In the contemporary marketplace the preservation of corporate interests is used as a justification to stifle free speech. “That can’t be right,” you’re thinking. “Free speech, the Founding Fathers, the First Amendment.”
Yes those statements are correct. The First Amendment speaks simply to the people’s right to be protected against governmental censorship, but it has no jurisdiction over censorship by private corporate entities. “But it’s the First Amendment,” you’re thinking. “The fact that it comes first must mean it communicates something near and dear to the hearts of Americans.” Again, you would be correct, but unfortunately, censorship is more complicated than that.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 restructured media industries by lifting restrictions on media cross-ownership, a move which should have theoretically enhanced market competition but actually allowed for larger shares of the market to be controlled by individual entities (Croteau, Hoynes, & Milan, 2012, p. 84). Although corporate media ownership was not unheard of at the time of the Telecommunication Act, the deregulation of media industries made conglomeration a more wide-spread practice. In his book The Media Monopoly Ben Bagdikian (1983) discusses a 1979 decision for publishing house Simon & Schuster to avoid printing a book that detailed an investigation into questionable practices by Ford Motor Company. This decision was based on concerns from corporate owners Gulf + Western that the book may damage the reputation of corporations in general (p. 27-30). Bagdikian’s anecdote illustrates how corporations can prevent public access to information that would harm their public image, a problem created because those who control the media also control the message.
Censorship in corporate media outlets happens in two ways: overt censorship, as in the previous example, occurs when parent companies forbid the publishing of damaging material, although the more pervasive form of censorship occurs on an institutional level. Writing in Rich Media, Poor Democracy McChesney (2003) argues that the news media serves to “subordinate editorial fare to commercial values and logic” (p. 42), which speaks not only to the culture of news outlets presenting long-form advertisements under the guise of content, but likewise to the act of villainizing whistleblowers and investigative journalists. McChesney notes the prevalence of firing reporters and editors from their positions for daring to investigate issues regarding the practices of corporate America or the military industrial complex. One notable example saw Chiquita Brands International burying the Cincinnati Enquirer in litigation for publishing accounts of dubious business practices in Latin America (p. 58). Institutional censorship occurs because corporate culture teaches members of the press that bucking power structures can cost them their reputations and jobs. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press illustrates that: “About one-quarter of the local and national journalists say they have purposely avoided newsworthy stories, while nearly as many acknowledge they have softened the tone of stories to benefit the interests of their news organizations” (2000, p. 1). The trend towards puff pieces, gossip, and frivolous journalism works to favor the maintenance of a system of corporate control, in which “what has been regarded as good journalism is seen as very bad business by those who rule the media world” (Reeves as cited in McChesney, p. 52).
According to Lull (1995) “hegemony implies a willing agreement by people to be governed by principles, rules, and laws they believe operate in their best interests […] social consent can be a more effective means of control than coercion or force” (p. 63). America is a society founded on the principles of freedom of speech. Freedom of the press is part of the mythic story of America’s origins, and is constantly reinforced by the rhetoric of politicians and the media elite alike. We accept the assumption of the press being free from restrictions because any contrary argument would be a direct assault to a cherished cultural value. The public perception of journalism as an unbiased institution ultimately engineers hegemony by appealing to accepted values that in turn deter any collective challenge to the status quo.
Yes, the corporate power structures can be disillusioning, but we can fight back. Media advocacy groups level the playing field by making corporate journalists responsible for the messages they send to the public. Groups such as Media Matters for America, F.A.I.R. (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), Media Literacy Project, and The Center for Media and Public Affairs (just to name a few) monitor corporate media outlets to ensure that organizations are dispersing information responsibly. In the current media environment corporations can all too easily conceal conflicts of interest by obscuring shared ownership lines between outlets and news subjects (see for reference the recent 60 Minutes scandal where investigations into CBS’s failure to fact check a controversial segment on Benghazi reveled that the lead source of the story was also hawking a book about the attack slated to be released by CBS subsidiary Simon & Schuster). Media advocacy groups can reinvigorate public conversation by holding news organizations to a higher standard, a function that ultimately challenges the hegemonic agendas of corporations by reestablishing information as a tool of empowerment instead of a commodity to be sold to the masses.
Bagdikian, B. (1983). The media monopoly. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media society. (4th ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Lull, J. (1995). Media, communication, culture: A global approach. New York and Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press.
McChesney, R. (2003). Rich media, poor democracy. Northamption, MA: Media Education Foundation.
Pew Research Center for The People & The Press. (2000). Self censorship: How often and why. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center.