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A Clear and Present Danger to Freedom and Democracy: The News?

Scott Bannon Posted by Scott Bannon

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“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Those who study American history know that there was a lot of early opposition to our original Constitution, based largely on the fact that it did not contain adequate protections and guarantees for civil liberties.

To address these concerns, the Bill of Rights, which begin with the farthest reaching guarantee of civil liberties in the First Amendment, was introduced for ratification by the states in 1789.

In other words, our founding fathers realized that after just winning our Independence in a costly fight for our civil liberties from English rule, it was vital to our nation’s future that we constitute protections for those very same liberties and protections for our houses of worship and the free exchange of information by news and other publication means from government intrusion.

The notion that a free society depends upon a free and impartial exchange of information and ideas was their belief, and throughout any history book we can see the truth in that belief. Citizens who have been conquered and oppressed have little to no access to free information exchange and candid news journalism. Citizens who live free do. It’s that simple.

The reasoning is easy. If Citizens are free to congregate and exchange information and ideas without government control, then government officials must always fear the outcomes of those gatherings and exchanges. Elected officials must work hard to remain favorable, or risk their positions. But when government controls the flow of information, that fear is removed and politicians are free to act in whatever manner they please without repercussion or consequence.

Sadly, the one thing our founding fathers never envisioned nor safeguarded against was the idea that one day a small handful of people from the private sector would gain overwhelming control over all of the news and periodicals, giving these never-elected few the power to shape and change our country almost at will, and with no reasoning beyond bottom-line profit margins by simply controlling the flow of information to the citizenry.

But that is what we have today. Through mega-mergers and acquisitions, the vast majority of all information being reported, and the slants with which it is getting reported in America, all comes down from the desktop of a small number of people who can freely base their decisions on corporation profits over accuracy or integrity, and with nearly no fear of consequence or repercussion.

There are a ton of debates and arguments to be had on various points of this topic, it is far reaching, but there is no denying that corporate control over news and information exchange has already had a devastating hand in altering our country’s course.

There was a time when most Americans, regardless of political party affiliations, agreed that the federal government was like having an unruly teenage child. You couldn’t just abandon it on the streets when it acted up, so you had to remain diligent and aware of what it was doing and punish it when appropriate. — Anyone remember “trust, but verify”? As in trust your 17 year old son that he’s going to a friend’s to study, but verify that he’s not driving straight to the Keg party at the neighborhood park.

Yet today heated debates rage on because people have become ensconced in false positions of attacking or defending the very existence and role of our federal government on countless issues that should never have been part of it’s domain, such as who sleeps with whom and what ceremonies can or can not be performed in any local church.

Where and when did this happen? I don’t know for sure, it’s hard to pinpoint any single moment or incident, but why it happened is the real question we should be asking; and the answer is fairly obvious: the federal government holds regulatory power over corporate America, so for corporations the easiest way to gain leverage against elected officials would be to buy up the media outlets and gain control over the flow of information to the constituents of those elected officials. Suddenly politicians need to please Corporate masters in order to reach voters with their message.

As a child in the 1970′s I can remember the rivers around Pittsburgh flooding every 2 or 3 years after the spring thaw would come. Back then the local news reporting was always focused mostly on how the floods affected people, typically the poorer residents of low-lying areas who saw their homes and meager possessions washed away with the waters and had no insurance to rely on for getting through the disasters. I remember this because I was among them in those years. Our family home was on the edge of the Ohio river, just feet above the normal crest level. Luckily, the river never quite rose to our house in my time their, but it did wash out the street our house was on numerous times.

In recent years I’ve noticed, we still have those spring floods, though not quite as frequently and usually less disastrous because we’ve become better at managing the water flows over the years, but when the rivers do flood today, it isn’t the human tragedy that’s being reported on like I remember from my childhood as much as it is the affect the floods will have on businesses and yes, even daily parking in the city.

From telling the truths of the human tragedy among the poor who could only afford housing in flood prone areas where insurance companies won’t offer flooding insurance, to blurbs on how dozens of suburbanites who drive to the city for their job will see their normal parking spots displaced…that’s one instance of how the approach to reporting coverage has been altered.

It’s a serious shift in how the same type of stories are covered today from just a few years ago, and due to a slow moving shift has been almost unnoticeable unless you’re looking for it, but then it’s plain to see.

And it brings up a vital question to my position, have we as a people become less caring about the hardships and sufferings of our neighbors so as to steer the reporting away from telling stories from that humane perspective? Or, have bottom-line influences driven the coverage away from the human tolls to give more importance to the business community?

And if you think I’m just spouting off baseless conspiracy theories about Corporate America trying to control and reshape the free exchange of information, take a look at what’s happening online recently. Major battles are taking place between information producers and web site owners and services over where information can and can’t be shared; not to mention which information is being shared and with whom.

Just today I read about a subsidiary arm of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch‘s baby, blocking 3rd party sites from even linking to information on their own web sites. This isn’t an issue over intellectual property rights or even advertising profits, it isn’t a case of News Corp protecting their content, it’s News Corp wanting so much control over what information people get and when, that they don’t even want others to point to their content and tell surfers online to go to News Corp’s site to read it. That’s “control freaking” with a capital “F.U.” to the very freedoms that the First Amendment–which News Corp often hides behind–was written to protect.

I don’t want this to seem like I’ve set out to specifically bash News Corp or Murdoch in any way, the chilling state of journalism and honest investigative reporting is equally poor and jaded across the board. CNN, MSNBC, print news, the list goes on and on…all owned by large corporations that have a bottom-line interest in swaying public opinion on everything from politics to sports teams and everything in between. How far they’ll go in using their ability to shape public opinion isn’t the point nor the question, but should the publishers of news hold such conflicts of interest to begin with is.

The bottom line is that the free exchange of information and ideas has become a bottom-line business controlled by a select few in Corporate America, and that represents a clear and present danger to our democracy. Owning a news outlet, print or broadcast, is no longer about fulfilling the service to keep a well-informed public, the news has become a tool for the elite to wield against the public, and at times against government as well, when it’s in their own special interests.

I’m not suggesting that news publication should be a not-for-profit business model, and I certainly don’t think it should be controlled by government, but for the first 125+ years of our nation information and news wasn’t under the control of mega-corporations either, and those were some pretty productive times in our history, so I’m just asking isn’t there some middle ground that would serve the public good; and isn’t there anybody (outside of Comedy Central) willing to take on that role today?

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Technorati Tags: 4th estate, First Amendment, freedom and democracy, news

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  1. One Response to “A Clear and Present Danger to Freedom and Democracy: The News?”

  2. By Teri | Reply to article

    I’m also from Pittsburgh and thought of your article when I saw this headline on a local newspaper site today
    “Half of Mon Wharf will open for parking Monday”

    You’re right, when you watch for it you can see how more attention and time is given to how stories effect businesses over how they impact on people and families.

    I don’t remember it being different, I wasn’t around in the 70′s lol, but it should be.

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