Of all the systems in need of reconstruction, the public’s lens into the world around them should be at the top of the list.
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It appears our waking hours are dominated by the consumption of media.
A 2018 Nielsen Audience Report revealed that we spend an average of 11 hours a day consuming media in the U.S. According to a study conducted by global research company PQM, U.S. consumers spend an average of $1,345 per person each year on media, including legacy media (newspapers, magazines, television, and cable) and new media (streaming, mobile apps, and internet costs).
I am one of those people glued to a screen at all hours of the day. When gripped with insomnia this past week, I found myself once again staring at my mobile device, scrolling through Twitter, when I paused at this tweet by Sam Sanders, host of NPR’s It’s Been A Minute:
The most stinging truth of 2020 is seeing how unprepared the majority of newsrooms across the country are to adequately cover this moment. Whether for financial lack, or editorial misdirection, or antiquated views of what a journalist should be. Our industry is Just. Not. Ready.
— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) June 4, 2020
The most stinging truth of 2020 is seeing how unprepared the majority of newsrooms across the country are to adequately cover this moment. Whether for financial lack, or editor misdirection, or antiquated views of what a journalist should be. Our industry is Just. Not. Ready.
Cultivating a culturally competent, inclusive, and independent media can’t be some distant goal, it needs to happen right now. Our country is facing a global pandemic, economic fallout, nationwide #BlackLivesMatter protests, and the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes.
Compounded by the gravity of this moment, the media’s unpreparedness is as dangerous as a rhumba of rattlesnakes. We’ve been subjected to softball interviews conducted by Chuck Todd, Chris Cillizza, and George Stephanopoulos with Trump administration officials that normalize policies detrimental to the public. Less than two weeks ago, the New York Times has been under fire for publishing a reckless op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton advocating for a shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach to the national #BlackLivesMatter protests. In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, the Attorney General of the United States casually suggested in print that there could be rampant voter fraud during the fall stating, “there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in. And it’d be very hard to sort out what’s happening.” This was an attempt by Barr to assist Donald Trump in undermining the public’s confidence in the general election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there is a better chance of being struck by lightning than voter fraud occurring in this country. Barr leveraged the New York Times Magazine to craft a narrative that could lead to a legal challenge if Trump loses the election. The Attorney General’s putridly false assertion wasn’t countered by the reporter allowing the comment to hang in the air like a mildewed truth. That dangerous allegation was perfumed over by a sympathetic profile of AG Barr on the cover.
We cannot understate how vital a free press is at this very moment. Without it, not only will we be left uninformed, but democracy itself is at risk of collapse. But will we recognize the opportunity in this moment to strengthen what has always been broken in our democracy or further destabilize it? The toxicity of the Trump Administration, COVID-19, the economic meltdown, and the #BlackLivesMatter protests have exposed America’s fragile infrastructure and systemic inequities, but the mismanaged coverage of these events has exposed the media’s problematic architecture, one that is dominated by conglomerates that have a monopoly in one or more markets dictating control over the flow of information.
The idea that the media serves the public can be a misconception. As the old saying goes, which was first attributed to the artist Richard Serra in 1973, “It is the consumer who is consumed.” Or as privacy data expert Mark Weinstein stated about Facebook, “You as a user are not the customer. You are the product they sell.” In their foretelling work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Dr. Noam Chomsky make the case that the media is beholden to ownership which prioritizes profit. Herman and Chomsky go on to identify five filters the media goes through before it’s received by the public: Media ownership, advertisers, primary definers, flak, and manufactured enemy.
The manufacturing of media (entertainment, news programs, social media, etc.) is expensive and therefore there’s a reliance on advertisers. With regard to news programing, journalists depend on access to those in power which can encourage complicity. This complicity can lead to how news is primarily defined. Flak and division are very much a part of the Trump Administration and GOP playbook. Flak is a direct form of pressure put on the media by those in power when media stories are not advantageous to the image, profit, or position of those in power. This is where Donald Trump’s “Fake News’ comes in, it is a form of “flak.” The Republican Party and conservative business leaders have long used flak as a tactic to strong-arm their agenda and distort any opposition. Manufacturing an enemy, which Chomsky and Herman also refer to as “manufactured consent,” is a way for those in power to accomplish an objective that an audience would not ordinarily support.
In other words, to accomplish an objective, those in power manufacture a perceived enemy for an audience to rally against. Blaming Iraq for 9/11 was a way to manufacture an enemy and get Americans to rally behind invading a country that was blameless for the terror attack. Chomsky summarizes, “If you want to understand the way some system works, you look at its institutional structure. How is it organized, how is it controlled, how is it funded, and so on?”
Let’s scrutinize the biggest players in our current media ownership structure. Media ownership is dominated by conglomerates that have monopolies in one or more markets.
The biggest players in our current media ownership structure are also the largest advertisers in the United States. In 2018, the top three largest advertisers were Comcast ($6.12 billion), AT&T ($5.36 billion), and Amazon ($4.47 billion). To contextualize these numbers, traditional advertisers like Coca-Cola and Nike spent $913 Million and $1.4 Billion in 2018 respectively. Media companies are invested in keeping us, their product, focused on brand loyalty.
These media conglomerates influence everything from how we spend our money to how we vote.
Companies like Facebook, Walt Disney, and News Corp have digital tracking, pricing companies, and data brokers that are continuously collecting data on billions of us. Data brokers like Acxiom have up to 3,000 attributes, or data points, per person on over 700 million people in the United States and Europe. This can lead to price discrimination and ‘steering’ customers one way or the other depending on what type of computer they or using, which books they are buying, or what show you’re watching. This is digital redlining. You may think you are making your own choices when really these media conglomerates are constantly making or limiting your choices.
“Traditionally, one of the major arguments in favor of open markets was that they decentralize information, they distribute information and hence markets were democratic,” lawyer Lina Khan author of Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox stated on an episode of New America. “I think the way in which markets are moving today with these huge imbalances of power and imbalances of information and knowledge means that we’re actually moving away from a world in which markets are democratic.”
How did we get to the point where only a few media conglomerates, the majority of which are run by billionaire white males, came to own our data and dominate everything we see, hear, and read?
The blueprint was drafted almost 80 years ago.
An Empire of Privilege Sold as ‘Free Enterprise’
Beginning in March 1933 to 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a series of programs and projects under The New Deal that focused on getting America out of poverty and back to work.
While these programs did help some families (mostly white) during the war, this type of federal aid was viewed as a threat to corporate America, specifically advertisers. During the Depression, advertisers employed fierce advertising campaigns to gain dwindling clients with dwindling ad budgets. The New Deal package included policies designed to protect the consumer from these tactics rampant with false advertising and fear-mongering.
As soon as advertising agencies began to stabilize and regain profitable footing, they were faced with a new threat to their revenues: WWII.
On an evening in November 1941, hundreds of advertising executives traveled to Hot Springs, Virginia for a retreat. Like the rest of the country, they knew America was once again being drawn into a war which meant rationing and regulations. They viewed this as an existential threat to America’s system of free enterprise.
James W. Young, marketing guru and ad exec at J. Walter Thompson Company, walked to the podium and laid out a plan that would allow them to circumvent and profit from government regulations:
“We have within our hands the greatest aggregate means of mass education and persuasion the world has ever seen -— namely, the channels of advertising communication. We have power. Why do we not use it?”
The Advertising Council was founded shortly after that. The purpose of the council, author Kevin Michael Kruse stated in his book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, was “to classify its projects as acts of public service, but in truth they were acts of public relations to sell the American people on the merits of free enterprise.”
A year later, cooperation between advertisers, Hollywood, and the U.S. government led to the formation of the “Office of War Information” (OWI) in 1942. The OWI produced “Influence Campaigns” masquerading as informational newsreels once again under the guise of “public service.”
Being classified as a “public service” rewarded advertisers and businesses with generous tax deductions, a new public perception that a “free enterprise” meant not being “overburdened by taxes,” and they controlled the image and idea of America.
These American newsreels made sure to establish the narrative that the work women were doing during WWII was a stopgap until white men returned to take back those jobs. OWI deliberately sidelined the financial, labor, and artistic contributions of Black Americans, particularly Black women. To highlight Black Americans’ contributions during WWII would have disrupted the dominant narrative that white men singularly built our economy before and after WWII.
The Influence Campaigns that worked so well for big businesses and advertisers in the 1940s and 50s started to be questioned by the public in the 1960s and 70s.
The flourishing feminist and Civil Rights movements had begun to affect policy. Black Americans and women demanded an end to discrimination on the job and fair wages. The growing anti-war sentiment against the Vietnam War and a pro-environmental movement threatened big business with newly imposed regulations. Activist Ralph Nader had planted the seeds of a burgeoning Consumer Advocacy Movement which would hold business leaders accountable for faulty products.
On the evening of August 23, 1971, Future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote a memo that would be received as one of the most influential blueprints of how the Republican party, media, and corporate interests would operate over the next five decades. He was commissioned by his friend Eugene B. Sydnor Jr., the education director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to write a directive to counter what they saw as a growing threat to free enterprise in America.
Powell and Sydnor prepared their Flak. They acquired their own “experts” to push back against those they would cast as their enemies, the socialist-communist-leftist-ultra-liberal, who they perceived as having an anti-business sentiment.
Powell advocated in his 37-page memo step-by-step instructions to purge left-wing elements by “constant surveillance” of not only textbooks, but television content, media, literary journals, the arts and sciences, law schools, politicians, and universities. The next step would be to infiltrate those institutions and replace liberal ideas with ‘pro-business-anti-regulation’ ones.
The Powell Memo is largely credited for the proliferation of conservative think tanks. These think tanks began placing ‘experts’ across media, scholastic, and political networks to counter any narrative that could injure big business profit.
Thirty-one years and one month after marketing scion James W. Young gave a rousing speech on how advertising was going to promote their interests by latching themselves to big business, William Baroody, president of the American Enterprise Institute better known as AEI, a conservative think tank, stood on the exact same stage in Hot Springs, Virginia in October 1972 to deliver his speech titled “The Corporate Role in the Decade Ahead.”
Baroody agreed that the American people had become hostile toward big business and that there had been an “abdication of the corporate class.” To regain control, Baroody suggested the need to market pro-business ideas through the media. This approach, intentional or not, accelerated the formation of media conglomerates with a pro-business message (“free markets”) and conservative bent (“deregulation”).
Missing from Baroody’s speech and The Powell Memo was that large corporations had greatly benefited from subsidies, tax breaks, and defense contracts provided by the government while simultaneously fighting government policies like the New Deal that benefited the American public. Instead, what Baroody and Powell had outlined was a need to win the “war of ideas” to stay in power and maintain profitability. In order to win that war, they would need the majority of the public on their side.
Enter Roger Ailes, a media advisor and future co-founder of FOX News. Ailes understood that to win the “war of ideas” he needed to win over the public one household at time. In his 1972 memo entitled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” Ailes assured that this goal would be an easily attained:
“Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: people are lazy. With television you just sit – watch – listen. The thinking is done for you.”
Media deregulation by both Republicans and Democrats have added in hastening the formation of media conglomerates. When the Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949, it required broadcasters to give equal time to conservatives and liberals, or two sides of an issue that held public importance. President Ronald Reagan would eliminate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 in addition to extending television station licenses from three to five years, and expanded the number of television stations any one entity could own from seven to twelve. With the Fairness Doctrine a thing of the past, the road to Fox News and conservative talk radio was paved. President Bill Clinton accelerated media conglomerates in 1996 when he signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 eliminating the 40-station ownership cap and opened up media cross-ownership.
We can see within these media conglomerates that there is a healthy dose of cynicism and disrespect for us, the audience, or rather, their product. Legacy media is not prepared for this current moment because that was never the goal in the first place. Media ownership is not interested in public welfare over their own interests. Otherwise, they would not continue expanding their conglomerates and monopolies that control the flow of information we are or are not receiving. Media conglomerates have now made data harvesting the cornerstone of their business models. It’s a new way for them to manipulate us and discriminate against us.
If we’re going to have a conversation about dismantling systemic oppression, then we need to have an earnest conversation about media conglomerates. If we want a media to truly see that Black Lives have always mattered, then we need to have a robust, independent media that isn’t controlled by interests looking to commodify a social movement without making any substantial changes to their company’s infrastructure. Amazon might have a #BlackLivesMatter banner splashed across its Prime Video page, but they’re spending billions on advertisements without providing their employees, 26.5 percent of whom are Black, with living wages or safe working conditions during COVID.
If we’re going to examine institutions that have shown not to have our best interests in mind, like local governments that flood our drinking waters with lead, or police that execute us in public, then we must also look at media conglomerates that manufacture our consent. We need to admit that many of these institutions are functioning just as they were constructed: to put profit of wealthy white men above public health and safety. We need the will and the policy to dismantle these dangerous institutions.
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