Western Media Freedom is a Myth

Analytical Feature - December 2003

bio curriculum vitae writing portfolio links home

“Media freedom in the developed West is a myth. Editors can only write what they like because the owners of the media organisations that employ them like what they write.” This remark by journalism professor William Boot at a seminar Thursday caused no known flap with any of the students. Only a computer hum sounded when he opened the floor to challenges.

At a glance this argument holds water but the absolutism of this statement is its damning flaw. This all-encompassing view of such a broad landscape allows for no exceptions and oversimplifies the dissemination of information in the countries we can assume Boot puts in the category “developed West”.

Arguments of impending or present disenfranchisement get forwarded frequently by left-wingers. Adbusters’ various media campaigns and its very existence hinge upon this concept just as Deep Dish TV’s does. It’s not unusual then that an academic forward a statement such as Boot’s or that journalism students don’t challenge the idea that media freedom has already seen its Judgment Day in the setting sun of the developed West.

To challenge this idea of all media being a corporate lap dog, let’s examine the type of press that prints statements analogous to Professor Boot’s. His blanket remark weighs little with consideration of the vast dissemination of alternative or non-mainstream media. In addition, let’s look over that great poison that’s led to media freedom’s death: money. And finally, where else does information come from that doesn’t filter through those subhuman creatures known as news editors? For this examination, the focus will be on North America specifically, and will not tackle the entire “developed West”. Also, this analysis considers that the “owners of the media organisations” to which Boot refers are powerful multinationals such as GE with strong political ties and not individuals that run weblogs.

“Because my country has sold its soul to corporate power. Because consumerism has become our national religion. Because we’ve forgotten the true meaning of freedom. And because patriotism now means agreeing with the president. I pledge to do my duty and take my country back.” was a commercial aired on CNN in September by Adbusters Media Foundation.

Adbusters makes a good deal of hoopla on their website about this 30-second commercial being rejected by CBS, MTV, Fox and a number of other stations, but the importance is that the ad is a more aggressive, proactive claim congruent to Boot’s remark and that it aired nationally during CNN primetime. This ad undoubtedly reached a large audience who were busy viewing that mythical media freedom Boot speaks of on a major network. The only edits to the ad came from the left-leaning Adbusters Media Foundation who paid for the time slot. As stated earlier, there is a mass of media entities such as Independent World Television, Deep Dish TV, Adbusters, and popular magazines such as The Nation that constantly focus on disproving “infotainment-ized media” and putting counter-spin on political discourse. Adbusters and The Nation operate through websites, magazine and book publications, the latter through radio programs and the prior to a series of campaigns for its readers. H.L. Mencken stated that, “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” There are plenty of “presses” out there whose operation does not coincide with a concept that media freedom is a myth and these are not minute, impoverished publications.

While it is true that major corporations like GE and Westinghouse have gobbled up as many media outlets as possible, so has the emergence of new technology democratized information. The internet is the best example to illustrate the broad expanse of information published by and accessible to the developed West. The rising popularity of weblogs is the best place to start with this argument. Many “bloggers” run their sites independently, have no editor and have no commercial funding. Look at Salam Pax (http://dearraed.blogspot.com/). There are websites that also run internet radio shows such as radioleft.com which operate on the sales of their own publications and from donations. Boot would be safe to argue that the “editors can only write what they like because” the media owners like what they write since the owners of these media organizations are the individuals who run them, but this is because the owners and the editors are the same person. A hunch says that that wasn’t what Boot meant by “the media owners” though.

It’s foolish to argue that the economic structures of Western countries don’t create intense competition. However, many alternative papers such as The Village Voice or The Stranger, found in any decent-sized city or college town across the United States, need not worry about angering advertisers to the same degree as The New York Times. The reason being that the alternative papers operate under a different pretext as the majors. True that these alternative presses still have to consider who they’ll piss off with an inflammatory article (sources, advertisers, readers), but if Boot wants to argue that the Los Angeles Times and Creative Loafing can publish with equal discretion, the only place that debate would lead is to the semantics of the word “freedom”.

Money talks. A hackneyed cliché, but logic simplified enough to maybe underline Boot’s rationale. Let’s look at a medium that’s had a major popularity boost thanks to the likes of Errol Morris and Michael Moore: the documentary. PBS and all the major film festivals in the United States screen these world examinations on film to millions of viewers. If Boot argues that “editors can only write what they like because the owners of the media organisations that employ them like what they write,” in regards to the independent documentary (which is not necessarily a small budget), then Boot should check the funding sources for these productions. Austin Film Society, Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, Soros Justice Fellowship, Playboy Magazine, P.O.V., and the Chicago Underground Film Fund, just to name a few, are organizations that grant $100 up to five figures to productions of every imaginable subject. The expenditures of these funds have to be reported in many cases, but the use of funds is typically at the discretion of the producer. So the various foundations employ documentarians through grants and those employees have the responsibility to create the product that they proposed to the foundation. If this is not media freedom, I’m all ears for a clearer definition.

Finally, the pretext under which a publication operates has already been discussed. There are more extreme information sources than alternative papers that might not be considered news, but nevertheless report on all sorts of issues, are consumed by millions and don’t filter through typical news editors if any editor at all. Some examples are magazines such as Screw, Playboy, Vanity Fair, programs like Politically Incorrect, The Daily Show, and stand-up performances by the likes of David Cross and Lewis Black.

“Media freedom in the developed West is a myth. Editors can only write what they like because the owners of the media organisations that employ them like what they write.” There is a cynical truth to this statement. The problem with this perspective is that the vision of media freedom Boot’s remark invokes disregards the measures of freedom in media that do exist and are employed. This vision is completely unrealistic and could only exist in a vacuous world without power structures. If this ideal world did exist, what would there be to report?