Legacy media failed democracy. It surrendered its place as a forum for free speech and the dissemination of ideas to lap at the feet of corporate and government masters. There are many examples from the War on Terror that demonstrate how the government has turned the media into a propaganda machine, used for the promotion of its economic interests to create a more expansive, imperialistic, war-hungry nation.
The only solution is to find a way to free the press from slaving for advertising revenue. Journalists and the free press must also learn to harness the Internet as a way to virally spread news, culture and ideas and create intelligent discourse, as a healthy democracy requires. Only then can it serve as a watchdog for the people, a check on corporate or government malfeasance, and a challenge to national ideological narratives.
There are multiple reasons for the current crisis in journalism. One: the power-elite manipulate the media, telling Americans what issues to think about and how to think about them, garnering support for policies directly supporting the interests of the ruling class. They do this in part by using “binary constructs” such as “war on terror” which suggest America is locked in a moral war of good vs. evil, and it's simple really: we are the good guys and there is no middle ground. We are on the side of God and therefore anything we do is ordained by the almighty. Many Americans are incapable of seeing the world from any perspective that violates this national narrative (Conroy, Hansen, 51).
Media confirms it by failing to provide contexts for events such as the 9-11 terrorist attacks, parroting the government’s pro-American rhetoric. Nearly eight years later, Americans are still asking, “Why do they hate us?” This is evidence our media system is dangerously flawed and undemocratic.
People and institutions with power capitalize on media routines and its dependence on official sources to enslave it. The nature of the 24-hour news cycle and pressure for journalists to deliver information on multiple platforms at a quicker pace makes them rely on press releases, prefabricated video, graphics and multimedia as well as official government and corporate sources to give their work credibility and to meet deadline requirements.
The media industries dependence on advertising revenue makes it beholden to the almighty dollar, rather than the democracy it’s meant to serve. It rarely questions the status quo or ruling class because that would challenge the worldview and economic interest, of those in power. Corporatized media has no vested interest in serving the people or reporting on issues that might harm its true master, Wall Street (McChesney).
Distrust of the media, the economic downturn, and a mass exodus of citizens away from traditional means of consuming media have caused both funding and credibility crises in journalism. Newspapers are closing shop because audiences go online where they can read content for free; a new revenue model to sustain journalism has yet to be developed. There are now precious-few investigative journalists left because they are too expensive to finance.
Democracy is damaged because there are fewer news sources for information and fewer trained professionals reporting the news. There is still a high demand for the news, however. The space where journalists once reported the news has been filled by pundits, untrained citizen journalists, and bloggers. The danger is in people being able to determine what is good investigative reporting, and what isn’t (Luscombe).
However, another example of how media has failed democracy is the fact that we have to question if what professional journalists report to us is real. In the case of Iraq, the government saw two war fronts: one on the battlefield and one in using the media to win the hearts and minds of Americans to support the war. They saturated the news with information and stories that supported their prerogatives; this made it easy for the media to access only information the government wanted them to have and difficult or impossible to get information they didn’t. Journalists repackaged and distributed information they were given and rarely questioned its validity (Conroy, Hansen, 41).
Newspapers have historically been the engines that move media by providing in-depth reporting on substantive issues that television and radio pick up and summarize to their audience. Television in specific fills space where those reports once were by adding commentators, who use sound bites to form media frames and control what the news is. 80% of air time is spent talking about how they feel about an issue, what their experience was reporting it and talk more about the horse race than providing informative, substantive reports on the issues (Farnsworth, Lichter).
They also manufactured narratives to control the way Americans thought about the war and how they viewed our country. The rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old white, female soldier, who was said to have fought “Rambo style” almost to her death, after being shot and stabbed while trying to avoid capture by Iraqi forces, is one such narrative. The “evil doers” held her hostage in a hospital where she waited for American forces to come and save her, like a damsel in distress.
In all actuality, after her Humvee crashed she was taken to the hospital and was well cared for. Doctors even tried to return her to Americans but were deterred when they encountered gunfire. The Lynch narrative indulged the need for Americans to be heroic and macho. We saw our fighting men storm the hospital with big guns and night vision goggles to save our frail, wounded, captured damsel and return her to the safety and protection of our brave and fearless American soldiers.
In order to push this narrative the government used the press to immediately started circulating unsubstantiated stories of her capture. The press mediated the prepackaged stories to Americans so we could unite against a common enemy in defense of our values and way of life in a battle of “good versus evil.” Americans view war as a “mediated narrative” often not distinguishing between what they see in movies and the real thing, something the Bush Administration took full advantage of when planning war in Iraq.
We might get to closer to motivation and to understanding the manipulation of our narratives about war by examining the approach of the military to the news media coverage of its combat operations. It should be said that the military has, for some time, had a strategic approach to its representation in both dramatic and news media. This approach focuses on the contemporary military’s approach to news coverage, as well as the rhetorical strategy of the George W. Bush administration in gaining popular compliance with its war plans for Iraq (Conroy, Hansen, 111).
Americans were glued to their TV’s to watch the heroic rescue, almost as if they were watching Bruce Willis save his love interest from evil terrorists who held her captive. Television media has become more of means of entertainment and punditry than solid investigative journalism that would question the Lynch narrative and verify sources before reporting the story to the public (Farnsworth, Lichter). Instead journalists raced to the governments million-dollar press complex to wait like hungry dogs to snatch up government edited media and be the first to break them online and on television for an eager and anticipatory audience (Conroy, Hanson, 41).
The government used Lynch’s manufactured story in order to satisfy Nascar Dads who are unwittingly indoctrinated into the Strict Father Model by the government and media. This model teaches respect for male authority and strict rules that must be adhered to so that a stern, disciplined Father can protect the family and restore order when “evil doers” whom we are morally superior threaten us (Conroy, Hanson, 70).
Those in power with a conservative worldview embraced this ideology in order to manipulate Nascar Dads into identifying with the Republican Party, whose policies historically favor the rich. Using powerful metaphors and creating a common enemy, (such as a terrorist who attacks us for no reason,) they’re able to turn Nascar Dads anger away from the true culprit of their discontent, the ruling class in America.
Iraq and Saddam seemed ready and available as the target for the hatred of many Americans and especially the economically besieged Nascar dads. One of the political motives for the Iraq War, this essay contents, was to provide this important demographic with yet another folk devil to contemplate. The anxiety over general social decline, bad jobs, even the loss of a pension could be redirected towards Arabs, Iraqis, and Saddam along with any Americans who challenged his logic (Conroy, Hansen, 74).
Americans and the press are reticent to question government objectives for the war for fear of being labeled as unpatriotic. Instead, media parrot the government’s narrative and compromise the journalistic code. The government has to appear transparent in order to earn Americans trust. To obtain this objective, they embedded journalists with soldiers on the battlefield so that they would be dependent on the military for their survival and empathize with the military that protected them. This made it impossible to report objectively on what they were witnessing. The public's sees our soldiers as heroic defenders of freedom, and were as sheltered as journalists were from experiencing the war or understanding the culture we are at war with (Conroy, Hansen, 114).
Scandals like Abu Grab made Americans start to question our government’s narrative of America as a righteous nation who does no wrong. Journalists who talk more about their spin on the news rather than the issues, report mostly on sensational or negative news and have shown they no loner engage in true investigative substantive journalism all are reasons Americans distrust the media and are examples of how it’s failed democracy.
New avenues of media are opening up for Americans who don’t invest in the mainstream narrative and corporate media system. Anti-war activists, (who were shut out of mainstream media coverage and delegitimized to the public as unpatriotic softies,) turned to the Internet for refuge. Unable to get access to an outlet for their perspective, they abandoned television. Angry at pundit anchors, repetitive news stories, and false narratives, which with time expose themselves as blatant manifestations of the government, these citizens invested in the Internet to spread their ideas and find outlets for activism (Nah).
Online they had free access to newspapers where they could get in depth reporting on the war and a wealth of information to understand it in context. They link to stories so friends in their online communities could virally spread them to others. They interacted with blogs and commented on articles, creating a more democratic way of consuming information, engaging in discourse both face-to-face, and online.
These interactions were sometimes with opposing viewpoints, but most often in communities that agreed with their perspective. People involved in these communities were more likely to go to an anti-war rally or become politically active through some other avenue, because they had access to alleys in which those things were possible and they could join their friends in taking action against the war (Nah).
To some the Internet is seen as hope for the future of media to sustain a more democratic society. There are immense advantages to citizens having access to perspectives of people in the countries we are at war with, or other cultures demonized by our government. Access to information in the Internet makes it easier for Americans to form their own opinions on those cultures rather than take the word of mainstream media pundits, or government (Dahlgren).
The downside to the Internet is a citizen blogger writing an opinion based off something they heard a pundit say doesn’t serve to inform the public. Discourse in blogs and online forums is not always intelligent or reasoned, so it’s hard to say whether or not people achieve reciprocity in an effort to create a more “deliberative democracy” (Dahlgren).
Newspapers can use online journalism to create a fertile environment of intelligent debate on informed issues because they are already a trusted, professional source of information for the public. They can engage the disenfranchised audience who has abandoned television and have grown tired of advertisers, and begin to create intelligent debate in issues in the web forums of their websites (Dahlgren).
However, to make media return to its roots of serving as the forth pillar of democracy, media will have to find a way to fund journalism externally from advertising revenue and return to its place as a watchdog on the rich power elite, question the status quo and the narratives we are told by the government. The only way this can be accomplished is through creating a way to finance online viral journalism that can afford to invest in journalists to do the work the American people. This will help create the connective community that engages in reciprocity, which is required to maintain a healthy and viable democracy.
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Conroy, Thomas, and Janice Hanson. Constructing America's War Culture: Iraq, Media, and Images at Home. Lanham: Rohman and Littlefield Inc., 2008.
Dahlgren, Peter. "Political Communication." The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation 22 (2005): 147-62.
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