Big Media Myths

by Norman Solomon

excerpted from

1998 Censored News Stories

Project Censored


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.


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 left-wing commentators."

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.


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 America.

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 government."

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.


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.


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 and e-mail."

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 clout.


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.


On the second page of The New York Times, on the last Sunday of October 1997, the listings were typical under a headline that said "Corrections":

* 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.


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 accept.

"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 in silence.

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 caution.


Project Censored