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.."
THE CRISIS OF THE MEDIA AND THE FIFTH ESTATE
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.
SPAIN'S MEDIA REBELLION
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.
THE TREASON OF THE FOURTH ESTATE
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.
BUILDING THE FIFTH ESTATE
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.
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