Monday, August 29, 2011

Changing the Narrative: Mainstream Media > Corporate Media

So, on the Social Media, Social Justice panel at Rising Tide VI this year, we talked about making a concerted effort to start using the term "corporate media" instead of "mainstream media," especially when referring to the news (Jordan Flaherty was the first to mention this).  I think this is not only a good idea, but a necessity.  Why?  Well, because the term mainstream media sets us up to mentally think "average," "the middle," the "most popular,"or something similar to that.

In so doing, our attention is drawn away from the corporateness of the industry, which is a fundamental aspect of the contemporary news industry.  By using corporate media instead of mainstream media, we draw attention directly to the fundamental profit-driven ideology that informs most major models of news in the U.S.  That is, the logic of profit-driven, complex organizations is to generate profit, as much as possible. This logic filters down to the cellular level of the organization, the everyday individual.

Now, workers in these organizations might not be conscious of all of the ways profit drive structures the organization and the practices of news workers, and they can certainly point out plenty of example of waste, but the broad concerns with cutting expenses and increasing money coming into the organization are fundamental orienting logics that inform such broader things as where to find news (and therefore what is news).  The creation of news beats, for example is a result of reducing the economic risks involved in finding news (see Mark Fishman and Gaye Tuchman -my mentor-see her book review here).  With the creation of structured beats where news can be found daily (and is also easily packaged into news friendly forms), corporate media reduces news to that which is happening among the primary social institutions (often the government and it's various branches, big business (as opposed to labor), and the cultural elite).  This mean that issues and events happening in neighborhoods, communities, and other places are less likely to become news, mainly because it's too labor and resource intensive to do so.  The process of making news daily has been routinized and streamlined in ways the reflect the profit-driven logics of the corporate media.  The result is that what becomes news is that which happens at these major centers.
Further, over the years these centers have adapted to not only provide news, but to manage news (e.g., the creation of press agents and a public relations industry).  Here, the goal is to take advantage of the special place dominant institutions have as news providers and to be proactive in making news, create the news on their terms.  Because it costs too much to actually research and investigate news, claims from these centers often go unchecked, rather they are typically regurgitated in the corporate news.

Additionally, the idea of "objectivity" also has roots in corporate news.  Initially, in the late 1800s-early 1900s, objectivity arose as a means of appealing to more readers, and thus more advertising and subscription rates.  Before objectivity, the press was very political and opinionated.  Different political parties had different newspapers that supported their ideologies, and it was all out in the open.  The idea of objectivity was developed as a way to appeal to readers across ideological lines, and thus increase readership.  Since then, objectivity in practice has become ritualized.  It is a practice of bouncing quotes off of each other in an attempt to show balance (regardless of whether or not balance actually exists--think climate change coverage today).  Reporting on the perspectives of groups not situated within dominant ways of thinking requires comparative quotes from those that are.  Whereas, reporting on the dominant ways of thinking do not require comparative quotes.  This indicates the ideological frames of references with which we operate in society because many of us will see those non-dominant perspectives as somehow biased and thus in need of balance, but those dominant perspectives are so normalized that they appear natural and thus not in need of balance.  Much of the debate, conflict and range of perspectives that we do see in the corporate news exists within a narrow framework that is itself rooted in the broader institution (think liberal/conservative or democrat/republican as the range of political ideologies offered in the corporate news).  By not seeking perspectives from outside of this framework, the corporate news helps maintain and reinforce an ideological range that would likely expand greatly with the increased attention to outside viewpoints.  This is the result of "objectivity" in practice.

To be clear, I'm not saying that we shouldn't value and emphasize the need to accurately record and report on what we see and hear, but that our understanding of objectivity needs to be situated within its proper political/economic context.  I think the future of making news will include an open acceptance of subjectivity and a justification for reporting through a particular lens.  A lens of justice, fairness, openness are all admirable, but it's always important to keep in mind how the organization pressures and motivates certain practices and routines and thus trends in its productions.  This is the case for all complex organizations as they all have institutionalized logics.

Now, the ideologically screwed up thing, and what shows the hegemonic consequences of being born and raised within such dominant narratives is that people might start thinking you're biased by saying corporate news over mainstream news.  That's the screwed up thing.  Kind of shows how our perceptions of things is [always] set within a broader mental framework.  If we don't recognize that broader framework (e.g., free-market capitalism, prisons/incarceration, criminalizing drugs, etc.) as one among a number of others, our frame of references are skewed and perceptions of neutrality and the "middle-ground" are off.

Finally, by recognizing the corporateness of the news we can devise better ways of handling the things we don't like about it (such as the lack of investigate news, or too much spot news and fluff, or violence).  For example, if, at the end of the day, the things we complain about in the news are things that arise from the structure of the industry and institution, then, we should seek solutions that address these fundamental issues.  Many new models now are non-profit (though very different from PBS or NPR).  The organizations are small (and hopefully at some point numerous) and are funded/resourced through a number of different avenues (foundations, endowments, universities, government).  Diversifying sources of money is fundamental to the ability for a news organization to operate [as realistically as I currently see] openly and freely.  Presumably, the concerns of one will be offset by the support of the others.

Check out Robert McChesney's talk for a good critique of corporate news from a political economic perspective and a solution on how to fund journalism in the future.

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