Citizens need access to a variety of critical media sources so that they can properly evaluate the world they live in and make informed decisions about what they believe should be done next.
"The job of a free press is to provide citizens with the information they need to address problems, not to construct false and frequently dysfunctional choices," note John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney in The Life and Death of American Journalism. But media has multiple functions, and one is to propagandize information on behalf of powerful societal interests that control and finance it. These groups have ideas and plans they would like to see work out correctly and are in a good position to control or alter the flow of information, which affects what media capabilities.
"Those at the top understand that the corporate political culture is not a mystically self-sustaining system," argues Michael Parenti in The Culture Struggle. "They know they must work tirelessly to propagate the ruling orthodoxy, to use democratic appearances to cloak plutocratic policies."
Who are these media moguls? The media is mainly directed by government, corporate leaders, media executives and a few others — this small group can work together if it wants, and it often does — because these people see the world in the same way (as commodities to be exploited) and have similar goals (to make money). Legislators, politicians, media owners, and advertisers often have mutual interests or revolving door relationships.
While all corporate media (and most public media, which is also funded by advertising) pushes a pro-business version of reality (promoting low corporate taxes, interest rates, labor policies, trust laws, and market conditions) and has issues with fake objectivity ("You can look fair, or you can be fair"), certain outlets are more egregious in pushing their ideological messages than others.
Most media organizations and their controlling parent companies are profit-seeking corporations run by very rich people. By extension, they have a stake in preservation of the status quo by nature of their wealth and positions running powerful societal institutions. They exercise this power by establishing the general aims of the media company, and by staffing its upper echelons with management and executives whom they can count on to prevent dissidence. Sometimes real news appears, but it usually lacks legitimate context. What is the placement of the story, its tone, its direction, what facts are presented? What relevant information is devalued by its absence from the piece (i.e. historical context)? Who are the "experts" that are cited? What headline is used? Who gets their op-ed published? Parenti notes, "People sometimes hunger for the discomforting critical perspective that gives them a more meaningful explanation of things."
Media companies are often in close partnerships with corporations and banks via boards of directors and social ties. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman argue in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media that media companies "do business with commercial and investment bankers, obtaining lines of credit and loans, and receiving advice and service in selling stock and bond issues and in dealing with acquisition opportunities and takeover threats. Banks and other institutional investors are also large owners of media stock." These groups "do not convey control, but the large investors can make themselves heard, and their actions can affect the welfare of the companies and their managers. If the managers fail to pursue actions that favor shareholder returns, institutional investors will be inclined to sell the stock (depressing its price), or listen sympathetically to outsiders contemplating takeovers." This pressure pushes media to pursue more profit-based objectives.
In a system of growing inequality and social stratification, worsened daily by worldwide austerity policies, entertainment news fluff, fake scandals, wedge issues, and sports distract citizens from real issues and help preserve the status quo. Most people probably do not like the news that is readily available. People do not get to decide what airs - owners and managers, who need advertising revenues, decide what will be shown, and citizens must choose from among these options.
And they want those advertisers. As one conglomerate CEO once said, "We're here to serve advertisers. That's our raison d’être." And advertisers are not going to fund some adversarial press — this quickly eliminates serious chances of a liberal, corporate media. Liberal media would presumably clash with business values. "The problem with being associated as liberal is that they wouldn't be going in a direction that advertisers are really interested in," said Paul Rittenberg, senior vice president of advertising and market research at Fox News.
Advertisers do not like real news, which tends to generally be depressing — this is not a good environment for selling products. Media without advertising is at a disadvantage because these outlets cannot sell their product as cheaply and have fewer resources for special promotions and features. Chomsky and Herman warn, "With advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system in which buyer’s choice decides. The advertisers’ choices influence media prosperity and survival. The ad-based media receive an advertising subsidy that gives them a price-marketing-quality edge, which allows them to encroach and further weaken their ad-free (or ad-disadvantaged) rivals." These companies want audiences with money and purchasing power—instead of simply wanting "audiences."
Government is often reported on with a double-standard. Many things that the U.S. condemns in other countries are reported somewhat favorably when performed by the U.S. Victims of violence, fairness of elections, foreign governments and more are portrayed in different lights depending on whether the country in question is a U.S. ally or a government the U.S. is attempting to overthrow.
Both political parties are tied to big business and when both parties agree on an issue it does not get debated, or it is a pretend debate. For example, "What schools will be closed?" This presumes people want schools to close. Maybe they would rather schools remain open and offshore tax havens be closed, raising revenues for the education system.
The neoliberal ideology is a crucial component to what Sheldon Wolin has named "inverted totalitarianism." It is a new form of totalitarianism that thrives via "managed democracy" — a distracted and depoliticized citizenry that has a small degree of political freedom, but little genuine political power, which is ceded to a powerful, financially-backed few. People come out every once in a while to cast a vote between two choices of corporate-backed shills and afterwards they slink back into their consumerist fantasy world. With media, classical totalitarianism dealt with censorship by the state, but under inverted totalitarianism, private media outlets work together to accomplish the same thing.
Reversing the Trend
As media continues to decrease in diversity and cut budgets and staff, journalism is growing weaker. "News" will not disappear, but will increasingly be replaced by elaborate public relations pieces. Smaller staffs increase the probability that various press releases will be published as "news" without serious fact-checking of the information they contain. PR firms are also involved in producing news packages — videos, blogs and more. They often make these look like interviews combined with public service announcements and are professionally done. In 2011, there were four PR people for every working journalist.
Nichols and McChesney summarize the need to re-imagine the place of journalism in contemporary society, "It is imperative to discontinue the practice of regarding journalism as a ‘business’ and evaluation it with business criteria. Instead, embracing the public good nature of journalism is necessary."
On the notion of "public good" they write, “Journalism is something society requires but that the market cannot produce in sufficient quality or quantity. Readers or final news consumers have never provided sufficient funds to subsidize the popular journalism that self-government requires."
None of this is to say that real journalism doesn’t exist. There are dissident voices available, even in mainstream media — but they are kept at the margins of debate. Media reform requires consolidation of information outlets be halted and that strong, non-profit media venues be supported. An informed populace is a critical building block of a society based upon self-governance.