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February 15, 2003

Media Failures

I'm playing catch-up, but really, any time's a good time to point out media failures. Media failures are examples of the media failing in its duty to keep even those of us who work hard to pay attention informed of important events. For example, there was the news last week that the "dossier" U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair presented to make the case for war on Iraq—and which U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell cited and praised in his speech to the U.N.— was at least partly a work of plagiarism. Yes, some media outlets covered the story, quietly and briefly, and somehow people seem to have heard about it, but I didn't see this news on front pages or leading nightly news broadcasts, which I would say is a failure. The two most vehement supporters of war base their arguments on publicly-available information, some of which is years old, and that's not a top story? Blair's and Powell's reliance on such information shows they have no "secret intelligence" they're not sharing; if they had anything better, they would have trotted it out—and that's not a top story?

Recent Media Failure #2: Where is the news about the resolutions in both the House and Senate to require President Bush to get Congressional authorization before using force in Iraq? See more at Ruminate This (which also leads to the interesting Stand Down, the "no war" blog. Originally spotted via Testify!.) This story dovetails nicely with one that thankfully is getting a good amount of coverage: the lawsuit against President Bush that charges he doesn't have the authority to commit troops in battle w/out an explicit declaration of war from Congress. Long shot? Yes. Worth it? Definitely.

Finally, Newsweek gives the full story, I'll give you the highlights: When recently asked its email recipients to donate money for pro-peace advertising, people responded; collected more than $75,000 in less than two hours. However, Viacom Outdoor CEO Wally Kelly made a personal decision not to run the ads. Viacom's PR people quickly conjured up some obscure guidelines to cover this capricious decision, but media buyers said they'd never heard of those guidelines. and other pro-peace groups were not happy.

“It does not sound like free speech is alive and well in this country,” says Ben Cohen, founder of TrueMajority and cofounder of the Ben & Jerry ice-cream company. “We can’t even get our message out by paying for advertising.”

But after receiving hundreds of calls and emails in protest of this decision, Viacom reversed itself with the following statement:

This note certifies that Viacom Outdoor will run advertisements for, as discussed by you and [named employee] of Viacom Outdoor. As we discussed at no time was this ever an issue about the content of the ads but only involved our longstanding policies with respect to and political ads. We hope that this clears up any misunderstanding.

While it's great that Viacom has deigned to run the ads, the "misunderstanding" definitely remains. A major part of the misunderstanding here is how (unelected) one person can make a decision about freedom of expression in the U.S. that shuts down speech in major cities all over the country. This and all similar failures of "freedom of the press" in the U.S. are products of media conglomeration: too few companies (about 10) own nearly all media outlets in the U.S. See The Big Ten to get a peek at how deep the rabbit hole goes, and read Rich Media, Poor Democracy for something more like a full story of how media conglomeration shapes our political landscape, limits the range of debate on nearly every issue, and thereby limits the possibility that the world might one day be a better place for us all.

Posted February 15, 2003 08:00 AM | general politics

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