News Media Stifle Ideas and Debate
Democracy's Oxygen: How Corporations Control the News
Black Rose Books, 1997, 199 pp, $23.99, ISBN 1-55164-060-0
Reviewed by Barrie Zwicker
Engage in just a little media criticism on panels peopled in part
by mainstream journalists. You'll likely encounter a triple aggravation.
If you cite a particular case of media distortion, someone from
the mainstream will claim it's isolated and doesn't prove a general
bias. Cite a general bias. It will be dismissed as theoretical and
you'll be asked to cite a particular case. Cite a general bias and
provide a specific example of it. After a pause the non-sequitur
response frequently is "Well, I still think we do a Pretty
Darn Good Job," with a fist thumped on the table for emphasis.
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
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
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
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
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. "
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.
Barrie Zwicker is publisher of Sources and Vision
TV's resident media critic.
Newsmongers: How the media distort political news (Review)
Ten Censored Stories of 1988
Ten Censored Stories of 1989
and Dissent: The Press and Politics of Peace in Canada
Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, and the Gulf War
the News that Wasn't
and Democracy are not Compatible
at the impact of investigative journalism
the News That's Fit to Miss: Blind Spots in Canadian Reporting
Index of Book
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