The First Amendment of the US constitution, guaranteeing freedom of the press, was established to maximize citizen cognition of critical issues in society. It was understood clearly by the founders that Democracy could only be maintained through an informed electorate.
A daily newspaper, along with the three major TV networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, as well as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, are the major sources of news and information for most Americans. News stories and the invidious entertainment segments from these corporate sources generally have similar themes and common frames of understanding. This concentration of access to media sources leaves most Americans with very narrow parameters of news awareness and an almost complete lack of competing opinions.
Important questions that impact most Americans are generally ignored. Why are 45 million American without health care? Why is poverty increasing in the US? What happened to the safety net of social programs for the disadvantaged? What are the underlying reasons - other than oil - for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan? Will the military draft be re-instituted in the US after the 04 election? What is the truth behind global warming and extreme weather conditions? Where have all the living wage jobs gone? Why is minimum wage now at 60% of its value in 1968? Who got rich in the 90s and kept the money? Who owns the electronic voting machine companies?
Each of these questions and many more directly affect nearly every American and their personal motivations to participate in the democratic process. Yet the corporate media choose not to address these important issues in any significant way. Instead, they are keeping us on top of the Peterson murder case, the Michael Jackson trial and the threat of new terror attacks.
By not addressing relevant issues facing everyday Americans, the corporate media are weakening democracy in the US. More than half the eligible voters in the country do not vote in elections. Most non-voters believe their vote matters very little. Therefore, they do not make the effort to distinguish important issues between candidates nor do the corporate media do it for them. Non-voters often see little difference between the two primary political parties and tend to believe that voting is a waste of time.
The corporate media agenda of maximum profits undermines the public purpose of a free press by creating the fiscal necessity for cutting costs and increasing the entertainment content. Ratings and audience share translate to higher advertising value and higher profits. This structural arrangement of corporate media results in an electorate who perceive few personal reasons to get involved, not just as voters but as activists on political issues as well.
How can we address media reform to broaden citizen democratic participation? The regulator of the media -- the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) -- is the body established to insure that the purposes of the First Amendment are maintained. Bush administration pro-corporate media appointees, however, have captured the FCC. Chaired by Michael Powell, the FCC has been trying to relax the media ownership rules by allowing expanded market share by any single media conglomerate and they propose to deregulate the rules of cross ownership between radio, television and newspapers in the same locale.
Members of Congress have been attempting to scale back the proposed FCC changes, but they need a public outcry to encourage them to continue their efforts.
Media reform is not a topic covered by the corporate media themselves and without a strong public expression of concern congressional resolve may weaken in an election year. We must continue the pressure and demand that a diversity of independent news sources be maintained in every city. And we must ask for public funding of locally-controlled grassroots independent news agencies throughout the country as well. Democracy is too precious to lose.
Peter Phillips is Department Chair and Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and director of Project Censored, a media research organization (www.projectcensored.org).
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