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How free press is fading in US

By Sunita Narain
April 26, 2005 13:22 IST
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Each time I visit the US I am struck by the lack of serious news on its many television channels and newspapers. The media here clearly follows the dictum "if it bleeds it leads".

In other words, news is not about informing or educating people, but simply entertaining them. This state of affairs, I have realised, is neither accidental nor incidental. It is deliberate; indeed, inevitable.

Inevitable, because it is a function of the business model the country has adopted for its media, much like the rest of its public works. It has deregulated the media completely; in other words, there are no public duty functions of the media the government can or must support.

Free from the "clutches" of the state, over the years, the rules of the market have prevailed in the media. The weak are weeded out and the mighty become mightier.

In 1983, 50 corporations comprised the US media; by 2004, five. In other words, the world's oldest democracy, and one that promotes democracy as a religion across the globe, is informed and educated by five corporations that owe their allegiance to the profits of their shareholders.

For profit and pay, corporations slash funding for hard-core news functions. The Pew Research Centre, a Washington-based think tank, has found that between 1994 and 2001, radio stations lost 57 per cent of their news staff, while network news correspondents declined by more than a third since the 1980s.

This led directly to declining quality in news reporting, translating into a serious credibility crisis with readers. Pew found that over 35 to 45 per cent of the people they surveyed categorically said that they believe nothing they see or hear in print or on television.

The crisis goes deeper than erosion of trust. The fact that people do not believe the media means fewer people tune in. Declining audiences lead to further desperation in the business rooms to keep ratings high and the money coming in.

In all this, what is worst is that the idea of a free press has been defeated. For one, the model, built on consolidation and scale, denies opportunity to competition: there cannot be independent views, let alone diverse views.

Second, the model, with its financial imperatives, is as vulnerable today to influence from the state, or corporations, as the one it replaced.

It is always argued that governments must not finance or run media; it becomes their propagandist. True. But what happens when government uses the influence of money or power to change the propaganda of the day?

Just last year, the two most respected newspapers in the US, the New York Times and the Washington Post, both accepted publicly that they had succumbed to biased reporting of the Iraq war.

More recently, it was found the US media was using "feed" -- stories prepared by government and published as independent news stories.

What is surprising then to learn is that this handout-driven media is then also poached by corporate interests. Inevitable, as I said before.

But what is even more inevitable, then, is that a compromised media will compromise democracy. The media has more than a functional role of contributing to the service sectors of economies.

It has the role to make democracies functional. In other words, its decimation is the decimation of democracy.

Why am I so obsessed by the media in the US? The problem is that we are slowly (sometimes not so slowly) moving towards the favoured US model of media enterprise. Today, the media -- particularly the electronic media -- is more and more unregulated.

The state has increasingly withdrawn. Its own public broadcaster – Doordarshan -- is increasingly inept in challenging the market. The state's role as a propagandist is rightly condemned as the market takes over the reins of opinion-making in the country.

The media is beginning to cater to audiences that can pay. This will leave out of its ambit what does not matter and those who do not matter.

That would be all right, if the people who did not matter really did not exist. It is true that the middle-class in India -- the media's clientele -- is growing. Market watchers love to say there are 200 million people raring to shop till they drop.

But this hides the fact that there are still over 800 million others who can't shop but can certainly drop. What happens to the news about their everyday world? How will it be reported? Why should it be reported at all?

Let us be clear that an undermined press is also not good for the rich. The fact is that the media plays a watchdog's role in regulating and mitigating the adverse impacts of growth.

If its role stands compromised, so does its ability to discharge this function. And of keeping democracy functional. This will, ultimately, hurt all of us. A stooge is a stooge.

And it makes a fool of us all. So it is that we must find the balance between the market and public interest in our media. Fast.
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Sunita Narain
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