For more than half a century, the Soviet Union’s news agencies were universally recognized as untrustworthy. Strict political controls ensured that content served interests of the nation’s autocrats.
In the democratic world, most have been contentedly confident that a free press was a reliable guardian of the public interest. We assumed it was accessible so any reasonable person could impart information and ideas without barriers. However, not all people are as smug. Noam Chomsky maintains that today’s mainstream corporate media manufactures consent in favour of unregulated capitalism and the political powers supportive of it.
Chomsky argues that the vested corporate interests controlling newspapers, television, and radio are propagandists in the service of the powerful. Political and financial interests ensure that media companies bias content accordingly.
Journalists used to talk about a “Chinese Wall” separating editorial and advertising personnel but the concept is now intermittent. Sometimes that’s rather innocuous. On Global TV News last weekend, a commercial for Whistler Mountain lift tickets was followed by a two minute “news story” about the resort. It doesn’t take a cynic to imagine the commercial fee ensured exposure in a news segment.
More problematic is the current blitz of advocacy advertising that viewers are presently experiencing. It comes from government and industry groups, particularly ones trying to promote controversial projects. There is historic evidence that investigative reporters and vigilant mass media have been associated with increased government accountability and lower corruption. However, when government becomes the largest advertiser, they buy protection for their political misdeeds. Media scrutiny goes away when the subjects are large advertisers.
The other night, I logged the commercials on Global TV late news. In almost 16 minutes of advertising, 25% of it was advocacy advertising by Northern Gateway pipeline promoter Enbridge and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association. The governments of Canada and British Columbia were responsible for six TV spots in one hour. Local business accounted for only 18% while national commercial accounts took up the remainder.