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Free Press: Where do you go when Government and the Media don't care?

This article is a spin-off from Tax-deductibility and Environmental Groups & NGOs, which talks about the role of and other independent alternative media in representing views and assisting citizens to organise at all levels, for instance on behalf of wildlife and vegetation or in state planning laws, or immigration policies.

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Where do you go when government and the media don't care?

Disappointed in government departments and ministers, environmental organisations often try to take their cause to the mainstream press. But this is usually just as problematic in the end. Why? Because the press, like the government, dictates narrower and narrower parameters for what they will designate as 'newsworthy'.

How the press manipulate democratic protest

If you are using the press as a political forum, you need to be aware that the press is now so globally powerful due to its control of the market and market perception, that it controls elections and economies much more than ordinary citizens do. That means that it controls political parties, because parties rely on pleasing the mainstream press in order to get publicity of any kind. New political candidates, many of whom must be better than the politicians now in government, come and go and disappear every year without your ever hearing of them.

NGOs and citizens need to consider that both the opposition and the government represent the interests of the commercial media and that even the ABC has to reflect the interests which the commercial media owners define. For instance it officially preserves the two party system which many of us refer to contemptuously as Tweedledum and Tweedledummer.

A very good, and scary example of this was here:

"The ABC's approach to election coverage focuses on the Government and official Opposition on the basis that one of the two major parties will ultimately form government and thus represent the principal points of view. Whilst not discounting the views or policies of the other parties and independent candidates, coverage in respect to such parties and candidates is determined on the basis of newsworthiness. The Policies also note that the ABC reserves the right to withhold free broadcast time to political parties, including those not currently represented in the Parliament concerned, on the basis of the measure of demonstrated public support for the party." Quote from an official ABC radio response to a complaint in 2009. See: ABC dismisses complaint claiming privatisation not 'newsworthy' in 2009 Queensland elections"

Environmental groups have a similar problem to new political candidates - independents and parties. The problem is that the government and the press tend to use the inability of most environmental and other non-government groups to show that they have thousands of financial supporters as an excuse not to represent their concerns. Both the press and the government, if they were really socially concerned, would act to publish, publicise and help people organise over an important cause. But they don't.

It is usually difficult for NGOs to do their real work or for independent politicians to prepare their policies and simultaneously to find thousands of supporters, especially if they are just starting out. There may be thousands, indeed millions of people who potentially support a cause or a political swing against the status quo, but how do you find those people and how do they find you?

Neither the government nor the press will help you to become strong; they will only react to strength already acquired. Usually that strength can only be built up by groups with a strong commercial basis these days. It wasn't always so. In a small population where economic activity was more localised, people shared geographically common concerns and communicated face to face. These days people tend to form their opinions, even on local issues, from the dominant news-media, rather than asking their neighbours or attending local forums.

It has become so due to the commercialisation of our social infrastructure, the huge scale on which we now operate, and our reliance on government and the mainstream press to tell us what is happening. We rely on these mediums for communication. But they are not communicating on our behalf and the 'information' and 'news' the pass on is chosen according to different priorities than the public good. Clearly the ABC reflects the interests embedded in the status quo and does not seek or respond to public input in any consistant and significant way that might change this.

Hidden commercial interests affect presentation of opinion

The commercial press also have many commercial interests apart from just selling papers or television shows, but it is not easy or indeed possible to know what most of these are at any time. What we must realise is that the commercial press is really like a lot of big interconnected corporations that are advertising products they want you to buy, using articles which will create an environment to increase the market for those products, raise the price of shares on certain commodities and products in the short term (so that they can be bought and sold), and manipulate opinion as to what is really important and what is really happening in the reader's environment. The press - television, radio and newspaper - has to a large degree - substituted a manufactured reality for ordinary interpersonal networking and the individual's forming of an idea of their political, social, economic and biophysical environment.

This manufactured reality which tells us things like 'Most people don't care about wildlife or animal cruelty', 'Most people agree with overpopulation and overdevelopment, considering it reasonable', 'most people benefit somehow from overpriced real-estate', 'it is okay to privatise water and other vital resources' - is actually the direct opposite of what most people think, but how would most people know that? In this way the mainstream press alienates citizens from each other because those citizens believe that few people share what are actually widespread values. Those values become taboo and we are all silenced.


OK, here is my take. The process Sheila Newman describes is dialectic.
The media constructs an artificial reality (oxymoron?) or ideological prism through which it wishes us to view the world. But at the same time, it only responds to our demand for short and entertaining soundbites. That demand can be understood as a manifestation of the continuing division of labour, which Canadian Harry Braverman analyzed some 25 years ago. Contemporary industrial society, he contended, was marked not just by a concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands, but by a similar concentration of creativity. Even professional jobs that once demanded creative inputs, jobs that offered some satisfaction, have been progressively de-skilled and specialized. Lawyers who do nothing but conveyances, or architects who lost artistic rendering or design to software programs begin to resemble the guy at a Ford assembly line using an impact wrench all day. To the boredom of modern work is added the stress that comes from demands for higher productivity, the requirement that after downsizing, fewer staff take up and tackle the workload of laid off employees. And the point of specialization, after all, is higher productivity, not job fulfillment.

After a work day like that, it is not likely that either white or blue collar workers would seek intellectually challenging puruits. A mindless sitcom or a horror flick would be the choice over adult education classes or a National Geographic documentary about disappearing rainforests.

People demand escape, and addictive consumerism and the ABC or CBC are able and willing to provide it. Andre Gorz complemented Braveman's insight by saying something very much like that. Excessive consumerism was the flip side of excessive division of labour and specialization, and the loss of power that de-skilling implies. Tradesman have a lot more leverage and control than "unskilled" drones.

My experience is that people are too exhausted and stressed to bother thinking for themselves. Research and independent thought involve work. But "workers" don't want to work in their leisure moments. They want R and R, not mental calisthenics. If and when they want "information" about current events, they want it concisely packaged in entertaining newsclips from the sources they trust to shore up their belief system. They want to be left in their comfortable shoe. Their ideology is a shrine with a front door that reads "Do Not Disturb".Thus the popularity of prefabricated information filtered by the news source they favour. Not only public and commercial media, but the latest blurb from the political party, church, professional body or environmental NGO they subscribe to. All of these institutions hold up a lens for us, a looking glass that focuses on the truth that they want us to see at the exclusion of that which they don't want us to see. And I am happy with the blinkered vision, for the progressive division of labour and the "speed up" that comes with it has allowed the Growth Economy to rob us of our time and energy. We haven't the strength or the inclination to be citizens. Only the desire to be somnabulent consumers. Consumers of fast food and fast information. Not books, not 1200 word essays, not academic dissertations, but quick serve terse letters to the editor, or better yet, you-tubes. And make it interesting.

So give it to me now, but give it to me in a delectable bite size that will satisfy my passing craving for news. I need the assurance that the universe can be fully comprehended by swallowing a sugar coated one-a-day multi-vitamin of pre-digested summation with a cup of greenwash. And the exclusive reliance on this one hit of manufactured reality in the absence of networking and personal interaction is precisely the goal of every totalitarian society of the last century. Ms. Newman is right, as was Solomon Asch. We feel so isolated in our dissension that we begin to feel that it is our own independent perceptions that are not real. After all, how can we be right if every news presenter and commentator finds us wrong?

Thanks for this response, Tim M.
I was struck by what you said about the 'professional jobs that once demanded creative inputs, jobs that offered some satisfaction,' [which] have been progressively de-skilled and specialized.' I had not thought of that, but you are right. Even nursing, which demands physical exertion, attention to individuals, initiative, responsibility and risk, has been made onerous and formulaic by the demand that its practitioners fill in forms to satisfy the collection of statistics and bills. Real patient needs must be squeezed in between the fulfillment of what the insurers, the accreditors and the budget managers decree as first priority.

And the same with citizenship, now reduced to the filling of tax-form, short questionnaires, payment of charges, attendance at policy marketing forums, and once every three year ticking of boxes.

A major impact, as you say, is to speed things up. The division of labour is designed to do this.
In simplifying systems, we go faster and faster, until, eventually, what we were doing becomes disconnected from its purpose, and carries us along as isolated passive fragments of material in an increasingly dispersed and aimless system.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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