American Mainstream Media – Player Or Tool?

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Many different types of communication tools, such as the TV, cinema, radio, newspapers and magazines, web sites and the music industry, can be classified as media. An important issue relating American media is the concept of “concentration of media ownership”. This concept implies that the ownership of most of America’s media lay in the hands of a few media conglomerates, who both earn huge sums of money through advertising and sale of copyrighted material, and, at the same time, are considered as important global players, regarding the fact that they influence people’s views about their surrounding world to a large extent.

But on the other hand, some argue that instead of being powerful players, the American media are in fact tools in the hands of the government. In this paper, each theory will be investigated to see which one better describes the role of media in both the American society and also the world.

It is claimed that there is no stronger power in the world than the American public opinion, and this public opinion is itself shaped by the media, so media can be regarded as taking the place of the powerful kings and popes of the past centuries (National Vanguard Books, 2004). There are many different ways through which media carefully shapes people’s opinions. It provides its audience with an image of the world, and then tells them what and how to think about that image. By stereotyping, the media also tell people how to think and judge about others (this others can refer to different races, women…). The media also plays its role by concentrating on certain stories and issues, while omitting others.

Among other communication media, the television is the most influential, regarding the fact that people spend a lot of time watching TV, probably much more than they spend on other media, such as the cinema or newspapers. According to a survey by Mediamark Research, 98% of Americans have a television, while only 79% are newspaper readers. Three examples of how public opinion is shaped by American media are:

– middle east news, and how the Arab-Israeli conflict is portrayed

– the 9/11 events and the wars that followed

– racial issues

The government has always declared the media to be a power that doesn’t always act in the right way. The conservatives have always complained that the US media have been unpatriotic and not supportive of government’s foreign policy, or simply too liberal.

The Media Research Center has carried out a study on the role of media on the war on terror, from such a conservative viewpoint. The report gives examples of why the American media have not reported the war and relating issues in the correct way:

– Peter Jennings of ABC, in a live program 2 days after the 9/11 attacks stated: “the US might no longer be a free country” and he also claimed that civil liberties have been suspended in the country.

– The “US Patriot Act” was reflected in a way by the media that made it look like some form of unconstitutional “snooping into the lives of ordinary Americans”.

– In the case of moving of Al-Qaede prisoners to Guantanamo Bay, media reported that they had been tortured, and should have access to civilian courts.

– When the New York Times revealed that the NSA (National Security Agency) was monitoring phone calls, it made it look like a threat to civil liberties. (Rich Noyes, 2006)

There are other studies that have used the war on terror to conclude that the media in America have been independent players, and not controlled by the government.

Jim Kuypers is a political communication researcher who claims that the mainstream media intentionally reflected the speeches of President Bush in a biased manner. Kuyper claims that “if someone were relying only on the mainstream media for information, they would have no idea what the president actually said. It was as if the press were reporting on a different speech.” He concludes the US media to be an “anti-democratic institution”. (Kuypers, 2006)

Other writers have claimed that the media have concentrated too much on the government’s failures and weaknesses during the war. (Lustick, 2006)

Opposing this “media as power” theory which portrays the US media as an independent power, calls it the “Fourth Estate”, and claims that journalists are more influential than any government official in setting the public (and sometimes foreign) agenda, are the “media as tool” advocates.

Two important points helps understand why the media are referred to as a tool:

– the media is dependent on the government for the information that it can obtain, and that it can call credible

– the media can criticize the government only within certain parameters that are acceptable to the government and its notion of national security

These facts are said to turn the media into a public relations arm of the US government. (Edward, 1993)

Again, the war on terror would be an interesting context in which the role of media can be studied, this time with the “media as tool” viewpoint.

The concept of “embedded journalism” appeared during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and proved to be a good way to keep reporters content and controlled at the same time. The media put pressure on the government to allow them better access to battlegrounds; they were not pleased with the way they were shut down from information in case of Afghanistan, and also the way they were censored in the Gulf War. And pentagon made the best out of all this, as Lt. Col. Rick Long of the U.S. Marine Corps put it: “Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.” (Kahn, 2004)

In this project, reporters signed contracts with the military which limited what they were allowed to report. Reporters were embedded in selected military units, and so shared their everyday lives with soldiers, and relied on them to get them to the place they wanted, and they usually didn’t have access to any other source other than the military.

A Penn State study reveals that this project did affect the number and the type of stories that were published by major newspapers, and the result was that more articles about the U.S. soldiers’ personal lives and fewer ones about the impact of the war on Iraqi civilians were printed in the 754 news articles that were analyzed in this study. (Linder, 2006)

It can be concluded that the media can enjoy a certain degree of independence, provided that they don’t cross certain red lines, and remain faithful to certain notions that are important to the US government. American media is not just a “power” or a “tool”, but a powerful tool that can be used in a very affective way by the government, if only they can come up with clever ideas and projects, like the “embedded journalism” project. In the “Information Age” (Hess and Kalb, 2003), tactics like hiding the whole story or direct censoring will certainly be ineffective. The US government surely will evaluate its “embedding strategy” and might come up with new and innovative ideas in order to reflect issues and events in its own way, and stay in control of this powerful soft tool.

Bibliography:

1. Edward, Herman, The media’s role in U.S. foreign policy (Power of the Media in the Global System), Journal of International Affairs, June 1993

2. Hess, Stephen and Kalb, Martin, The Media and the War on Terrorism, Brookings Institution Press, 2003

3. Kahn, Jeffery, Postmortem: Iraq war media coverage dazzled but it also obscured, NewsCenter, 18 March 2004

4. Kuypers, Jim, Bush’s War: Media Bias and Justifications for War in a Terrorist Age, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. , October 28, 2006

5. Lustick, Ian S., Trapped in the War on Terror. University of Pennsylvania Press, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006

6. Linder, Andrew, Study on Embedded Journalism, The Pennsylvania State University, 2006

7. Noyes, Rich, MRC research director, The Media vs. The War on Terror: How ABC, CBS, and NBC Attack America’s Terror-Fighting Tactics as Dangerous, Abusive and Illegal, September 11, 2006

8. Research staff of National Vanguard Books, Who Rules America? The Alien Grip Our News and Entertainment Media Must Be Broken, November 2004

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