Freedom to Read week: Time to look at damaging impact of corporate media censorship

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I've been deeply involved in journalism for 40 years, and I've never experienced a time like this when mass media corporations are feeding us such distorted, one-sided news and opinion.

Corporate media is helping to facilitate a total change in the ideological fabric of the county into a nation of mean-spirited people who are starting to believe that extreme right-wing policies are the only solutions to our problems. Left behind are compassion, a sense of what’s in the public interest, and social justice.

The just-released Focus Canada survey by the Environics Institute documents in grim detail how the Harper agenda -- which is supported by corporate media -- is way out of line with the country the majority of Canadians want.

In addition to censorship and news manipulation, mainstream media lacks the social conscience required to challenge the lies and distortions of the Harper regime that are damaging so many people.

Canada desperately needs to see a radical change in who controls our daily news and information.

The occasion of Freedom to Read Week, which began February 24th and wraps up this weekend, is a good time to assess the damage caused by mainstream media and call on community groups to take action to make Canadians more aware of the seriousness of the problem and help develop some alternative solutions. 

How Big Media censors our news

Two powerful ideologies -- ultra-conservatism on the political front and free-enterprise corporate ideology -- have reached into the newsrooms and destroyed any semblance of balance.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when I published a progressive weekly in Halifax, The 4th Estate, and was involved in launching the Canadian Association of Journalists, we complained about the quality of mainstream journalism. As bad as were the Irving (my second employer) and the Thomson chains (my first employer), the overall content then was much better balanced and more "human" compared to the way the giant corporations censor our news today.

While there appears to be no recent reports on the integrity of mainstream media, there is a report from 2007 where a cross section of journalists was surveyed. Some 60 per cent of the more than 600 media workers taking part said that the values and politics of their corporate owners had an effect on the newsroom's editorial agenda. The percentage likely is a lot higher in 2013.

Mainstream news outlets -- such as CTV, Global, The Globe and Mail, Sun Media, etc. -- are extremely influential because they still are the source of news and opinion for the majority of Canadians. History has shown over again that when people are lied to or mislead often enough, they tend to believe and repeat what they hear.

Today's privately-owned mass media outlets tend to follow unwritten but well-understood guidelines concerning what they should -- and should not -- cover. All senior editors know the routine so well that stories that fall outside the guidelines do not appear on a regular basis.

In this environment, only "trusted" journalists and editors get to move up the ladder to the top few rungs.

"The people that get promoted to positions of responsibility in a newsroom," stated author and columnist Linda McQuaig some time ago, "tend to be people who share the views of those who ultimately own the paper, or are willing to go along with those points of view." She has first-hand knowledge of how the newspaper power structure works from her years as a business reporter for The Globe and Mail. "If you don't [share such views], you don't tend to get promoted into those positions." 

The other serious problem is self-censorship. Many journalists have been conditioned to suggest only stories that fit the accepted norm. To do otherwise might raise eyebrows among senior editors. They also avoid writing anything that might give anyone the idea that they have left-wing leanings. In terms of fairness, The Toronto Star, to some extent, is an exception among the country’s 95 paid-for dailies.

I have watched as Big Media has purged reporters, columnists and commentators who held progressive or even liberal-minded views. Now media is full of rabid right-wing columnists and TV and radio commentators who cater to the views of the powerful and wealthy. Balance is out the window . 

To protect themselves from getting into trouble with senior management, or from being criticized by corporate leaders, some columnists and commentators have a new way of censoring themselves.

But I remember when outstanding columnists such as Michele Landsberg of the Toronto Star and George Bain of the Globe and Mail had the right to express their views in any way this wished and provided intelligent insight on important issues.

Now, columnists and TV panelists blather on about irrelevant topics, such as how a politician is perceived by the public, or how a particular strategy worked. They do not express their opinions on important topics, because their real views might conflict with those of the Harper regime or Corporate Canada.

One of the best examples of phony commentary is the CBC National's much-touted, but shallow Thursday night At Issue segment. Serious looking people sit around and talk about -- as Jerry Seinfeld might say -- nothing!

The omission of practically all alternative ideas and opinion is nothing less than censorship.

Six ways corporate-owned media censor the news 

Since this is Freedom to Read Week, I want to address six pet peeves of mine about how corporate-owned mainstream media censors the news and, in effect, lies to us.

First of all, one of the biggest lies mainstream media propagates is that the economy is in bad shape. The media message -- repeated almost word-for-word as spoken by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty -- is that ordinary people have to suck it up. They repeat the mantra that there is not enough money for programs such as health care, social assistance and even education.

The truth is that mainstream media doesn't want to tell us that Flaherty, Harper and Big Business have chosen to pretty much starve us out of their prosperous economy. Corporate media, which supports the Harper agenda to the fullest, doesn't tell us that the reason there's not enough money for the rest of us is because Flaherty and Harper have chosen to give our money to the rich. As a result, Canadian corporations are sitting on more than $575-billion in "stagnant capital" they won't invest in the economy. In addition, compensation to chief executives in Canada's top 10 non-financial firms averaged $11.9 million in 2011.

Mainstream media misleads us to believe that, in most circumstances, the federal government is the most powerful force in the country. The truth is that corporate Canada now both dictates to and leads government in making most major decisions, such as deciding the nature of the federal budget, trade policy, and deficit reduction. The most powerful body in Canada many people have never heard of is the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Journalists only need to track how a handful of key decisions are made, and they could tell us the truth about who really controls our country. This would entirely change our understanding how Canada works.

My biggest pet peeve of all is the fact that Canadian corporate media refuses to acknowledge the existence of neo-liberalism -- the disastrous, failed economic system practiced by the Harper regime. While media carry stories about different elements of neo-liberalism -- such as the belief that austerity and unfettered markets are good for the country -- the whole nut of neo-liberalism as a package is not acknowledged. I believe that the refusal to tell us the details of the economic system that dominates our country is pretty much criminal.

Another point is the way mass media censors the views of some politicians. Liberal and left perspective are seldom given much credence. Socialist governments in Latin America are demonized. As a result, many Canadians know little about what political alternatives there are to the way Harper and Big Business run the country.

Big Media silences the voices of community leaders and organizations that speak for the majority of Canadians. Labour, environmentalists, feminists, anti-poverty advocates and many other groups are seldom portrayed in a positive light. Big Media has even helped turn some Canadians against David Suzuki!

This exclusion of legitimate leaders from non-favored sectors gives the public the false impression that community leaders have no opinions or that they must not be doing their job.

Finally, so-called "business journalism" is the biggest, dishonest form of all media. The business pages seldom present a balanced picture of non-business interests, such as damage to the environment, the need for a living wage, or the damage and human rights violations caused by Canadian mining companies.

Business journalism is particularly damaging because it prevents business people from knowing the truth. For instance, when an executive reads that global warming is not caused by human activity, the person feels justified in repeating this big lie. This gives an ignoramus like Kevin O'Leary the license to go on the CBC's Lang and O’Leary Exchange and say outrageously falsehoods that would result in a non-business commentator being dismissed.

How can we start to change the situation?

Both individuals and organizations can take important action to shine light on the misdeeds of corporate media and, hopefully, in time, develop public interest media that will be balanced and human.

As a start, individuals can cancel their subscriptions to their papers and switch away from the big TV networks. Instead they can follow news on the CBC (which unfortunately is not much better these days than corporate news), the BBC and Al Jazeera.

In addition, people can access huge amounts of uncensored news and opinion on the Internet. Sources of interest include rabble.ca, iPolitics, The TyeeStraitGoods News, The Vancouver Observer, The Dominion, and others.

People can help build up Internet-based media by contributing financially to their favorite sites. They can provide in-kind gifts and volunteer to help news sites and alternative media.

Concerned community groups can take even stronger action. First of all, the issue of news censorship should be added to the working agenda of Freedom to Read Week, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, PEN Canada, Human Rights Watch, and other groups.

Lastly, several organizations need to come together to conduct research to determine what impact censorship and news manipulation is having on people's access to diversified information and their ability to understand important issues.

Research can be carried out by Freedom to Read, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Pen Canada, the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada Human Rights Watch, and public interest groups such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association [ , the Council of Canadians, Democracy Watch, Reclaim Our Democratic Canada, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Citizens for Public Justice, Oxfam and others.

Both individuals and organizations can become involved in projects to support existing independent media and create new media outlets that will provide a wide range of news and information. Canadian research could explore the viability of setting up community-controlled, non-profit models. The model used by The Walrus can be considered. Some groups might want to take advantage of a Labour Sponsored Investment Funds (LSIF) program to help support their project.

 

Nick Fillmore's first journalism gig was as a high school contributor to the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. He has worked for daily newspapers, The Canadian Press, Reuters, and owned his own weekly progressive newspaper. He was a stringer for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star from the Maritimes. He worked at the CBC in various capacities, including as an investigative reporter, for close to 25 years. 

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