Paul Smith on Media: Feeding The Bottomline

Published: Mon 11 Jun 2007 09:14 AM
Media: Feeding The Bottomline
NZ Media Comment By Paul Smith
Seems like every day there's a new moral panic gathering force over the media landscape. Yet another cop scandal, dreadful non-Christians, even more dreadful Christians; cleavage outrage, Paris Hilton tears…. And violence - oh the violence - even as we are rated the second most peaceful country in the world. People shrug, move on. Others can't get enough of it and you begin to wonder why, when there's so much else that is important locally and internationally. And then across the Web comes this echo:
Feel like the issues you care about aren’t being covered in the news? Find yourself wondering what’s really going on at home and abroad? Frustrated that celebrity scandals, corporate propaganda, and lousy music dominate the airwaves? Worried that the Internet will be handed over to a few big corporations? You’re not alone. Millions of people across the country feel the same way. At Free Press, we’re doing something about it.
We believe our media is in crisis and is a threat to a healthy democracy. We’re building a broad movement for media reform that is fighting against media consolidation, and for independent, diverse and local media. We’re putting the public back in broadcasting…
Free Press, an American reaction against Americanisation, believes the main problem is that the structure of the media system makes socially dubious behaviour - for example 'lousy journalism, violent and mindless entertainment, hypercommercialism' - the rational outcome.
It adds:
If all the media owners and executives were to quit their jobs today and be replaced tomorrow by different people, the content of the system would not change appreciably, because the cues would remain the same. If we wish to change the nature of media content we need to change the cues so that good journalism and quality material will be the rational product of its operations. To do that requires that we change the government policies that shape and direct the media system. That is why Free Press exists.
Free Press is not some nutty new website. It was founded by one of America's leading thinkers on media, Robert W. McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author or editor of 12 award-winning books, including Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy. So people do care overseas - and here, if a glance at the NZ Herald letters is any indication. One correspondent complained about loopy news selection on TVNZ. ' Despite there being several major issues warranting the lead, what did it start with? ' asked Russell Armitage of Hamilton. 'Zinzan Brooke arriving home with a bandaged head'.
And in the same issue about the industry on a broader front: 'PrimeTime television in New Zealand, Wednesday June 6: TV ONE Cold Case; (United States); TV2 Lost (United States); TV3 CSI New York (United States)' wrote Scott Menzies of Christchurch. At the heart of these plaints is a debate about our social conditioning by an over-commercialised media intent on serving the bottom line.
Sociology long ago recognised a process called function creep. It's what occurs when an item, process, or procedure designed for a specific purpose ends up serving another purpose for which it was not intended. In media, marketing was the Trojan horse. It originally arrived as an unwelcome saviour to safeguard revenues. Then it crept, using ratings as its weapon. The quick and the easy became commonplace as did moral panics. In that feeding trough, minorities, women, migrants are all fodder. Now if you substitute the word function with titillation and you get less relevant news, more sensationalism, especially about celebrities - and sex. Better still, celebrity sex.
We have some way to go before we reach the stage of the Los Angeles Times seeking a 'celebrity justice reporter' for its website. Or an American news site. Writing in Alternet News last month, Barbara Ehrenreich quoted the website’s editor as saying he could get two Indian reporters for a mere $20,800 a year. 'Since Pasadena’s city council meetings can be observed on the web, the Indian reporters will be able to cover local politics from half the planet away'. But, she asked, would they see the potholes in the roads?
Back home, would we see less of Zinny and more breaking news - in which the word breaking is a verb, not an adjective? Will TV buyers ever pause to consider other offerings from other societies and so serve the diversity of viewer interests? The answer is no - not in our Americanised models of mainstream media, where titillation just keeps on creeping…
Paul Smith is a journalist, author and founder of the website, .

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