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Information Control: The Disempowerment of America

by The Frustrated Journalist Monday, Nov. 27, 2006 at 11:23 PM
frustrated.journalist (a) gmail.com

“Information is power and whoever controls the information has the power.” This simple axiom applies today more than ever in America – with an addition to it. Whoever controls information access has the power to control the direction of our country, especially since the media are the most pervasive and omnipresent purveyors of information in the U.S. // © 2006, Sasha A. Rae, All Rights Reserved

Today not only do a handful of corporations own most of the media, they also own most of the media distribution systems, such as cable networks, film production and distribution studios, and Internet portals. But what does that really mean to you and me?

FEEDING OUR ANXIETY: HOW THE MEDIA INSPIRES FEAR

A controlled media system that consistently forces a single viewpoint on the public and that ignores important stories creates an environment of fear and suspicion. When we don’t know what’s happening or we feel like we’re missing important information, anxiety and discontent often set in. Then fear starts to increase as stories focus on the threat of war or terrorism and don’t provide a context for that information. In fact, since the bombing of the Trade Towers in 2001, the media have routinely provided fear-inspiring stories on the threats of terrorism and misinformation on the war in Iraq. Most of the inaccuracies in the reporting on the war stem from false information the American government deliberately fed to reporters.

As fear increases and accurate information decreases, we can start to feel powerless and unable to make positive changes in our society (Check out Bob McChesney’s book ,a href=”http://www.mediaproblem.org/”>The Problem of the Media and Ben Bagdikian’s book The New Media Monopoly). Apathy sets in and some people stop voting. According to Peter Phillips, the director of Project Censored, in the 2004 elections, 80 million registered voters didn’t participate in the election and many of them were college-educated couples. They felt like the government had pretty much locked down the election and that their votes wouldn’t count anyway, so why bother? This may be changing now, but decreasing voter turnout has been a pretty consistent trend in the past decades.

And the apathy extends beyond not voting. It encompasses active participation in communities, following the daily news, and doing anything more than working (often two or three jobs). Who has time and energy for activism? Who knows what issues require attention or will affect us directly? The issues seem so distant and unrelated to daily life.

Yet an engaged and aware citizenry is what fuels a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, right now America has a distinctly immobilized public who feels disempowered by the people and organizations in control.

INCREASED RESTRICTIONS: WHAT RIGHTS DO WE HAVE?

And who can blame us? We are losing our rights all over the place as corporations are consolidating their power any chance they can and especially with regards to information access and control. So far in the past ten years, the American government

  • has passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which basically made the media a free-for-all for those who have money to also control the information systems in our country (Check out the study by Common Cause);
  • has routinely reduced our Freedom of Information rights, and restricted public and journalistic access to government documents and hearings (See the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press);
  • has attempted to gain unlimited access to our personal information via email, police databases that house that information, and library records on what types of books we borrow; and
  • is in the process of passing the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006, which, “as currently drafted, fails to protect an open and neutral Internet or to encourage equitable broadband deployment,” according to Free Press. It does open a doorway for local governments to offer municipal broadband and, with some revisions, could be useful to the public. As it stands now, however, corporations once again benefit at the detriment of the public.

Not a pretty picture for the future of a society based on freedom of information and the right to privacy.

Still, some of these issues may sound unfamiliar. We don’t hear much about them in the mainstream media unless we dig for them. These are the types of issues that the media choose to ignore or gloss over – not really important to their business at hand. The business of increasing their own bottom lines, that is.

WATCHING THE WATCHDOGS: CAN WE FIX THE MEDIA SYSTEM?

If we don’t hear the facts regarding major legislative changes or big corporate mergers that will affect the quality of service receive or even whether we receive service, such as with the broadband debates, we can’t do anything about it. How can we? We don’t even know what’s happening. That’s what the media is supposed to do for us – tell us what’s happening in our world.

The media used to be the watchdogs of society and, even with their flaws, they at least reported big news stories on important issues related to the welfare of society. Now that they’re owned by corporate interests and those interests often interfere with the independence of reporters and newsrooms to cover certain stories, who’s watching out for the public? And how can information reach the greater public if the very distribution system used to disseminate information– the media -- is flawed and essentially non-functional in that regard?

It’s a question that many media scholars ponder. Nobody seems to know yet what the most effective solution is. But the bottom line here is that we need accurate and socially pertinent information so we can make knowledgeable decisions and, hopefully, improve our currently flagging democracy. We need the media to act in the public interest and we need to find a way to make that happen.

© 2006, Sasha A. Rae, All Rights Reserved

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