Big Media: Friend or Foe of Democracy?
By Jonathan Frank
Tuesday, America’s traditional polling day had come and gone. By Thursday, Trump supporters who saw ‘the Donald’ leading in votes were surprised to see Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, score massive leads almost overnight. And almost instantly, America’s Media giants (and the world’s) and global press agencies were declaring Biden the winner of the US Presidential race.
Some of us who are used to seeing the Election Commission officially declaring election winners here in Sri Lanka were taken aback. We’ve known of the liberal Media’s influential power in America, but do they have the power to declare a winner of a democratic poll? And to add to that, COVID-19 had apparently “disappeared” in the States since Biden’s win as many Democrats were seen celebrating the victory with no apparent social distancing in many cities; the same people who cried foul (and the Media with them) when Trump supporters in middle America demanded that the country be kept open for economic reasons.
But Media biases are not limited to just America (although being the textbook example). Certainly the American-style 24-hour barrage of programming is found in many countries across the globe. India for example has been offering cable shows for quite some time. Now Sri Lanka also has stations with round the clock news coverage in the same aesthetic of CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera.
Sri Lanka’s wide use of the internet and smartphones also means easier access to constant media cacophony. Though this means that more people can stay abreast with the news happening around them, who is to guarantee if news sources are legitimate or if reporting is one-sided? Some say that fact checkers are the solution to counter “fake-news” or “alternative facts”. However, a 2020 study published in the Utah Law Review stated that there are troubling false equivalency developments within the wider fact-checking community and, more importantly, there is a concerted attack on fact-checking credibility through the creation of imposter fact-checking sites.
Joseph Goebbels and Edward Bernays laid the groundwork for modern political propaganda and public relations (PR) respectively and nothing was the same ever again. Both the Soviets and the Americans mastered the tactics of ideological warfare following World War II and used the Media as its prodigious vehicle to spread their messages. But it was the West who was the one who came on top thanks to the near limitless creative incentive provided by free enterprise. Big brands became household names and by the end of the twentieth century the Western media had seamlessly blended entertainment and consumer culture.
Now, you see corporate brands siding with or jumping on whatever political bandwagon in a bid to increase sales; in America’s case it is more on the side of the progressive political agenda. We saw brands such as Apple and Nike supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) recently after it gained global traction following the spate of high profile killings of African Americans in the United States by White Police officers. What was glossed over is the fact that Apple’s and Nike’s history of using sweatshops in third world countries that have little to less labour protection laws and are host to human rights violations.
So, we have big companies endorsing BLM who want Blacks be compensated for historic injustices such as slavery and Jim Crow, all the while getting their Tennis Shoes and iPhones made by hapless Asians in slave-like conditions; ironic! However, it’s not that your average cable channel doesn’t report what’s going on in sweatshops in the third world, in fact there are enough Op-eds and documentaries made about that stuff that can fill libraries.
No, it’s what the Media chooses to give more air time to, what topics it will mostly endow and which issues that the army of PR, social media influencers, “fact-checkers” and creative resources are allocated to, that decides the day’s ‘hot topic’. Added the constant media barrage we are subjected to a daily basis, and the issue becomes very concerning. Marketing experts say that on average we are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ads every day. While all the famous quotations about a free Media being essential to a democracy can be weighed on one side, one who is discerning cannot mask the unmistakable stench of agenda present in the modern media.
Moreover, the internet has also been completely taken over by political and corporate interests. In the early 2000s the internet was seen as a haven for free speech and political dissent and was a refuge from the vapid neo-liberal and neo-conservative eras of Bush and Clinton; providing a launch pad for a generation yearning for something much more. Social Media sites like Facebook and YouTube, in their infancy created a public forum for free expression of ideas like never before.
But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Like the Press and broadcast Media before it, Social Media succumbed to incoming advertisers, PR agents and host of other political carpetbaggers and completely merged with the growing Big-Tech industry holding court in Silicon Valley. Like Big-Media, Big Tech soon become a toy of the elite and was used in all kinds of nefarious operations; even going so far to undermining democracy. One example is the infamous Cambridge Analytic scandal that used social media user data to influence the US Presidential election in 2016.
It’s no doubt that news that we receive is tainted some way or another given the fact that most of what we see as Media are owned and swayed by political and corporate interests. In this case, the rule of thumb is this quote attributed to George Orwell “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed, everything else is public relations”; something to think about.