about to happen.

20) Because the CIA was afraid that George W. Bush would want to attack Iran during his last months in office, they stuck their necks out and denied that Iran had nuclear weapons capabilities. This was a pre-emptive strategy directed against the White House administration, intended to prevent their organization from being tricked by their employer a second time.

21) After the Vietnam War it was decided that reporters should not be allowed to witness warfare in future. Nowadays the press is assembled in hotels, where they are given information at so-called briefings, or they are "embedded", meaning that they voluntarily accept censorship. ... But a new kind of leakage has emerged: soldiers are recording their own atrocities on web cams and uploading them to the Internet. Or they send secret material to sites such as Wikileaks. These are real nightmares for our military commanders; they potentially pose greater danger than enemy attacks.

22) The records of the world's other intelligence agencies are not much better. The KGB did not foresee the fall of the Communist bloc. That even took Put in, as a KGB officer in East Germany, completely by surprise. He had even problems getting out of that country and back home to Leningrad.

23) Some countries have a more independent press. The French press has relatively little influence on the political agenda as compared to the press in English-speaking countries. Consequently the ownership of the French press changes hands more often, as in the case of Le Figaro.

24) The Canard Enchaîné receives most of its information from highly-placed officials in the French bureaucracy. It functions as a ventilator, or a laundry service for information. Everything is bought: documents, telephone conversations. "C'est un espace de poubelle qui tourne gentillement". The Drudge Report is a sensationalist, online-only version of the same idea.

25) Only the printed press has lasting influence on our thinking. The influence of local newspapers is often underestimated. The influence of television is mostly short-term. But public opinion is easily controlled through radio and television. No one knows better how to exploit this chain of influence than special.

Figure 5: Political influence through interest groups

Political influence through interest groups

To explain: interest groups place information in the press. The press has influence on peoples' opinions; and politicians pay attention to the public. The fast version: you pay the politicians off directly. That saves a lot of time. It is currently the American political way.

26) Whoever controls a media channel has influence over a certain set of people, a particular segment of influential readers. For instance, if you want to communicate with businesspeople internationally, you reach them through the Financial Times (UK), the Economist (UK), the Wall Street Journal (US), Handelsblatt (Germany), or Dagens Industri (Sweden). Via CNN you can reach the international businessman while he is lying in his hotel bed. Every channel has its audience segment and its price. Persuasion is largely a question of funds.

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