Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, May 09, 2005

"Deconstructing Canadian consent," May 9, 2005

I've been looking back over more than a year’s worth of Monday Morning World Reports to see what if anything can be learned from the experience.

In the early days, I used several lists of underreported stories--one from Project Censored at

Lists like that are really helpful when you stop to consider that the United Nations has 191 member countries. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in the Hague estimates that there are about 5000 different ethnic groups worldwide. With the internet, there's never any shortage of stories. But it is helpful to have some thoughts and guidelines to help with the selection.

It's also helps to moderate what might be my subjective preference say for stories about the Ivory Coast. What you think is important might not be what I think is important. How do you choose? It's another way of asking, what is "alternative media"? and "what are its operating principles?"

Lately, I've been thinking about this question by using the best critique of the mainstream media that I know of Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of the mass media, Pantheon: 1988 by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Let me just read a little of what they have to say, and then we'll go from there.

In the very early paragraphs of the book, Chomsky and Herman begin by saying quote: "In countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant elite. It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality in command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behavior and performance.

"A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. The essential ingredients of our [the Chomsky/Herman] propaganda model, or set of news 'filters,' fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and 'experts' funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) 'flak' as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) 'anticommunism' as a national religion and control mechanism" (Chomsky and Herman, 1-2)

"...the first filter--the limitation on ownership of media with any substantial outreach by the requisite large size of investment--was applicable a century or more ago, and it has become increasingly effective over time" (4).

In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman are talking about the US media--mainly the New York Times, the Public Broadcasting System, and the CBS/NBC/ABC network news. Canada is not part of the discussion. In particular, there is no CBC, no Don Cherry, and no troublesome neighbor known amicably in public discussions as The Elephant. Chomsky and Herman's book was published in 1988, so there is no discussion of the Internet, no CNN or Fox. The degree of corporate concentration was significant when Chomsky and Herman first published Manufacturing Consent, but it has increased dramatically since that time in both the US and Canada. The ownership of Canada’s news organizations is concentrated in just a two other large corporations built around convergence: BCE (Globe and Mail) and Quebecor (Canoe) and CanWest Global.

The centralizing of editorial decisions in the CanWest chain received a lot of attention a couple of years ago because of the political implications--Asper's reluctance, for instance, to publish Palestinian viewpoints, reduced diversity generally, and increased the negative ideological effects of corporate concentration. But few critics of that move pointed out or even seemed to know that CanWest and a few other large media organizations were experimenting with the business potentials of a technical phenomenon known as "convergence," a kind of mixing or overlapping of separate media and computer applications--like print, television, telephone, and fax. The internet simplified convergence to the point where it became practical to consider having a smaller talent pool spin itself out through a larger variety of media manifestations.

KCR operates on a different model of ownership. It is owned by its members. Where it fails to meet the criteria of this filter and so fails as alternative media is the phrase "with any substantial outreach." We're working on that.

The second filter: "an advertising-based media system will gradually increase advertising time and marginalize or eliminate altogether programming that has significant public-affairs content" (17). KCR gets part of its income from advertising. Maybe this is the place to say that we don't receive any of our core funding from governments. Sometimes a project will receive some of its funding from a government agency. But our core funding comes from advertising, events, and memberships. We are truly "listener supported radio."

The third filter
After working at this for over a year, I have my own list of sources--NGOs, groups of activists, policy specialists and others in a position to give eyewitness information--and I have my own list of underreported stories many of them with a Canadian angle.

The net effect of this, if you focus just on mainstream commercial news sources, has been a dramatic simplification and homogenizing especially of foreign news. This was especially obvious during the war in Afghanistan. By the time the war in Iraq came around, the "embedding" of journalists had itself become a story, and in fact, the media is emerging as one of the decade's main beats. Several organizations list underreported stories for the year. A dozen or more organizations critique particular aspects of media coverage. A number of organizations keep track of how journalists are being treated around the world. In the 90's we had Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. In the new millenium, we have the internet.

I think the internet has been devastating to mainstream commercial news sources. Like so many dotcom enterprises, even the covergence behemoths are turning out to be failures, at least as far as their bottom lines go. Significant numbers of Americans abandoned CNN and Fox and went mainly to the BBC for their "real" news.

Going even farther afield is not yet expensive or difficult for those who have the time. As you know, I tap into dozens of newsstreams every day

For regional coverage to improve and deepen, leadership and commitment on the part of news 'gatekeepers' (i.e. editors and producers) is essential. This would include increased journalist assignments to cover the region, and the eventual establishment of correspondents and bureaus based in the region.

Fourth filter: flak.
It seems to me there is no alternative journalism until disillusion with the mainstream has reached a terminal point. To survive, "alternative journalism" has to be able to discuss what for the mainstream is unthinkable. The war was not a "tragedy;" it was an indictable crime.

Critique of mainstream media reveals a repetition of patterns, consistent weaknesses in the government they serve: "The problem was a familiar one: the United States and its clients were militarily strong but politically weak," "Despite extensive US efforts, [elections] were won handily by the left,""the [unreported] withdrawal of aid...quickly led to the overthrow of the government in a coup by a 'pro-Western neutralist,'""...overthrown in turn by the CIA favorite;" "bombing...was intensified...reaching extraordinary levels during the bombing halt [reported elsewhere];" "ludicrous incidents, including inflammatory fabrications...fevered reports of largely invented...military actions...often fanciful [aggression] subjected to no critical analysis" (254-5). These words are from Herman and Chomsky's discussion of Laos in 1958-68, but with slight variations, they could just as easily apply to Vietnam, Chile, Guatemala, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Haiti. Wait a few weeks and they will seem to fit Uzbekistan or Venezuela.

We have no such analysis for the Canadian press and Canadian foreign policy. In Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky broke new ground by analyzing propaganda "where the media are private and formal censorship is absent;...where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest."

Before Herman and Chomsky, the analysis of propaganda had a distinctly Aristotelian flavour and tended to concentrate on "countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, [where] the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant elite."

Largely as a result of Herman and Chomsky’s work, the United States and to a much lesser extent the UK and France now have media watchdog organizations that monitor a wide range of issues. FAIR is one probably most familiar to KCR listeners (see below their critique of the servile media defending Bush's lack of taste.) Unfortunately, Canada's central foreign policy issue is our relationship with the United States. That makes our main media task, enabling our listeners (including politicians) to recover from having become overwhelmed over and over by the dominance of American media in the Canadian airwaves. (Canadian students who say "this country" when they mean the US; Canadian gun registry opponents who refer to their "right" to "bear arms.") Unfortunately, this may create the illusion that the Canadian media is best studied by learning more about the American media. But at this point I'll just say in my opinion, Canada needs its own media watchdogs and its own critiques of Canadian media. Canada has a unique history and unique issues which are often viewed in the shadow of the Elephant.

Fifth filter: In 2004, anticommunism is no longer the US's national religion and control mechanism; antiterrorism is. For Canadians our national religion and control mechanism is called placating the Elephant.

The mainstream always co-opts what it can of the innovative, subcultural, [these are all potential adjectives to add before media or journalism to denote our subject], new, exploratory, investigative, underground, critical, alienated alternative. Independent, non-partisan and objective are also battleground words.

So there's a problem with definitions and with the choice of descriptive words. That's not an academic issue so much as an issue of having good tools for understanding reality. These would be interesting topics to discuss and to use as a springboard for talking about how we have done what we have done so far; what we tried to do or hoped to do; how we think it is best done; how it all affects the choices you make in doing a show, deciding who to interview, what topics to mix with what, the questions to ask, the music, the spontaneous parts, the tone, the sense of being part of, wanting to serve somehow a larger community.

Alternative journalism goes beyond propaganda for any party or institution, left or right; it seeks to learn the people's truth, the non-governmental truth, the unpaid, inexpert truth, the poor unbought truth, the priceless truth. It reinstates truth as a central value. If to our way of thinking, the media is something like "a free system of information and discussion, independent of state authority and elite interests," (Chomsky and Herman again) then "alternative" means something to stand in place of the current failure to achieve anything of the kind. "Alternative" is the house we build because our other house was stolen and burned down.

Originally saved May 8, 2005
Broadcast May 9, 2005

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