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The Crisis of the Media and the Fifth Estate

"In many countries, the media long regarded as a characteristic element of democracy have become the main problem for democracy. Media' association with information has become a problem.. The quality of democracy depends on the quality of democratic debate.."

By Ignacio Ramonet

[This article published in: WOZ, 6/2/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.woz.ch/artikel/inhalt/2005/nr22/International/11892.html. Ignacio Ramonet is director of "Le Monde diplomatique."]

The media is the fourth power, it is said. However the media do not fulfill this function any more because they are themselves central political and economic actors.

In many countries, the media long regarded as a characteristic element of democracy - as a quasi barometer of democracy - have become the main problem for democracy. Media's association with information has become a problem. Many citizens understand this.

People are very sensitive to manipulations of the media. Many people recognize that the media lie, deceive and manipulate. They conceal information that would lead citizens to act differently. Several very recent examples could be cited, for instance the Iraq war. The dominant media, particularly in the US, repeated the allegations of the US government for months that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that the regime of Saddam Hussein maintained relations to the Islamic network al Qaida. The regime of Saddam Hussein was said to be an accomplice of the suicide assassins of September 11, 2001. In this way, the media - including the serious media - conferred credibility to the argumentation of the Bush administration. A majority of Americans approved of this invasion - on account of the reports of the media. After the war, we learned there weren't any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. No evidence of relations between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida was found. Both arguments of the US government for the Iraq war were false. Not a single serious newspaper questioned these two allegations. The media really foundered or suffered shipwreck.


As a second example, in the attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2003, four commuter trains exploded, two hundred people died and several hundred persons were injured. Afterwards the Spanish government - under Jose Maria Aznar - immediately spread an accusation against the Basque-underground organization Eta. We know now there was no evidence of this. Nevertheless all large media accepted this interpretation. Prime minister Aznar called the directors of all large Spanish newspapers and personally told them he had evidence that Eta was responsible for the attacks. "El Pais," for example, was already printing its front page. After this telephone call, the front page was changed and given a new headline: "Eta Kills Again in Madrid." However news circulated very quickly in Spain showing that this official information was false. This was three or four days before the parliament election. Several journalists began expressing doubts about the official version. The citizens began informing themselves.

They used guerilla media, cell phones and E-mails to tell one another which radio stations and which newspapers provided credible information. Through cell phones, people were mobilized to demonstrations where tens of thousands protested against the official version of the government and demanded the truth. Although all surveys predicted a victory of the governing party, this party was defeated. The left opposition won the election. A few days later the truth came to light. The assassinations were not perpetrated by Eta but by an Islamic group.

I interpret this as a media rebellion of a population that questioned official truth from the established media. More and more people are convinced we live in a state of media uncertainty. One receives information and later discovers this information was false.

Nostalgia for a golden age of the media does not motivate me. The media always had problems and was never perfect. However one could have expected that the media in today's world would inform with its elaborate technology, its possibility of intervening and informing in a very diversified way. The opposite is occurring; the media has never been so intensely manipulated as today. The gigantic manipulation regarding Iraq led to a war with 200,000 civilian casualties. These media manipulations had numerous consequences. The authors of these manipulations were never called to account. George Bush was even reelected although people knew the president lied.


Earlier the media was described as the fourth power in the state - alongside the legislative, executive and judicial powers. The term "fourth estate" arose in France on the occasion of the Dreyfus affair. After the 1870/71 war between France and Germany, the French officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of passing on secret information to Germans. Dreyfus was condemned, excluded from the army and banished to Guyana. However thanks to newspapers and intellectuals, it turned out that Dreyfus was not a spy. The reason for the whole stagecraft was that Dreyfus was a Jew. The media uncovered the truth. At that time it was said happily there is a fourth power that corrects the errors of the other powers.

Today the large media hardly observe this function at all. Why is this? The dynamic of globalization has led to a merger between the interests of the media, corporations and politics. They are all central actors of globalization: the financial markets, corporations and the mammoth media conglomerates: Murdoch, Time-Warner, Microsoft and others. On account of the numeric revolution, there are no distinctions any more between radio, print, audio-visual and Internet information. Everything is mixed up today. The mammoth media conglomerates work in all these sectors. They deal in mass culture, television, movies, music, DVDs and sometimes also sports. We distinguish between the sector of mass culture, the sector of advertising and that of information. For media conglomerates, all this is one and the same. They pursue only one goal: profitability. They have forgotten their civic commission being the fourth estate. Information is only a commodity - a commodity that one sells free of charge ever more frequently. Trade with information has changed. In the past, a medium sold information to people. Today people are sold to advertisers. That a newspaper reaches many people is important. The more people there are, the more expensively the advertising space can be sold. To increase readership, one gives away information almost free of charge. The information is simplified so as many people as possible understand it. Moreover the sensationalist content is heightened.


Statistics show that people spend twenty minutes every day on average in becoming informed. If this time is filled with trivial information, little is left for serious information. I call this democratic censorship. The classic form of censorship, as we know from authoritarian states, is disappearance. In contrast, democratic censorship offers information and doesn't take away or prohibit information. We are flooded with news that we don't need. We no longer notice that much information is withheld from us. We don't notice that there is censorship because we associate censorship with shortage of information. Therefore I compare the situation of information with the situation of food. For a long time we lived in societies wher4e food was scarce. Today there is a surplus in food in most industrial countries; the supermarkets are full of food. However this food is contaminated and causes sicknesses. Thus we have developed bio-products that guarantee hey don't contain any pesticides or other residues. The same occurs with information. In the past we had little information. Today we have much information but it is polluted information, full of lies, hidden facts and false conclusions. A biological information guaranteed without pollution and without lies is desired. The WOZ could print the label "Bio-Information" on its front page: Here there are no lies!

Media conglomerates have become economic actors closely entwined with political power. The best illustrations for this thesis are Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and (the murdered) Rafik Hariri in Lebanon. Another example is the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.


How can we build a counter-power today against the legislative, executive, judiciary and the other powers, the economic power and the media power? All these powers work together today against the interests of the population. The independent media have an important function here. Yesterday I returned to Korea. Korea has several newspapers that only appear on the Internet, for example "OhmyNews." Dissident journalists - people who disagree with the political orientation of the large daily papers and represent a critical independent view of things, compile this newspaper. This newspaper is free of charge. However it lives from readers donating money for every article that interests them. It receives 360,000 francs annually.

We need an independent journalism outfitted with the necessary resources. Journalists need funds to do their work. However the independent media often do not have these funds. The media system today doesn't want journalists who research, investigate and seek the truth. When they give information free of charge, the publishers don't want to provide any funds for this service. Thus journalists are no longer able to do serious work.

These others, the independent media that bring the counter-information and disseminate truly democratic information - all these forces must join together to form a fifth power. The quality of democracy depends on the quality of democratic debate. This only functions when independent media without fear of economic reprisals can develop their own concept of information.

homepage: homepage: http://www.mbtranslations.com
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The Problem with the Media 09.Aug.2005 21:08

friend of Marc

The preface of the book "The Problem With the Media"

See NPR under NOW for more info about Prof. McCheseney.

Taken from the preface of the book by R. McChesney a Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of eight books, about the media

The purpose of this book is to shed light on how the media system
works in the United States and to provide a basis for citizens to play a
more active role in shaping the policies upon which that system is
built. The corporate domination of both the media system and the
policy-making process that establishes and sustains it causes serious
problems for a functioning democracy and a healthy culture. Media
are not the only factor in explaining the woeful state of our democracy,
but they are a key factor. It is difficult to imagine much headway
being made on the crucial social issues that face our nation given how
poorly they are covered by the current U.S. media system. The democratic
solution to this problem is to increase informed public participation
in media policy making. The corporate media powers-that-be
and their political surrogates oppose this prospect because they know
that when the public understands that the media system is the result
of explicit public policies and not natural law, the public will probably
demand reforms. In this book I focus on the United States mostly
for reasons of expedience and because media policy issues are generally
national in scope. A book like this ideally should include a discussion
of the U.S. role in the global media system, but that subject is so
large that it requires its own book-length treatment.

The corporate-insider hegemony over media policy debates, and
the lack of public participation, are encouraged and protected ideologically
by eight myths surrounding media in the United States.

This book addresses these myths because the case for democratic
media policy making is weaker, if not implausible, if they are left
standing. The first myth is that media do not matter that much—that
they merely reflect reality, rather than shape it. In fact, media are a
social force in their own right, and not just a reflection of other
forces. These are complex relationships, often difficult to disentangle,
because media are so interwoven into the fabric of our lives. It is
noteworthy that the argument that media have little or no social
effect became prominent precisely as commercial interests locked up
their control over media industries in the mid-twentieth century.

Proponents of this argument would like us to overlook the fact that
media sell billions of dollars worth of advertising on the belief that
they, indeed, have tremendous influence. Chapter 1 discusses the
power of media, and the entire book is an exercise in establishing the
importance of media in our lives.

In chapter 1, I also address the second myth—that the corporate,
commercial media system is "natural," the intent of the Founders, and
the logical outgrowth of democracy. In fact, the vision of a free press
held during the first few generations of the republic was diametrically
opposed to the contemporary idea that a free press means letting
media owners do whatever they can to maximize profit. The early
republic provided lavish subsidies to support a diverse range of media
the market would never have supported; these press policies were
sometimes generated by widespread public debate. The notion that letting
media owners maximize profit would necessarily generate a free
press came much later, when powerful media owners with a decided
self-interest propagated that view. Those of us who argue for informed
policy making, for enlightened and proactive policies to enhance a
vibrant free press, do not stand outside the historical tradition of freedom
of the press in the United States. We are the tradition.
The third myth is that debates concerning media policy in the
United States have accurately reflected the range of public opinion
and public interests. In chapter 1, I reveal how important policy making
has been and still is to the creation of the U.S. media system, and I
chronicle how corrupt that process has become over time. By the late
twentieth century, media policy making was the private playground
of a handful of powerful corporate lobbies and trade associations. The
public knew next to nothing about the crucial debates over policies
that would set the terms for the media system and it played almost no
role whatsoever in their development. Chapter 1 provides the basis for
understanding why the resultant media system is so deeply flawed: it
is set up to serve the needs of a relative handful of profit-seeking corporations
and wealthy investors. In that sense our media system is a
success because it does that very well. But lost in the shuffle are the
requirements of a democratic and self-governing people.

The fourth myth is that commercial media unquestionably provide
the highest quality journalism possible—the caliber of journalism
a democracy necessitates for informed self-government. I
criticize this position in chapters 2 and 3. This is a curious myth
because on the surface the notion of subjecting journalism to commercial
principles is a nonstarter. What sort of integrity can the
news have if it can be bought and sold like . . . advertising? The inherent
problem with commercial journalism is a major reason that professionalism
in journalism emerged a century ago. Yet built within
the journalists' professional code are significant flaws that limit its
usefulness. Those flaws, combined with media owners' pressures on
journalism to generate maximum profit, offer a recipe for disaster. I
examine press coverage of the electoral system to highlight the limitations
of contemporary journalism.

The fifth myth is that the news media in the United States today
have a "left-wing" bias. This is a peculiar myth, of recent vintage in
the United States, and not prevalent in very many other nations. I
deconstruct this myth in chapter 3 and show that the reason for its
prevalence has little to do with the intellectual strength of the arguments
and a great deal to do with the right-wing political muscle
behind them, including conservative power within the mainstream
media. What this myth does, more than anything else, is reinforce
and accentuate the core problems with commercial journalism.
Right-wing media bashing and commercial journalism, rather than
being antagonistic, constitute a marriage made in heaven.

The sixth myth is that the commercial media, due to the competitive
pressure for profit, "give the people what they want"—so the only
policy option is to unleash the market. Government policies that interfere
with the market substitute the prerogatives of a bureaucrat, no
matter how well informed or intended, with the will of the people as
expressed in the market. Government actions therefore are antidemocratic
and should be kept to a minimum, largely to protect private
property rights. If there is a problem with the media, it is not due to
the system or the policies that put the system in place but to "the people"
who demand the content that the commercial media firms obedip
ently provide. This may well be the most important myth of all, partly
because it contains an element of truth. At a certain level it seems like
it must be true; after all, why wouldn't profit-seeking firms try to satisfy
the market? But upon close inspection, the argument has a number
of flaws. I address it indirectly throughout the book and review the
weaknesses of this hypothesis directly in chapters 4 and 5. Not only
does the market not necessarily give us what we want, but it also gives
us plenty of what we do not want. In particular, the commercial media
system has generated a hyper-commercial carpet bombing of our culture
that is decidedly unwelcome by much of the population.

The seventh myth is that technologies determine the nature of
media. This is a long-standing position and it, too, contains a small element
of truth; the nature of media technologies does indeed have distinct
effects upon the nature of the media system and its content. This
myth, which I address in chapters 6 and 7, has become much more
prevalent with the rise of the Internet and digital communication
technologies. The Internet, we are told, will set us free. All we have to
do is let the technology work its magic. Long-standing and lucrative
commercial media industries, such as network commercial television
and the music recording industry, appear to be in the process of a radical
transformation, if not an elimination, by these new technologies.
Indeed, to a casual observer, these technologies are so extraordinary as
to render public policies unimportant. But nothing of the kind is true.
These satellite and the Internet technologies themselves are the direct
result of policies and subsidies. How they are going to be developed is
not predetermined. It has everything to do with explicit policies, and
commercial pressures wrought by those policies. Indeed, powerful
commercial interests use this myth to prevent the public from
pursuing alternative policies.

Finally, there is the myth that no alternative to the status quo will
improve matters. No matter how many flaws are present, the status
quo offers the best of all possible media worlds. In shorthand, the
options are usually presented as one of corporate control versus one
of government control. Jefferson or Stalin. This framing is dubious;
societies can and do have mixed systems all the time. Even a "market"
system is based on layers of explicit government policies and laws
that make it possible. The point of this claim is patently ideological—
to retard the growing awareness among citizens that they can create
a media system superior to the one that currently serves the needs of
a handful of media corporations. In fact, as I discuss in chapter 6,
there are rich traditions in media policy making from which citizens
may draw guidance.

The logic of my argument is that a democratic media system—or a
democratic solution to the problem of the media, as I put it—would
necessitate a large, well-funded, structurally pluralistic, and diverse
nonprofit and noncommercial media sector, as well as a more competitive
and decentralized commercial sector. Where economics preclude
competitive commercial markets, there must be transparent regulation
in the public interest. The reforms I envision should be content
neutral and viewpoint neutral. This does not mean they would generate
bland content, but rather that the reforms would not favor a
specific viewpoint over others. We need to think creatively, not be
imprisoned by the myth that there can be no alternative to the status
quo but the gulag. The exact contours of such a media system must be
determined by informed and widespread public debate. Without that,
media reform and a democratic media system are unthinkable.
Unless all eight of these myths are subjected to critical analysis,
the prospects for energizing popular participation in media policy
making are remote. That most of these myths are accepted as
revealed truth in mainstream political culture helps explain why so
many groups that have a stake in media policy debates and should be
active in them—for example, environmentalists, civil rights activists,
labor unions, working journalists—have generally not engaged in the

In this book I highlight the core problems of the U.S. media system
—inadequate journalism and hyper-commercialism—and I chronicle
how they are linked to the commercial structures of the media
and how these structures are directly and indirectly linked to explicit
government policies. These policies have been made in the public's
name but without the public's informed consent. That is the root of
the media crisis in the United States today. Over the past two decades,
the turn in media policy making toward neoliberalism, the political
philosophy that dogmatically equates generating profits with generating
maximum human happiness, has only exacerbated the crisis.

All of this suggests that we are in very dark times, with little sign of
hope, and that this will be yet another book chronicling how screwed
up the media system is, leaving depressed readers looking for the
nearest window to jump out of.

But wait. There may be light on the horizon. No longer is concern
with the problem of the media an academic one or one limited to the
political margins. In 2003 media politics entered the heart of the
political culture as millions of Americans stunned the political establishment
by joining and organizing protests against concentrated
media ownership. In the concluding chapter I assess what may prove
to be a renaissance of informed public participation in media policy
making. We may be entering an era of profound public debate over
the very nature of our media system. If this is the case, it will lead to
new solutions to the problem of the media, with a clear change in
the nature of the immediate media content people experience in
their lives. In this sense, the burgeoning movement to reform media
is a necessary, even indispensable, aspect of larger social movements
to democratize our politics and society.

I write this book as a scholar who has spent two decades studying
these issues, and it reflects arguments and analyses I have developed in
discussion and debates with other scholars, activists, journalists, and
the public at large. They are fire-tested. But nearly all the research in
the book is of recent vintage. I also write this book as an active citizen.
When one argues that the corporate media system is deeply flawed
and a barrier to a decent and humane society and that the solution to
the problem of the media is increased public participation, it is not
enough to write books. There is an obligation to write popular articles,
to give public lectures, to organize. This book is driven by that political
project. Indeed, in 2002, along with Josh Silver and my dear friend
John Nichols, I formed a group, Free Press, specifically to advance the
cause of increasing popular participation in media policy making.

So the reader has reason to ask: Is this a work of scholarship or is it
a partisan political pamphlet? The English historian A. J. P. Taylor
once argued that the principal difference between the methodologies
of the lawyer and those of the historian was that "the lawyer aims to
make a case; the historian wishes to understand a situation." According
to Taylor, the evidence amassed by the lawyer is "loaded" in ways
that will maximize the chances of conviction or acquittal: "Anyone
who relies on [this kind of evidence] finds it almost impossible to
escape from the load with which they are charged." A historian, however,
should allow a "detached and scholarly" examination of the evidence
to direct a conclusion rather than take a stand and then,
retrospectively, seek documents to support a case.
So, to use Taylor's formulation, is this the work of a historian or a

It is the work of a historian, a scholar. The value of these arguments,
if they have value, is that I have applied evidence to them, and I have
weighed evidence that undermines my arguments, and I have changed
and improved my arguments if the evidence pushed me in that direction.
Otherwise my work would have little credibility. That said, when
one ventures into the realm of contemporary media criticism and
when one criticizes the corporate status quo, one goes up against a lot
of "lawyers," both literal and figurative. Industry public relations
offices churn out piles of surveys, studies, and documents that invariably
point to one conclusion: this is the best possible media system in
the best of all possible worlds. This material typically ignores or distorts
evidence that undermines this euphoric vision. It is understandable for
commercial interests to present such a perspective; it is unacceptable
conduct for a scholar or a public servant. As I demonstrate in chapter 7,
FCC chairman Michael Powell, who is a lawyer, has also distinguished
himself as a lawyer in Taylor's sense of the term. In my view, he is also
one of the most dishonorable public officials of our times.

I think there also is an important case to be made that scholarship
that grows out of an engagement with real and immediate political
struggles, rather than handcuffed by political bias and opportunism,
can be the laboratory for breakthroughs in social theory and analysis.

One look at economics, a field in which many great theorists from
Smith and Ricardo to Marx and Keynes generated their work by direct
engagement with the politics of the day, makes that clear. This book is
hardly a work of great theory or some sort of paradigm-busting intellectual
breakthrough, but it grows out of a direct engagement with
core political questions of our times. In fact, in U.S. media studies the
removal of academics from the hurly-burly real world of media policy
debates along with the ahistorical nature of much of this work
arguably have contributed to the scholarship being unread and irrelevant;
to its being . . . well . . . academic.

This book was written over the course of 2003, precisely as the battle
over U.S. media ownership laws was in full swing. As I pulled the
book together in the autumn, I drew upon a small coterie of fellow
scholars and close friends for criticism and suggestions. Together we
form a school of critical work in media studies, and I hope our ranks
will grow because there is much work to be done. I drew from the trailblazing
and brilliant historical work of Ben Scott and Inger Stole in
chapters 2 and 4, respectively. Ben and Inger each gave a close reading
to the entire manuscript and provided me with priceless comments.

Inger's comments helped me reorganize the book, to make it more
coherent than it would have been otherwise. Dan Schiller, my colleague
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graciously
read and commented upon several chapters. Dan's pioneering historical
research on policy struggles surrounding U.S. telecommunications
was foundational for me as I developed the model in chapter 1. My coeditor
at Monthly Review, John Bellamy "Duke" Foster, worked with me
on drafts of parts of chapters 3 and 4 and inspired the broader vision
of the book with a loving and meticulous read. C. Edwin Baker, for my
money the best legal scholar on free press issues in the nation, commented
upon chapter 6. Sut Jhally, in whose path I follow as I do my
work, graciously read and commented on chapter 4 under absurdly
short notice—as in, "Hey, can you read this and give me comments by
tomorrow, because it is due at the publisher in forty-eight hours?"
Lawrence Lessig did the same with the discussion of copyright in chapter
6. Victor Pickard helped me tighten up several citations.

I also received invaluable help from several nonacademics. Jeff
Cohen, the journalist and founder of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
(FAIR), gave detailed comments on the entire book, line by line; I
have never worked with a better editor or a smarter media critic. If
this book is understandable, Jeff gets the lion's share of the credit.
Janine Jackson, the program director at FAIR, read most of the book
and helped me clarify some key points. Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers
Union read chapter 7 and made several excellent suggestions.
Jeff Chester provided some thoughts concerning my discussion of
broadband policy issues in chapter 6. All these comrades get credit for
the good in what follows; none of them gets blame for the flaws.
Most important, I leaned heavily on the journalist John Nichols,
with whom I wrote two short books on this subject in 2000 and 2002
and several articles for The Nation over the course of 2002 and 2003.
John's political knowledge and instincts are unmatched, and I have
learned more from him about politics than I could have learned in a
lifetime of graduate seminars.

During 2003, our organization Free Press grew from one paid
staffer working in borrowed space in the corner of someone else's
office to some ten activists working on a range of media reform
issues and campaigns. In November 2003, Free Press sponsored the
first-ever National Conference on Media Reform, held in Madison,
Wisconsin, and drawing some two thousand people. The Free Press
website these activists have assembled has become a comprehensive
entrée to the U.S. media reform movement (www.mediareform.net).
The work ethic, principles, and commitment of these young activists
inspired and motivated me as I put the finishing touches on this
book. To see tangible organizing actually work, to see people from a
variety of backgrounds come together, to see social change leading to
increased justice and human happiness is the most extraordinary
feeling imaginable. It makes one feel alive. Another world is not only
possible; it is there for the taking.