Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Joke of the Day: Freedom of the Press

The most important lesson of the circus over Don Imus’s racial slur is the clarity it brings to who controls the US media. According to the reports I heard, the managers at NBC News and CBS Radio were trying to decide how to handle the situation until advertisers began to cancel. That settled the matter. What Imus said was of secondary importance at best—indeed, he was hired to make outrageous statements; the crucial issue was that the people who pay are upset.

I taught Russian and Soviet history for 20 years back in the bad old days when most Soviet news came from Pravda “Truth” and Izvestia “News”. The going joke in the USSR at the time was that there was no Truth in the “News” and no News in the “Truth”. I made the point that freedom of the press was encumbered in both countries by advertisers: the major difference between censorship in the USSR and in the US was that in the USSR there was only one advertiser, the Communist Party.

I think the point was very near the truth. Over the recent decades the focus of the US media has continually narrowed. News that reflects critically on minorities and women has been notably muted and news that reflects badly on large corporations has been eliminated completely. One of the greatest scandals of the past century, the Enron catastrophe, was discovered by government authorities and only reported when they announced it. Ditto Tyco, Worldcom, and similar disgraces.

The only object of criticism left to the US media is the government. When the goverment discovered a decade or so ago that corporations were defrauding it by charging outlandish prices for ash trays and hammers, the press immediatley attacked the government for wasteful spending. No news organization pursued the issue into the fraudulent corporations. Those corporations continue to determine what we can and cannot hear or see in the US.

The good news is the Internet and the Web. The reason mainstream media are moving to greater and greater extremes is that they are losing not only credibility but viewers and listeners to growing competition especially from the medium you are reading right now. However unreliable the Web may be for news, at least it is not controlled by corporations who add unseen taxes to the products we buy and use that money to leverage their view of the world on the mainstream media.

Big Brother is and always has been Corporate America and the Internet shows us what genuine free speech is, warts and all.

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