On Media and the Election

November 8, 2004

By Robert W. McChesney

Perhaps the most important function our media serves is to provide voters 
with the information they need to make sound decisions in the voting 
booth. If people don't know what they're voting for, our democracy is in 
serious trouble.

Unfortunately, it appears that we're in serious trouble.

This election was marked by a staggering amount of voter ignorance. Polls 
show that voters -- especially Bush supporters -- were grossly 
misinformed about their candidate's position on a broad range of issues. 
Surveying supporters of the President, a University of Maryland PIPA/ 
Knowledge Networks poll found:

-- 72% still believe that there were WMD's in Iraq.
-- 75% believe that Iraq was providing substantial support for Al Qaeda.
-- 66% believe that Bush supports participation in the International 
   Criminal Court.
-- 72% believe that he supports the treaty banning land mines.

The catch? None of these statements are true.

How do we know who our candidates are and what they stand for when the 
media fixates on polls, controversy and spin instead of the issues? How 
do we have meaningful elections when people don't know what they're 
voting for? Our Founders understood this; that is why they inscribed 
freedom of the press into the First Amendment of the constitution.

Our media are responsible for giving us a balanced inspection of all 
claims, careful fact checking, and reasoned analysis. But that was all 
but abandoned in this presidential campaign. And it is exactly what we 
would expect. As a result of media consolidation and pressures to cut 
costs, media corporations have gutted investigative journalism and 
hard-hitting analysis. Hence we get hours and hours of coverage of the 
baseless and idiotic "swift boats for truth" story, and barely a look at 
what the actual policies of this administration are, and how they affect 
the people of the nation and the world.

The complicity of our major media in subverting public discourse runs 
even deeper. The handful of enormous media corporations that own most of 
our major local TV stations and networks raked in $600 million from 
presidential TV ads alone, shattering previous records and subjecting 
voters to half-truths and distortions from both sides. Political ad 
revenues now constitute well over 10 percent of commercial broadcasting 
revenue, up from less than three percent in 1992. Overall, federal 
elections cost nearly $4 billion this year, representing a near 30% 
increase since 2000.

An iron law in commercial broadcasting is you do not do programming that 
undermines the credibility of your sponsors. The result: more political 
ads and little-to-no critical journalism that exposes the spin and lies 
in these TV ads. A more brash insult to our intelligence can hardly be 
imagined. This also explains why the corporate media giants are as 
enthusiastic about campaign finance reform as the NRA is regarding gun 
control.

Lastly, media companies have a conflict of interest; they benefit from 
seeing the re-election of George W. Bush and his industry-friendly 
policies. Viacom owner Sumner Redstone made it clear when his CBS was 
enmeshed in "Rathergate" that he was a supporter of the president -- 
because the president would allow Viacom to get much larger and face less 
competition.

All in all, we face a situation that could scarcely have been imagined by 
our nation's founders. Our "fourth estate" is hardly an independent 
sector in service to the citizenry. It is a massive industry dedicated to 
serving the needs of its owners. It is a central tension in our 
democracy, and one that we must address if we are to get off this 
downward spiral of misleading political campaigns driven by massive 
contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals. Reforming the 
media is not the only issue that faces our nation, but it is an 
unavoidable one.

So what are we going to do about it? Reform means giving citizens more 
outlets of independent news and analysis that isn't beholden to the 
bottom line. It involves giving citizens more access to their own 
airwaves to let Americans know what's really going on in their cities and 
neighborhoods. It involves making sure that access to information is 
equitable and affordable.

For the most part, the Bush Administration is no friend to media reform, 
but there is cause for hope. Liberals and conservatives alike oppose 
letting big media corporations get bigger, and we are going to work hard 
together to prevent further consolidation of our media. Liberals and 
conservatives alike favor journalism over spin and dislike the commercial 
marination of our culture. There was a reason President Bush did not brag 
about his plans to let media companies get bigger and have less 
competition on the campaign trail -- he knows Americans from all walks of 
life oppose the idea. For him, this is an issue best kept behind closed 
doors.

The mission of 
Free 
Press is to see that these crucial media policies be made in the light of 
public attention. We are committed to the principle that the policies and 
subsidies that establish our media system should be the result of 
widespread informed public participation.

While the short-term prospects for structural reform at the federal level 
are limited, there is important defensive work to be done. Remember that 
three million Americans organized in 2003 to stop the FCC from relaxing 
media ownership rules. And we are much stronger as a movement today than 
we were 18 months ago. We can continue to make headway on a number of 
issues and plant seeds for eventual victories. Now is the time for the 
media reform movement to do the foundation work to prepare for big fights 
coming years down the road. We have to think in terms of the long haul if 
we are going to be effective.

In addition, there is a great deal of optimism for a number of victories 
at the state and local level. If we get enough citizens to take a stand, 
politicians will be forced to act. There are promising, activist-driven 
efforts underway to challenge local cable providers so they ensure 
funding and channel 'set-asides' for independent and diverse programming. 
Amazing noncommercial wireless technology has the potential to deliver 
more diverse TV offerings, and provide phone and Internet as an 
affordable public utility like water, sewers and electricity.

The past few months remind us again that media reform is not a 
left-versus-right, technocratic or obscure issue; it addresses the 
singular importance of media to a self-governing society. Never again 
should we allow our media system to send the voters to the polls without 
the information they need to make well-reasoned decisions. There is a 
national emergency when voters go to the polls ignorant of the most 
elementary facts about our economy, foreign policy, health care, and 
environment. It is unacceptable.

So stay tuned. We're getting ready to send you more information on how to 
plug in and take action to create a better media system so that when the 
next big election comes along, Americans actually have a clue about what 
their candidates stand for. In the meantime, go to 
www.freepress.net 
and help yourself to the wide range of media reform resources and 
information. Pass this along and tell you friends to get involved. As 
Saul Alinsky put it, the only way to beat organized money is with 
organized people. Remember this, act on it, and we will prevail.

Onward,
Robert McChesney