Big Media Myths
by Norman Solomon
1998 Censored News Stories
Over time, repetition can make certain false assumptions begin
to seem natural. Every day, the media scenery provides us with
views so familiar that we're apt to see them as common sense.
In the process, the mass media have propagated many enduring illusions.
And perhaps none of them are more important than prevalent myths
about the media industry itself.
MYTH: "THE LIBERAL MEDIA"
In recent years, the myth of "the liberal media"
has gotten a boost from surveys showing that journalists are much
more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. But these
surveys tell us nothing about the content of news media.
We don't often hear about key realities: The higher you look
up the ladder of media institutions, the more conservative it
gets. In general, editors are more conservative than reporters,
and managers are even farther to the right; the CEOs, boards of
directors, and owners are the most conservative of all. In the
media business, as in other industries, people at the top of the
hierarchy have much more power to determine policies and constraints
than rank-and-file employees do. Ultimately, what affects the
public is the finished media product-which reflects the priorities
and choices of top management.
Television's most eminent political programs feature styles
that range from genteel exchanges on Washington Week in Review,
to high-decibel simplicities of The McLaughlin Group, to forehead-crinkling
discussions on the nightly NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. But in every
case, the corporate logos of sponsors and underwriters, dancing
on the screen, hint at the choreography and orchestration. Those
who pay the piper call the tune not every note, but the main themes.
When yet another TV pundit show premiered in 1988 The Capital
Gang with Patrick Buchanan and Robert Novak squaring off against
Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief A1
Hunt-no one pointed out the double meaning of its name. The Capital
Gang stayed well within bounds acceptable to institutions of big
capital, some of which were sponsors of the show and investors
in the network. A CNN promotional spot for The Capital Gang was
right on the money as it described the program: "A select
few make judgments that affect us all."
In 1997, the media watch group FAIR noted that "forceful
right-wing advocates enjoy prominent positions in national mainstream
media-as television commentators, radio hosts, and syndicated
columnists.... They are often heard denouncing 'liberal media
bias' even as their collective voices overwhelm those of unabashed
On major TV networks, the "liberal media" include
such outspoken conservatives as Buchanan, Novak, George Will,
John Sununu, Mona Charen Pat Robertson, William Kristol, Fred
Barnes, Morton Kondracke, Paul Gigot, Ben Wattenberg, Lynn Cheney,
William F. Buckley, John McLaughlin, James Glassman, and Laura
Ingraham. Their routine opponents-if any-are mushy centrists and
tepid liberals along the lines of Shields, Hunt, Jack Germond,
Geraldine Ferraro, Eleanor Clift, and George Stephanopoulos.
Populism, historically and in the present day, has taken two
general paths. Only one of them is well represented on television
and radio. The road of virulent intolerance blaming the poor,
racial minorities, feminists, gays, and immigrants-is well traveled
by the Buchanans and the Novaks, the Rush Limbaughs, and the G.
Gordon Liddys. But those who have taken the other fork in a populist
journey-strong progressives-are rarely found in the mass media.
Overall, in the United States, the news media offer the public
either conventional pundits who differ on exactly how to shore
up the status quo, or populists of the right-wing variety. Largely
excluded are progressive populists who challenge the power of
large corporations and explicitly reject scapegoating.
MYTH: FREE PRESS = PRIVATELY-OWNED PRESS
Equating freedom of the media with private ownership of the
media is a convenient myth for the likes of Time Warner, Disney,
and General Electric. In the real world, however, the freedom
of expression that flourishes in mass media is confined to messages
that are acceptable to such corporations.
Although dissenting voices are heard once in a while, the
essence of propaganda is repetition-and what's repeated does not
rock the big corporate boats. The favorite perspectives of economic
elites are commonly mistaken for journalism. The narrative is
usually narrow; for example, we hear much more about the concerns
of investors and shareholders than workers or consumers. Mass-media
employees seem to rise to the level of their utility to corporate
Bankrolled by major corporations, mainstream media have done
a lot to render "big government" one of the leading
pejoratives of American political rhetoric. In contrast, the private
sector largely eludes media scrutiny; we rarely hear warnings
about "big business." Not coincidentally, the Pentagon's
huge sacrosanct budget is a cash cow for some companies that own
large media outlets, such as General Electric (NBC) and Westinghouse
(CBS). Many more firms are hefty advertisers-as well as contributors
to the campaigns of politicians selectively lambasting "big
As corporations increase their power, they meld with the journalistic
air and blend into the media atmosphere-so that a defacto corporate
state appears to supply us with the oxygen we breathe. Under such
circumstances, accepting corporate power seems natural and neutral;
opposing it seems "ideological."
The corporatization of media is part of broader developments
in public and private life. We're invited to choose from choices
made for us by wealthy and powerful elites. Democracy has very
little to do with the process.
MYTH: AT LEAST WE HAVE PUBLIC BROADCASTING
Mythology aside, "public broadcasting" is second
to none for corralling minds that might otherwise wander. For
propaganda in the guise of quality journalism, the Public Broadcasting
Service and National Public Radio can't be beat-a reality that
became more flagrant in 1991, during the Gulf War, when the PBS
MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour (now The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) cheer-led
U.S. missile attacks on Iraqi cities and NPR seemed to stand for
National Pentagon Radio. Such pseudo-alternative media outlets
receive plenty of acclaim. Providing more in-depth coverage than
commercial networks, they perform high jumps over low standards.
Taken as a whole, NPR's news coverage swamps its islands of
laudable journalism with oceans of avid stenography for the powerful.
Sociologist Charlotte Ryan examined the transcripts of every weekday
broadcast of All Things Considered, and Morning Edition-totaling
2,296 stories-during the last four months of 1991. Her study,
commissioned by FAIR, concluded that NPR is in sync with "the
tendency to allow Washington officials and establishment pundits
to set the news agenda." When selecting and quoting sources,
NPR relied most heavily on government officials (26 percent of
all sources). Journalists, academics, lawyers, and other professionals
accounted for another 37 percent.
Twenty-eight percent of NPR's domestic stories originated
in Washington, a city with think tanks of every sort. But for
analysis, NPR repeatedly turned to corporate-funded outfits of
the establishment center (such as the Brookings Institution, 11
quotes) and the right (such as American Enterprise Institute,
eight quotes). Think tanks to the left of center, or allied with
labor, were generally ignored; for example, the Institute for
Policy Studies was never quoted.
Other FAIR studies have documented that television programs
like ABC's Nightline and the PBS NewsHour allow little air time
for representatives of public interest and grass-roots action
groups. Such voices were no more audible on NPR-only 7 percent
of total sources. Ryan's study found that the numbers of advocates
for any single movement were tiny-racial or ethnic groups (1.5
percent); organized labor (0.6 percent); feminism (0.4 percent);
environmentalism (0.3 percent); gay rights (0.2 percent).
Propaganda is scarcely mitigated by occasional exceptions.
It's the routine that counts: the political clichés supplied
by Cokie Roberts, for instance, or the mind-constricting repartee
of Shields and Gigot. Narrow territory must be traversed, endlessly,
as though it were the alpha and omega of political terrain. The
routine discourse runs the gamut from A to C.
The crown jewel of PBS nightly programming, The NewsHour With
Jim Lehrer, puts out press releases hailing itself as "one
of the most influential news sources in the world." Credit
where due: The NewsHour has excelled at serving as a steady transmission
belt for elite opinion. Most of the time, disagreements are well
within the range to be found among powerful politicians and lobbyists
in Washington. It's fitting that the show has been praised as
"balanced" by right-wing groups that normally bash network
TV news for being too "liberal."
The NewsHour has always depended on corporate largess. In
the past, underwriters have included AT&T and PepsiCo. These
days, two politically active firms-the agribusiness giant Archer
Daniels Midland and the New York Life Insurance Co.-team up to
provide about $10 million a year, which amounts to half of the
program's total budget.
In December 1994, the private media conglomerate TCI purchased
two-thirds of MacNeil-Lehrer Productions. The PBS network president,
Ervin Duggan, promptly called it "a welcome infusion of capital
into the NewsHour." Since then, the program's top producers
have continued to resist introspection. In 1995, I asked the president
of MacNeil - Lehrer Productions to comment on charges that the
program lacks diversity. "I think that's an outrageous criticism
of our program," A1 Vecchione replied. "It's in a class
by itself in terms of being fair and evenhanded."
In autumn of 1997, PBS moved to augment public TV's schedule
of political discussion shows, which already included a half-dozen
weekly programs hosted by conservatives like William F. Buckley,
John McLaughlin, Ben Wattenberg, and James Glassman. PBS added
a new series, National Desk, with three rotating hosts: In a nod
to diversity, white conservatives Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke
were joined by black conservative Larry Elder.
MYTH: NEW TECHNOLOGIES ARE CREATING MORE DEMOCRATIC MEDIA
Whether trumpeted two decades ago with the advent of cable
technology, or today, with nonstop prattle about "the information
superhighway," the myth of the techno-fix is a distraction
from a key truth: We cannot solve political problems by technological
means. No digital breakthrough or cyberspace marvel can rectify
a chronic and severe shortage of democracy.
In countless media forums, we're encouraged to fixate on technology-and
speculate on the market prospects of corporations like Microsoft,
Oracle, Apple, and the like. As mere mortals, we are cast in the
roles of spectators while the multibillion-dollar media gods clash
and cooperate. The new technologies are impressive. But power
is more centralized than ever.
It's pleasant to believe that the Internet will provide a
free flow of information and opinion. Popular rhetoric makes plenty
of egalitarian claims- but the emerging reality is something else.
"The Internet is in full transition from a participatory
interactive communications network to a broadcast medium dominated
by electronic commerce," observes Frank Beacham, an independent
journalist who monitors technology.
Viewed from corporate boardrooms, the ideal Internet users
will be passive consumers. Lots of publicity-and multimedia leverage
will be crucial to steer a mass audience to particular spots on
the vast Internet. The biggest players in cyberspace aren't just
guiding us through the media terrain-they're altering it in fundamental
ways, pointing us in some directions and away from others.
The way things are going, Beacham warns, the Internet will
soon undergo a profound shift-"from being a participatory
medium that serves the interest of the public to being a broadcast
medium, where corporations deliver consumer-oriented information.
Interactivity would be reduced to little more than sales transactions
It's easy to be mesmerized by dynamic new technology that
seems to offer a way of cutting through knotty social problems.
To substitute for figuring out how to create systems of communication
that are genuinely democratic, believers in the techno-fix assume
that technological change can dissolve the bottlenecks.
It never works. From radio to television to modem, each new
gizmo has arrived with inspiring potential-undermined by extreme
disparities in people's access to economic resources and political
MYTH: NEWS REPORTS CAN BE "OBJECTIVE"
Despite all the pieties about objective journalism, the truth
is that value judgments infuse everything in news media.
After decades as a reporter and editor in the newspaper business,
Ben Bagdikian wrote The Media Monopoly. The book describes a few
of the subjective choices that go into any daily paper: "Which
of the infinite number of events in the environment will be assigned
for coverage and which ignored? Which of the infinite observations
confronting the reporter will be noted? Which of the facts noted
will be included in the story? Which of the reported events will
become the first paragraph? Which story will be prominently displayed
on page l and which buried inside or discarded? None of these
is a truly objective decision."
It's not a matter of merely reporting the news. Mass media
literally make the news. Subjective decisions, suffused with judgments
based on values, are constant and inevitable. Familiar types of
coverage can come across as "objective" precisely because
they're so ubiquitous, blending in with the customary media landscape.
MYTH: NEWSPAPERS CORRECT THE MOST IMPORTANT INACCURACIES
On the second page of The New York Times, on the last Sunday
of October 1997, the listings were typical under a headline that
* Because of a mechanical error, a picture on page 44 of The
Times Magazine today, with an article about notable art collectors,
is printed upside down and in mirror image. In the painting by
David Hammons, called "Bag Lady in Flight," the handles
seen on the top left should appear at the bottom left.
* A listing in the "New & Noteworthy Paperbacks"
column of the Times Book Review on Oct. 5 misidentified the distributor
of Yury Dombrovsky's autobiographical novel "The Faculty
of Useless Knowledge." Like other books from Harvill Press,
it is now distributed in the United States by Farrar, Straus &
Giroux-no longer by HarperCollins World.
* An article on page 16 of the "Travel" section
today about the Caribbean island of Saba misstates the height
of a cliff where the airport was built. It is 400 feet, not 4,000.
Such inconsequential corrections are routine. In general,
the more minor an inaccuracy is, the greater the chances that
a correction will appear. The major distortions and imbalances
of media coverage, however-the ongoing biases
of race and gender and class, or the stenographic reliance
on governmental and corporate sources-don't qualify for correction.
They're much too important. And they're not mistakes.
MYTH: IN THE U.S.A., JOURNALISTS WORK FREE OF CENSORSHIP
While a few huge conglomerates now control most of the flow
of news and information, the effects are more insidious than overt.
Intermittent cases of blatant corporate censorship are much less
significant than the unspoken limits that journalists learn to
"Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip,"
George Orwell wrote, "but the really well-trained dog is
the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip."
A half-century after Orwell's caustic gibe at compliant editors,
self-censorship is one of the least discussed media constraints.
When a dictatorial government decides what can reach print
or get on the airwaves, the heavy hand of the censor is apt to
be obvious. But in a society where the First Amendment protects
freedom of speech, the most important limitations are obscured.
In contrast to dramatic storms of brazen censorship, the usual
climate of U.S. journalism is as unobtrusive as morning dew. The
dominant seems normal, like a ubiquitous odor. "We scent
the air of the office," the great American journalist George
Seldes noted in 1931. "We realize that certain things are
wanted, certain things unwanted."
Today's media milieu hardly encourages intrepid journalism.
At a time of merger mania in the news industry, journalists are
especially aware that it's risky to challenge the corporate elephant
fattening in the middle of the newsroom.
It is illustrative that The Today Show on NBC-a network owned
by General Electric-removed mention of defective GE-made bolts
from a correspondent's news report in November 1989. And it's
telling that the program's producers told a guest expert on consumer
boycotts not to mention a major boycott targeting GE. But it's
unlikely that anyone from GE's front office specifically ordered
Today Show producers to protect the company's image. No one had
to. That's how self-censorship works.
And nobody needs to instruct the editor of a magazine dependent
on cigarette advertising revenue not to launch a crusade against
the tobacco industry.
Blatant instances of owner or advertiser pressure on journalists,
while significant, are mere tips of icebergs that must be taken
into account when navigating a journalistic career. Flagrant intrusion
by media owners or sponsors is not a frequent occurrence; far
more common, below the surface, are the preemptive decisions made
The biases of mass media don't amount to a conspiracy, as
longtime TV producer Danny Schechter says in his book The More
You Waech, The Less You Know, published in late 1997: "No,
rarely is someone picking up the phone and telling some producer
to skew the news. The boardroom rarely faxes orders to the newsroom.
But then again, they don't have to if they hire professionals
who share the same world view and language, rely on the same sources,
and tend to shape their reporting the same way."
Self-censorship gains power as it becomes automatic. Former
FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson summarized the process when
he told of "a reporter who first comes up with an investigative
story idea, writes it up, and submits it to the editor and is
told the story is not going to run. He wonders why, but the next
time he is cautious enough to check with the editor first. He
is told by the editor that it would be better not to write that
story." Johnson added: "The third time he thinks of
an investigative story idea but doesn't bother the editor with
it because he knows it's silly. The fourth time he doesn't even
think of the idea anymore."
Journalists are probably no less courageous than people in
other professions. But it's daunting, especially in tough economic
times, to consider biting the hand that signs the paycheck. Options
have been particularly sparse during this decade, with news departments
shrinking at many media outlets.
In the mid-1990s, soon after transferring from a top post
at General Mills, the new chief executive at Times Mirror Co.,
Mark Willes, lowered the corporate boom-closing New York Newsday
and ordering big layoffs at The Los Angeles Times. Willes did
not seem to be embarrassed when he compared managing newspapers
to marketing Cheerios.
The journalists who insist that they are hardly akin to Orwell's
circus dogs-that they function without severe constraints-should
try harder to prove such assertions in daily work. Few whips are
in evidence as most American journalists labor with well-trained