"I believe democracy requires a 'sacred contract' between journalists and those who put their trust in us to tell them what we can about how the world really works" (Moyers, 2004). This essay examines the pro-corporate bias in media coverage as network journalism underreports corporate corruption, and analyzes how the 'sacred contract' has been violated by failures of the news media.
Any discussion of journalistic malfeasance must consider societal expectations and requirements with respect to media coverage. Over the course of time many thought leaders have sought to define the basis of a superior socio-political and economic system. Johnson's survey of social philosophy, Culture, Ideology, and Justice, (date) provides some insights into the structure of an ideal society. According to Johnson, there are five criteria that determine the essential structure of justice:
Whether persons should be self-governing or subservient to their betters?
How best to limit power: oligarchy or democracy?
Determining the basis for a just distribution of wealth: productivity, competition or policy?
How should freedom of conscience be expressed?
How to balance personal freedoms with the obligation to prevent harm to others: ideology, anarchy, and/or oligarchy?
If one gains widespread consensus on these cultural considerations, there still remain questions about how to implement this ideal. Should this society attempt to repair past mistakes? Is such repair possible, desirable, or advisable? Would a preferable approach involve simply learning from past mistakes, while applying the new principles going forward?
Certainly shortcomings that should not be repeated in the newly redefined society include the systemic failure of journalism to adequately report corporate corruption. There are a number of factors which led to current abuses of the system, factors which should be mitigated going forward. Vertical and horizontal integration create business relationships across media giants. As Johnson observes in The New Media Oligarchy (date), media outlets that should normally be engaged in healthy competition against one another are now partners with each other. Johnson argues that these partnerships ultimately stifle aggressive news coverage.
The global commercial-media system, according to Johnson, does not respect any tradition or custom if it stands in the way of profits. However, he points out "ultimately it is politically conservative because the media giants are significant beneficiaries of the current social structure around the world, and any upheaval in property or social relations -- particularly to the extent that it reduces the power of the business -- is not in their interest." This hyper-commercialism manifests in an implicit political bias in media content. Johnson cites a quote by Burt Neuborne, legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. What has changed in journalism as a result of consolidation "is not a question of misreporting. It's not a question of false reporting. It's a question of not reporting" (Johnson, date, p. 1).
A typical example of how the media deliberately exercises a pro-corporate bias is shown in coverage of the savings and loan scandals of the 80s. Patrick Bond comments in his article (1989): "The average taxpayer, curious to know how and why an estimated $1,000 per household will be handed to the Savings and loan industry, won't get much help from the news media…coverage of the S&L crisis has offered little analysis of how the multi-billion dollar boondoggle relates to broader economic questions…" Bond backs up his assertions with the following facts: When Ralph Nader put forward an alternate proposal to have the S&L bailout be funded by the rich who actually made money from risky S&L activities, Nader got no mention on the three nightly network news shows, and no coverage in the Washington Post or New York Times. When Jesse Jackson joined more than 100 organizations to launch an all-out attack on the S&L bailout, the Times and Post carried wire stories (3/3/89) with only six paragraphs of coverage (Bond, 1989).
Coverage of the Enron debacle was similarly minimal, until the company's flameout reached spectacular proportions. Forbes reporter Dan Ackman (2001) described how Enron was involved in barely understood activities, mostly under the rubric of trading energy, and reported its results in mysterious ways, but it announced larger and larger revenues with each passing quarter, without raising any alarms. New York Times reporter Edward Wyatt (2002) wrote that credit-rating agencies Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings saw signs of Enron's deteriorating finances at least five months prior to their warning investors. CBSNews.com features a story describing how an internal memo from accounting firm Arthur Andersen indicates their awareness of accounting irregularities as much as ten months before Enron's collapse (2008). What is troubling about all these reports is that companies who were tasked with monitoring Enron's financial health were derelict in their responsibilities because of financial motivations, which circumstances the media only belatedly reported.
The banking crisis of 2008-2009 also drew scant media coverage or government or regulatory intervention initially, even though the run-up to the crisis had been building for several years. According to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report (2011), the crisis was avoidable, the result of "human action and inaction…The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand, and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble" (p. xvii).
Similarly, Bernie Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme should have drawn more attention that it did before it reached scandalous proportions. (Oscar I don't see how Madoff is different; it's very similar to Enron in almost every aspect? What do you want to say here?)
There is an element of commonality throughout each of these debacles, a pro-corporate media bias in the amount and type of news coverage that the events received. As previously discussed, the size and scope of media conglomerates make it almost impossible that their journalistic efforts will not be compromised by conflict of interest. But there are even more fundamental issues to consider. In his essay Culture Industry as Dream Factory, Johnson again offers insights into the role that television plays in pop culture.
To begin with, consider that pop culture is an industry, and as with any industry, commodities -- in this case TV shows and movies -- are produced for sale in the marketplace. The profit motive drives the need for popularity, which in turn, drives producers to provide what customers want as opposed to what is good for them. And just as happens with any other producer of mass culture, culture industry producers have the same interest in controlling the market of ideas, with the result that the television industry is not likely to discredit its own image or values. Producers are not likely to insult their audiences or question the values they believe in most deeply. Culture industry products may contain a certain amount of challenge and surprise, but the purpose of entertainment is not so much to change one's values as it is to manipulate them (Johnson, date).
Johnson also notes that even though the commercialism of TV is widely acknowledged, its implications are often underestimated. It is generally assumed that TV is not so much about providing entertainment as selling products to viewers. However, Johnson points out that the real business of television is about selling audiences to advertisers. From the point-of-view of TV producers, it is the advertisers who are the consumers, who are paying for access to audiences.. This relationship affects the content of programming. Because the advertisers are paying the bills, they want audiences, specifically consuming audiences, which requirement constrains TV producers to only offer programming that will put audiences in a consuming frame of mind (Johnson, date).
Johnson further argues that the consuming frame of mind requires the ideal balance of engagement and deficiency, while avoiding the anti-consumptive extremes of complacency and profound alienation. He compares it to the ideal balance of seduction, asserting that entertainment should be stimulating enough to engage interest, but not so disturbing that it drives people away. Finally entertainment should not be so satisfying that it "cures" the need for more entertainment (Johnson, date).
Compare and contrast Bill Moyer's (2004) vision of the role of the journalist in today's society: to gather, weigh, organize, analyze, and present information people need to know in order to make sense of the world. Moyer argues that as merger followed merger, journalism has been driven further down the hierarchy of values in the huge conglomerates that dominate what we see, read, and hear. To feed the profit margins, Moyer asserts, journalism has been directed to other priorities than the news we need to know to keep our freedoms.
Moyer quotes statistics that show how well the redirection strategy has succeeded. He cites one study as reporting that the number of crime stories on the network news tripled over six years. He cites another study that reported that in 55 markets in 35 states, local news was dominated by crime and violence, triviality…