The root of our problems: Corporate media ownership

November 16, 2008

I must have read a thousand articles that point the finger at someone or another for our troubles.  The latest one zeroes in on the baby boomer generation, especially its politicians which failed to lead on anything the last three decades (case in point our lack of an energy policy… only when oil hit $145 did they try to actually do something).  Others blame the Republican philosophy of everything-goes free market.  Or a Bush administration that didn’t even enforce the rules which actually were on the books.  Lobbyists.  Exotic derivatives.  Speculators.  And of course plain old Wall Street greed.

But politicians have always been fickle, financiers always greedy, and our market free all along.

I believe these are all mere symptoms.  The root cause is a national media that fails to inform the citizenry and whose sole objective is to increase their audience (and their income).

Used to be newspapers, magazines and TV networks were typically owned by a family or a small group of private owners.  Owners cared about making a profit to be sure, but because of their very personal link to the enterprise they also cared greatly how it reflected on themselves, and about their unique special duty to their readers and society as a whole.  They were also staffed from top to bottom with people who dedicated their lives to the cause of truth and justice.  From the publisher to the editor to the bureau chief to reporter to anchor their first goal was to tell a story that informed.

These days most outlets and publications have become mere properties administered by CEOs and boards whose only concern is to beat quarterly earnings.  And when they miss sales targets their typical approach is to close a far-off bureau, or to push a sensational story more aggressively.

In the end, they have become more entertainment and less information.  Their goal is to keep us glued to our TV (and their ratings high), not to inform us about what really matters.

The subtle but very real effect is that important issues are now treated as a series of simplified headlines, dramatic struggles between newsmakers, and polls that comfort us into believing we are right, even if we never actually understand much about it.  Others, mostly on the right, use fear and highlight incendiary (but rare) events to inflame.

So how can our leaders discuss in a thoughtful way the complex problems when our attention span is days, not months?  How can they debate their views in the national stage when the news chops their speeches down to a soundbite?  How can they implement tough but necessary solutions when they can’t make their case and build our support to take difficult steps?  How can they solve our problems when the only parties paying attention to the details are entrenched interests and lobbyists?

And if our leaders don’t act on our behalf (why would they, we’re not paying attention anyway), then who solves our problems? who enforces the rules we do have? who keeps greedy capitalists in check?

I do have hope.  I think Obama understands this.  I think he has the voice and the nuance to pierce through this membrane.  And I think he can use new media to speak directly to us.

If he does, we just may finally start tackling our problems these next four years.

Yesterday I heard he’s ditching weekly radio addresses and putting them on youtube instead.  That’s a step in the right direction, and very encouraging.

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