News Media Stifle Ideas and Debate
Democracy's Oxygen: How Corporations Control the News
Reviewed by Barrie Zwicker
Media critic James Winter has heard it all. His earlier book, Common Cents, Media Portrayal of the Gulf War and Other Events, cites particular case histories of severely biased Canadian mainstream coverage. There's a chapter each on the "free trade" debate, Meech Lake, Oka and the election of Ontario's first NDP government ("The Socialist Hordes").
The cases are so exhaustively proven (the Gulf War chapter alone provides 242 footnotes) that apologists for the journalistic status quo were hard pressed to refute a single one. But that left available the claim that proving bias in five big stories doesn't constitute an indictment of the general performance of the mainstream media.
In Democracy's Oxygen, How Corporations Control the News Winter makes the general indictment and expands the list of cases. "We endure a daily barrage of one-dimensional views on issues whose narrow presentation stands in direct contrast to their importance in our lives," he writes. "A partial list would include free trade, globalization, deregulation, rationalization, NDP governments, Native Canadian rights, Constitutional questions, wars, mechanization and technology, the information superhighway, public debt, disparity, poverty, privatization and public ownership, the Mexican Peso devaluation and bailout, the U.S. $500-billion Savings and Loan public bailout, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, Cuba, Vietnam and Robert McNamara's memoirs, the Chechnyan 'rebellion,' etc. The Media Think version of these issues bears little or no resemblance to reality."
He assembles a list of 54 "Media Think Truisms." The first is "That which governs least, governs best. The unfettered free market system is the fairest and best guiding principle." The second is "Public ownership such as crown corporations is wasteful and inefficient, serving no real useful purpose."
Number 13 is "Job losses under globalization are a temporary thing, during a period of restructuring. Eventually, better paying, high tech jobs will be available for everyone." Number 14 is "It's not yet clear what these jobs are, how to train people for them, or who will offer the jobs. These are mysteries."
The final truism is "The news media are independent, socially responsible watchdogs who look out for the public interest." Winter concludes: "In my view, each and every one of these 'truisms' is patently false, with the sole exception of number 14."
In his view also, but not in his alone, we enjoy only an illusion of properly informed public debate. Increasing concentration of media ownership of the media by increasingly rightwing proprietors is narrowing true debate. The lack of persuasive, repetitive expression of alternative policies is undermining democracy itself, Winter warns.
While Common Cents focuses on distortion of stories printed and broadcast, Democracy's Oxygen focuses on the "why" of the distortion, on ownership's impact on content and the owners' influence at the highest levels of government and society. In chapters such as "The Black Market" and "Paul Desmarais and Power," Winter spells out the coziness between these moguls and both Liberal and Conservative Prime Ministers. Can Reform be far behind?
Winter observes that the system for financing political campaigns gives a powerful edge to the wealthiest and that this does not have to be the case. He suggests stricter limits on campaign contributions and spending a system of proportional representation. He agrees with Reform on the need for a mechanism for constituents to recall their elected representative "if that person no longer protects their interests."
Winter concludes that the struggle for greater diversity in media and the struggle for a more truly representative political system are equally important. The achievement of either one without the other would be doomed to failure, he suggests.
Winter, an associate communications professor at the University of Windsor, is an activist academic. He wrote Democracy's Oxygen "for the public, (for) all the so-called 'special interest groups' who make up the vast majority of our nation."
The book is not an attack on journalists. " many journalists are hard working and well-intentioned. They are, however, severely handicapped by the system which surrounds them and by the conventional norms of journalism. As I demonstrate in interviews with journalists, editors and publishers, the constraints on journalists are tightening rather than loosening."
The result according to Winter is that "Far from providing democracy's oxygen, as they claim, the news media today legitimize a fundamentally undemocratic system. Instead of keeping the public informed, they manufacture public consent for policies which favour their owners: the corporate elite."
Winter is not alone in his warnings, so his book could be faulted for lack of originality. But the combination of his deep desire for fundamental political and media reforms, and his relentless examples backed up by facts, figures and quotations, makes his a distinct voice at a distinct intersection.
At some point, each of us may combine our own observations (such
as the steady downward trend in the percentage of eligible voters
who actually cast ballots) with the warnings of Winter or some other
social critic, and suddenly feel the crisis of democracy and the
media in our gut. That is what Winter wants. The sooner that happens
the sooner we'll stop the rot and turn toward truer democracy and
greater diversity of debate in this country.
This article was originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Sources.
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