The mass media and our environment
The media these days are just another big business managed not more differently than any other industry. The mainstream media is very global in its scope (just think on CNN as an example) and like any other business its owned by a handful of large transnational corporations, or TNCs. General Electric (GE) is an example of a media owning TNC as it operates NBC Universal in USA.
But how did it come to this? How come TNCs have such a big influence? If we look back in the US history we find some explanations. In the early days corporations was actually a public institution designed to serve the citizens in USA. It might be hard to imagine today in USA but the state had a great control over these political created corporations. But as time moved on these corporations became increasingly privatized. This was in the beginning fueled by the need to create private finances to help in war efforts and colonial state expansion and imperialism which took place during this period. But as corporations grew bigger and richer their political powers increased even further. During the nineteenth century the privatization increased rapidly as laws and ideologies were introduced to accommodate the corporate interests. In 1868 the US Supreme Court ruled in favor for private corporations to be given the same rights and protections as a "natural person" under the nations constitution. This meant that corporations were now free to influence the government with the very same rights as individual citizens had. This paved the way for corporate donations and lobbying which was used to "dominate public thought and discourse". Elizabeth Campbell notes that as a result corporations today basically controls individual politicians and whole political parties in the USA.
When it comes to the media it wasn't until around the twentieth century that things changed and a new corporate media industry started to emerge. Before the twentieth century most of the media was local and national and not as globalized or privatized as they are today. The first forms of global media was the radio broadcasting and the film industry. 85% of all the films people were watching in cinemas by 1914 was coming from the US. And it was around this time that corporations and nations started to realize the importance of media as a political tool. At the end of World War II the USA successfully used the global media to reinforce the picture of its nation as a leading superpower in the world. After World War II the transition from local and public-owned media to global and corporate owned media begun. And with the successful spread of English media around the world commercials and advertising increased rapidly.
Mass media and advertising
Because mainstream media is privately owned their end goal is of course to make money from their business. And like one can imagine advertising is one of the main income sources. This means that the media have to comply with and cater to their advertisers wishes so they don't lose their income source. And those who can afford to advertise are the transnational corporations who all share and push the free-market capitalistic ideology. Campbell writes that these large corporate advertisers rarely want to sponsor shows or programs that involves any kind of serious environmental, social or political criticism towards any corporate activities.
Product-placement in the media, for example when Pepsi pays to have their soda drink visible in a TV-show, is a multi-billion-dollar industry these days. And to be able to influence the public, i.e. their consumers, corporations spend more than half as much per capita on advertising than what is spent on education around the world. With the help of advertising corporations can construct needs and desires among the public for their various products. The ideology which is spread with the help from the mainstream media and the advertising industry encourages mass consumption on an unquestioned level and promotes consumption as happiness.
Because corporations are all about profit margins they want to advertise their products to the largest audience possible. And when the media is profit-driven they want to attract as many viewers or readers as possible to be able to sell more advertisements and increase their sponsor income. And as Campbell notes it seems that the largest audiences can be brought together by offering celebrity gossip news, sex, violence or other shock value tactics. And of course this is what the mainstream media will concentrate their coverage on then. Thus the more in-depth and the more complex social, political or environmental issues gets left behind in the shadows of the spotlight on the "infotainment" news and "advertorials". See the above image screenshot for example.
Corporate media means less diversity
In the beginning of this post I mentioned General Electric as one of the media owning TNCs. GE is one of the six firms that controls most of the news, commentary and entertainment in the USA. Besides GE these six firms are AOL-Time Warner, Viacom, Disney, NewsCorp and Bertelsmann. They are also ranked among the world's richest corporations. Just 25 years ago there were around 50 different corporate owners in the US media. So as one can imagine if there are only six corporations in the USA, who all concentrate on their own self-interests, while controlling the majority of all the media consumed it results in less diversity for their audiences. And it doesn't matter then, as Campbell notes, if there are more information available if there is a lack of diversity. Less diversity means less democratic media. Let me explain this a bit further. In USA the top media sources such as CNN, Fox News and the New York Times etc supply the local papers and broadcasters with national and international news. So while the news are being described in many various media actors the news and opinions all originates from the same source.
Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick also notes that the mainstream media rarely have any coverage or debates about leftist and socialistic theories of development which are critical of our current capitalistic society. They argue this is because the mainstream media is so much largely controlled by private interests who only want to cover conservative and "at most" liberal viewpoints and topics. "Indeed, most people even in the "free democracies" go through life without even hearing the great critical ideas and the political-economic motives of leftist intellectuals," they write.
And in an effort to increase their incomes and securing their profit-margins the corporate media is cutting their costs wherever they can. And unfortunately this means less quality and objective news journalism and more cheap "infotainment" like I've mentioned before. A big cost for the news media corporations are their overseas and field reporters. In-depth and field-based reporting is even on a national and local level expensive and reporters based overseas is in turn even more costly. Another result of the cost-saving measurements is that the media gets gradually more and more dependent on "official sources" in their reporting. Campbell notes that the global mainstream media is backing up their stories with information from "experts" provided by businesses and governments. An example of this is the Pentagon, as a government funded department, and Exxon Mobil, as a privately owned corporation, who both has the funds available to offer news organizations with everything from "experts" available for questioning to press statements, quotes and photo opportunities. According to Campbell this reliance is risky as it can make the reporters and journalists hesitant to confront, challenge or debate the information provided by these governmental and corporate bodies as it might "damage their established relationship". It also means that only the wealthy are able to fully access and exercise their right to free speech in the media.
PR firms and think-tanks are the media tools for the corporations
Due to their size, power and involvement in our societies these media corporations play one of the biggest roles in shaping each generations own personal values and thoughts, as well as people's political and environmental stances. According to Campbell today's media corporations have "almost total power" to decide what kind of topics will and will not be covered and discussed in our TVs, radios and newspapers. And as Campbell points out environmental topics in the mainstream media are never debated in a way that points out corporations as the source of the problem or the environmental degradation. Her example here is global warming. In USA the climate change debate has been mostly centered around the question if it is a problem or not. This question has managed to stay alive in the media debates mostly thanks to the work of corporate funded think-tanks and PR firms. These PR firms and think-tanks have managed to create a feeling among the public that there still are clear doubts and that the arguments are balanced on both sides of the global warming spectrum.
A Gallup survey released last year shows that an increasing number of Americans (41%) believe that global warming is being "exaggerated" in the media. According to Gallup this is the highest level of public skepticism ever reported when it comes to the coverage on global warming by the mainstream media in USA. The same survey also shows that Americans have started to feel a bit less worried about climate change. The overall worry has decreased from 65% in 2007 and 66% in 2008 to 60% in 2009. According to Gallup global warming was the only environmental issue that "dropped significantly" among the public concerns during 2008. And lastly the survey shows that 16%, a new record-high for Gallup, of Americans believe the effects of climate change will never occur. But it's still important to note that a majority of Americans still believe that climate change is being correctly portrayed, or even underestimated, in the media.
And as people usually tend to only favor actions on issues that there seems to be no clear doubts about one must say that these PR firms and think-tanks have succeeded in their work of creating "manufactured doubt". The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the CATO institute, all situated in the political centre in Washington D.C., are examples of powerful corporate funded think-tanks who has a huge influence in shaping the global warming debate in the media. These think-tanks use both emotional arguments as well as scare tactics to create their "manufactured doubt" in the media. Examples of arguments can be that any cuts in our energy consumption would harm workers, elder and poor people around the world. Or that renewable energy is both expensive and damaging to the environment. They also promote the views of a selected few scientists who disagree with the strong consensus and the vast majority of scientists and scientific institutions on man-made climate change. Another example is the now disbanded Global Climate Coalition which was carefully created by PR firms to give the impression of a friendly grassroots organization while actually lobbying against environmental reforms. This so-called grassroots organization had around 50 different trade associations and corporations who were involved in the oil, coal, gas, automobile and chemical industry.
The tactics used by the agrichemical industry back in 1962 alongside the release of the widely popular book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is yet another example. Carson's book criticized the use of dangerous toxins such as DDT and helped create awareness of environmental destruction. The agrichemical industry responded by distributing thousands of negative book reviews of Silent Spring and at the same time they doubled their PR budget. According to Campbell it is estimated that corporations and businesses in USA spends $1 billion every year on PR firms and think-tanks who help them lobby against environmental reforms, laws and protection in the media.
Earlier this year Greenpeace exposed the US-based Koch Industries, a privately owned oil company, as a major financial contributor to global warming skeptics in both Europe and USA. According to Greenpeace Koch Industries donated around $48 million to different climate skeptic groups and think-tanks between 1997 and 2008. The money went to many well-known conservative and libertarian think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato institute and the Foundation for research on economics and the environment. Greenpeace claims all of these think-tanks are "at the forefront of the anti-global warming debate". The Guardian also writes that Koch Industries also spent nearly $6 million ($5.7m) on various political campaigns and another $37 on lobbying in support of fossil fuels.
"Koch industries is playing a quiet but dominant role in the global warming debate. This private, out-of-sight corporation has become a financial kingpin of climate science denial and clean energy opposition. On repeated occasions organisations funded by Koch foundations have led the assault on climate science and scientists, 'green jobs', renewable energy and climate policy progress."
Now one might think that these climate denying think-tanks are solely funded by oil, gas and coal corporations who might have something to win by creating a fog of confusion and doubt around global warming. But this is not entirely the case. The CATO institute is for example funded by well-known corporations such as Comcast, FedEx, GM, Honda, Microsoft, TimeWarner, Toyota, Visa, VW, and WalMart among others. These corporations was, according to Cato's own annual report in 2007, contributing financially to the think-tank and helped fund an "absurd anti-scientific denier ad" in major American newspapers such as the The New York Times in 2009. Campbell claims that government action on environmental issues such as global warming is lagging behind because these topics can't be discussed "seriously" in the mainstream media. Instead, she says, the mainstream media and their corporate owners put the spotlight on simplistic topics such as discrediting individual environmentalists and "controversial scientific reports" instead of debating the larger and harder questions. Campbell writes that:
"By reducing complex issues like global warming to simplistic special interest-driven sound bites about whether or not it really exists, citizens consuming the media become incapable of understanding and acting on real debate and questioning and instead prefer easy answers, quick fixes, and easy-to-grasp phrases. Audiences thus grow apathetic, cynical, and quiescent about media presentations of environmental issues, which has resulted in an increasingly widespread lack of interest in engaging in them."
And this lack of interest is a major threat to democracy which requires a actively involved and informed citizen to function properly. Campbell concludes that a so-called democracy that only caters to corporate interests "will never pursue a path toward social and environmental sustainability".
A paper on what kind of role the media plays in how we perceive and react to environmental issues around us is not complete without talking about "Climategate", as the media calls it. Climategate is what climate skeptics labeled as "the final nail in the coffin" of "the theory of global warming". The root of this "climate scandal", as the mainstream media portrayed it, was some email conversations between scientists at a climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. The emails, who were illegally hacked, was reported to be evidence of some sort of attempt to manipulate and prevent scientific climate data to be released to the public.
One can easily remember all the news reports, debates and commentaries from scientists who claimed the emails were taken out of context and all the various climate skeptics who claimed this was the evidence which exposed man-made climate change as a fraud last year. Even here in Sweden climate skeptics seemed to breathe fresh air from the major Climategate news coverage. Lars Bern who is one of the founders of the Stockholm Initiative, a Swedish think-tank which opposes the strong link between climate change and human activity, claimed that this was evidence on the "systematically manipulation" of temperature data from UN climate scientists.
But was Climategate really the big scandal that the climate skeptics and largely the mainstream media portrayed it as? Of course not. Recently an independent inquiry set up to investigate the Climategate affair came to the conclusion that there was "absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever." Lord Oxburgh said that "whatever was said in the emails, the basic science seems to have been done fairly and properly". But did this exoneration for the involved scientists from the University of East Anglia get as much coverage in the mainstream media as the false claims from the climate skeptics did? Did anyone in the mass media try to figure out who hacked the emails? Well from my own, and many others, experience they did not. Why is it, like Johann Hari says, that:
"...when it comes to coverage of global warming, we are trapped in the logic of a guerrilla insurgency. The climate scientists have to be right 100 percent of the time, or their 0.01 percent error becomes Glaciergate, and they are frauds. By contrast, the deniers only have to be right 0.01 percent of the time for their narrative--See! The global warming story is falling apart!--to be reinforced by the media. It doesn't matter that their alternative theories are based on demonstrably false claims, as they are with all the leading "thinkers" in this movement."
I would say that we can find the answers in the mainstream media's recent corporate development to why the climate skeptics only have to be right "0.01 percent of the time" to get their claims reinforced in the media. I have with the help from Campbell and others tried to make it apparent that the global mainstream media only cares about their profit-margins and rather want to focus on "infotainment" news, and stories like Climategate, as it helps them pursue their corporate owners free-market and consumption-driven agenda. My main and most obvious example of how corporations have controlled the debates and reports in the mainstream media has been global warming. But there are of course other examples of environmental issues and topics that the media has failed to adequately report on.
Two of those are for example the topic of the garbage's created by our society and the various energy related issues. The media fails to inform the public on the issue of the millions of metric tons of household, chemical and corporate waste that are affecting a large population of people very day. Campbell argues that it becomes an "nonissue" because those people affected by the waste are not "key power holders" or the media corporations main target audience. When it comes to energy related issues such as oil drilling the media often simplify it to a question of whether who is for or against it. But these "both sides of the story" reports can not cover the complete story in such a complex issue as energy is.
The corporate media also fails to explain or examine for their viewers and readers about the connections between energy production and consumption, our dependence on fossil fuels and those who control these energy sources. Simply put, the media is failing to relate environmental and social problems with the socioeconomic factors and powers that have created them. Campbell argues that as an result of this people gets the impression from the media that the war on terrorism, energy consumption and corporate power for example are totally unrelated issues to each other.
Rush Limbaugh might be an extreme example of a conservative corporate mainstream media. But he works just fine as a shock example. In the ongoing BP offshore oil drilling scandal, out in the Gulf of Mexico, Limbaugh is claiming that the explosion could have been an inside "Earth Day eco-sabotage" and that the cleanup is unnecessary: "The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there," Limbaugh said. "It's natural. It's as natural as the ocean water is".
So if we want to be able to have informed citizens, move towards a more environmental and socially sustainable society and a media which not only the wealthy have right to access and use we need to deal with the corporate mainstream media. Otherwise we will soon face a major threat to our fragile democracy. After all, those who have the control over the mass media controls our culture and society.
- Gould, Kenneth A. and Tammy L. Lewis, 2008: Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology. Oxford University Press.
- Campbell H., Elizabeth, 2008: Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology. Oxford University Press.
- Peet, Richard and Elaine Hartwick 2009: Theories of Development: Contentions, Arguments, Alternatives. The Guilford Press.