There’s a silent war over the mind of the masses.
By Nathan Abraha
“You’ve meddled with primal forces Mr.Beale.”
Was the chilling warning Ned Beatty’s corporatist business mogul Arthur Jenson from the 1976 film Network darted towards news anchor Howard Beale, who much like Icarus flew too close to the sun when he began partaking in a taboo — telling the truth — free from massaging and reshaping.
On opposite sides of the sand lie journalistic integrity and the question of simply keeping the lights on. There’s a fundamental contradiction in the media’s policy of truth-telling and corporate interest according to Luke Savage,author and staff writer at Jacobin.
“When it comes to corporate funding or ownership of media, this is one of the biggest contradictions of media today,”Savage says. “It’s at once a democratic enterprise and on the other hand we’re talking about profit-making ventures.”
Savage, as a working journalist himself, sees there has been a change taking place within the industry — both the opportunities available to young journalists at traditional media outlets and the momentum of alternative media.
“It is a very difficult industry. It’s much more difficult to work in [and] find stable employment than it used to be,” Savage says. “But there are a lot of jobs in new places that didn’t exist before. There are a lot of alternative media projects that have huge audiences, the landscape is just very different.”
Independent news sites like The Maple and specifically Canadaland, which also doubles as a podcast network, with their mere existence are completely reshaping the industry while being funded by its audience. Canadaland receives over 100,000 downloads a week.
In contrast, according to a study into Canadian media ownership by Harvard, as of 2022 Postmedia Network owns over 120 brands including The National Post,The Financial Post, and The Montreal Gazette. Postmedia Network is itself owned by Chatham Asset Management — an American hedge fund — Rogers Media owns CityTV and several other local news channels while Bell Media owns CTV and 35 local television stations led by CTV.
“You see greater and greater concentration of ownership of publications. More and more places cutting back, layoffs — like the example of the Huffington Post Canada in the last two years,” he says.
Savage is referencing the sudden closing of Huffington Post Canada in 2021 when it was purchased by Buzzfeed.
“And then at the other end, there’s kind of the more you know the independent sphere with less corporate ownership and things like that. But you see a trend towards just deeper, more extensive fragmentation, where you have communities that kind of fragmented into micro communities which then have their own sub micro communities.”
What Savage points towards is one of the fears within alternative independent media and that’s the danger of an ‘echo-chamber’ audience being cultivated, unable to reach the average person and forever reinforcing into smaller and smaller communities.
Although he warns this doesn’t mean sacrificing goals or principles in the pursuit of a larger mainstream brand of journalism.
“Having your own voice is not incompatible with having ambition and wanting to be successful, but you should certainly not be bending your whole approach and outlook around some imagined future prospect,” he says.
When it comes to corporate interest the blame shouldn’t be on the individual journalist according to Justin Podur, associate professor of environmental and urban change at York University and host of the podcast Anti-Empire Project.
“If you take a corporate journalist at say CTV or CBC, I’m sure a lot of your colleagues will go into these companies when they’re done with their degrees — they are good, decent people that are trying to do good. Because of the constraints they are usually under, the alternative isn’t to do better on the job, it’s not to have that job,” Podur says.
Podur brings up a real concern for countless journalists, a fear of an unspoken silent suppression of press freedom that can result in de-platforming or blacklisting or worse if their reporting skirts certain interests or narratives that often find their way plastered into corporate media headlines.
Examples such as Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, currently facing 150 years in prison for exposing classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq among many others — serves as the steep example of the price that can be paid.
Much is made of Rupert Murdoch’s monopoly on U.K. news or Jeff Bezos purchasing The Washington Post but Canada has its own issues with corporate ownership of media.
Podur sympathizes and points out the difficulty of the position journalists face between corporate and independent as not necessarily ‘good and evil’.
“None of us are in any different situations. There are always professional constraints but especially on people whose jobs are to research and say things,” he says.
For Podur, a teenager in the early ‘90s, journalism first came in the form of his father’s Globe and Mail copies — even then, he didn’t quite buy everything he read.
“I was around 13 years old when the U.S. first bombed Iraq around 1990 and the way the media were portraying the situation — the need for the bomb, the innocence of the U.S., and the guilt of Iraq. I was very skeptical of all that,” he said.
Podur sees imperialism as the venomous sidekick directly linked to the question of corporate interest in journalism.
“We have to understand the power of co-optation. We did a series recently on the scramble for Africa and looking at some of the journalists working at the time, they were imperialists – they were working for the interests of imperial powers at the time the British empire,” he says. “There’s a tendency to look at the abolitionist journalists from the 1840s or muckrakers exposing corporate power in the 1920s as the standard but there’s never been a time [when] most journalism wasn’t imperialist.”
Influence is something Podur says alternative media isn’t immune to.
“You have alternative media but if they have some sort of reach you have attempts to take it offline, purchase it, infiltrate, or — destroy it which is what happened to WikiLeaks for example whose founder is in jail now facing a lifetime in jail for doing journalism,” Podur says. “There’s also ideological splits that happen.”
The dreaded suit that every grassroots journalism organization bemoans suddenly starts showing up to business meetings harping about how the content doesn’t appeal to investors, the importance of maximizing profit and how the message needs to be digestible to the donors.
Vice magazine was originally a Montreal-based controversial edgy magazine, born as the brainchild of Suroosh Alvi, Gavin McInnes and Shane Smith — Vice both shocked and excited a generation of counter-culture enthusiasts with its anti-establishment gonzo journalism in the early 2000s. Since expanding its venture closer to the realm of traditional network news with Vice Media, Vice has struggled to keep their previous large audience and reputation.
In late 2018, Vice spoke out saying their ties with Saudi Arabia were under review in the wake of the global scandal that erupted following the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, yet in April 2021, Vice not only opened an office in Riyadh, but have also received direct funding by Saudi state-affiliated Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).
“The relationship between alternative and mainstream media has become muddied,” Podur says.
Another force of control that passes as ‘fair’ in journalism is the often centrist stance a lot of journalism organizations take to be another key aid to corporate feasting upon the industry.
Podur says the solution is government-funded state media, but how do you keep from becoming a mouthpiece of a political agenda?
“School vouchers in the U.S., instead of funding private schools, give parents vouchers that they can direct toward public schools. That leads to horrific results for education in my opinion, but for the media that wouldn’t be a bad system,” Podur says.
The idea is the public would use their individual vouchers to fund the media outlets they want. Getting user-directed media that are actually publicly funded.
Joe Emersberger makes his living as an engineer, yet the author at FAIR.org and CounterPunch still finds the time to partake in journalism, his financial dependence on engineering rather than reporting is something he says has freed him of the constraints that face everyday journalists.
“Not having to rely on a media job or an academia job is important, being unionized — it’s important. All those factors can give you some more independence,” Emersberger says. “Also if you’re not a huge player you can get away with some more things because you’re flying under the radar but ultimately, if you start reaching a big enough audience, you’re gonna pay the price,” he says.
Although being an outsider to media doesn’t necessarily keep you clear of consequences or danger as Emersebrger points out. The case of environmental lawyer Steve Donzinger, whose protection of 30,000 Indigenous Amazoians, in a lawsuit against Chevron’s activities of oil dumping in the Ecuadorian Amazon, resulted in his house arrest for over two years.
Traditional state media could carry an important societal function and solution according to Emersberger, but the question of influence would still be tricky.
“Traditional state media can actually serve an extremely important function. For example, if you consider left wing governments like Venezuela, you have the private sector elites backed by a superpower who are incredibly hostile to the government. So the governments’ either going to capitulate, or it’s going to fight back,” he says.
But, when the government directly owns the media obviously this poses questions such as, how do we know these outlets can tell the truth about the government if they’re directly owned and accountable to the government.
For the private media, the question is the same: How can it be independent while directly owned and accountable to ultimately corporate owners and advertisers — rich people basically.
Well, that’s when the theory of vouchers rears its head again. Something Emersberger sees as a positive leap to unhook the media from the fangs of influence.
“So the theory is that we would have a publicly funded system, but instead of the government taking direct ownership of media outlets in the traditional state approach, they instead give every voter a bit of money that they’re free to donate to what could be any media, artistic enterprise or individuals who produce art or journalism and giving them funds directly,” Emersberger says.
“That way, it has more of an arm’s length from the government, but at the same time, you give people money to fund whoever they want to provide this work. Even if these outlets didn’t become as big as let’s say, typical corporate media, they would exist, they would be secure. And you know, they could provide an extremely important service,” he says.
Dean Baker, an American macroeconomist at a Federal Communications Commission’s Future of Media Workshop goes further into the concept of voucher based media. Baker argues the basic idea for the voucher is to give each taxpayer a fixed amount (e.g. $100 a year) that can be used to support the media venture or individual of the person’s choice. This is, in effect, a refundable tax credit. The mechanism can be designed as a payment from the government by designating a code for a registered recipient on a tax return.
“Yeah, sure it can be picked apart and undermined but the same applies to public education or health,” Emersberger says.“As we’re seeing right now in Ontario, anything can be undermined in different ways. But it’s still important to win that basic victory, get that idea out there that there’s alternatives to the typical corporate media that’s dependent on rich backers or the traditional state media which also has a downside.”