Truth Emergency Inside the Progressive Media
The corporate news media is not in the business of news.
The late New York University media scholar Neil Postman once said about America, “We are the best entertained least informed society in the world.” That was twenty-five years ago and after two-plus decades of more deregulation and the growth of conglomerates in the media, that trend has continued. From Tyra Banks’ shifting figure and the Balloon Boy hoax, to the celebrity death of Michael Jackson and the Obama Beer Summit, Americans are fed a steady “news” diet of tabloidized, trivialized, and outright useless information laden with personal anecdotes, scandals, and gossip.
Topics and in-depth reports that matter little to most people in any meaningful way are given massive amounts of attention in the corporate media. In recent years, this has only become more obvious. For instance, CNN’s coverage of celebrity Anna Nicole Smith’s untimely death in early 2007 is arguably one of the most egregious examples of an over abused news story. The magnitude of corporate media attention paid to Smith’s death were clearly out of synch with the coverage the story deserved, which was at most a simple passing mention.
While news outlets were obsessing over Smith’s death, most big media giants were missing a far more important story. The US ambassador to Iraq misplaced $12 billion in shrink-wrapped one hundred dollar bills that were flown to Baghdad. This garnered little attention due to the media’s morbid infatuation with Smith’s passing.
Far too often, important news stories are underreported or ignored entirely by corporate news outlets, especially on television, where over seventy percent of Americans get their news, even though only an astounding twenty-nine percent say it is accurate. In short, Americans are living in a state of Truth Emergency.1
War on (Hunger) Terror
A 2008 report from The World Bank admitted that in 2005, over three billion people lived on less than $2.50 a day and about forty-four percent of these people survive on less than $1.25. Complete and total wretchedness can be the only description for the circumstances faced by so many, especially those in urban areas of so-called developing nations. Simple items Americans take for granted like phone calls, nutritious food, vacations, television, dental care, and inoculations are beyond the possible for billions of people.2
In another ignored but related story, Starvation.net logged the increasing impacts of world hunger and starvation. Over 30,000 people a day (eighty-five percent of children under five) die of malnutrition, curable diseases, and starvation. The number of deaths has exceeded three hundred million people over the past forty years.3
Farmers around the world grow more than enough food to feed the entire world adequately. Global grain production yielded a record 2.3 billion tons in 2007, up four percent from the year before, yet billions of people go hungry every day. The website Grain.org describes the core reasons for continuing hunger in a recent article “Making a Killing from Hunger.” It turns out that while farmers grow enough food to feed the world, commodity speculators and huge grain traders like Cargill control the global food prices and distribution. Starvation is profitable for corporations when demands for food push the prices up.
Cargill announced that profits for commodity trading for the first quarter of 2008 were eighty-six percent above 2007. World food prices grew twenty-two percent from June 2007 to June 2008 and a significant portion of the increase was propelled by the $175 billion invested in commodity futures that speculate on price instead of seeking to feed the hungry. This results in erratic food price spirals, both up and down, with food insecurity remaining widespread.4
For a family on the bottom rung of poverty a small price increase is the difference between life and death, yet no US presidents have declared a war on starvation. Instead they talk about national security and the continuation of the war on terror as if these were the primary issues for their terms in office. Given that ten times as many innocent people died of starvation than those in the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001, why is there no war on starvation as there was a so-called War on Terror? Is not starvation, especially if preventable, a form of inflicted terror by those who profit from it or even stand by and do nothing? Where is the Manhattan Project for global hunger? Where is the commitment to national security though unilateral starvation relief? Where is the outrage in the corporate news media with pictures of dying children and an analysis of those that benefit from hunger?
Dying for Healthcare
There is a growing need to broaden understanding of censorship in the US. The dictionary definition of direct government control of news as censorship is no longer adequate. The private corporate media in the US significantly under covers and/or deliberately censors numerous important news stories every year, even when based on university quality research. It appears that certain topics are simply forbidden inside the mainstream corporate media today. To openly cover these news stories would stir up questions regarding “inconvenient truths” that many in the US power structure would rather avoid.
An example of one group that is doing this is Project Censored (www.projectcensored.org), and the Project has done so every year since 1976. They cover the inconvenient truths, expose the junk news patterns, and call for a more independent, research driven, transparent and fact-based system of reporting on all relevant topics for our democratic society. Some of these inconvenient truths that remain taboo for corporate media include civilian death rates in Iraq, post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties, levels of violence by side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the coup in Haiti, election fraud in the US, and questions concerning the very events and subsequent official investigations of 9/11.
George Seldes once said, “Journalism’s job is not impartial ‘balanced’ reporting. Journalism’s job is to tell the people what is really going on.” Michael Moore’s top-grossing movie “Sicko” is one example of telling the people what is really going on. Health care activists know that US health insurance is an extremely large and lucrative industry with the top nine companies “earning” $30 billion in profits in 2006 alone. The healthcare industry represents the country’s third-largest economic sector, trailing only energy and retail among the 1,000 largest US firms.
US private health care services differ markedly from other industrialized countries where single payer systems provide everyone with medical care as a basic human right. Unfortunately, objective media coverage and comparisons of single payer public health care with our current profit-driven corporate system are almost non-existent at this time. To protect their bloated bottom lines, private insurance companies and HMOs invest heavily in lobbyists and corporate-friendly political candidates that promote their “indispensable” role in any future health care reforms. Besides their insider political influence, these firms deploy massive advertising budgets to discourage media investigations of the economic interests shaping health policies today.
Nevertheless, at least sixteen percent of Americans still have no health insurance whatsoever and that number will not soon decline, as insurance costs continue to rise two to three times faster than inflation. The consequences are immediate and tragic. Unpaid medical bills are now the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the country, and a recent Harvard Medical School study estimates that nearly 45,000 Americans die prematurely each year because they lack coverage and access to adequate care. That’s fifteen times the number of people killed on 9/11.
In fact, 2,266 veterans died in 2008 due to lack of health coverage. For a nation awash in “Support the Troops” rhetoric, bumper stickers, magnets, and other paraphernalia, it seems odd the US press largely ignored the Harvard Medical School study that discovered this troubling statistic. Yet, despite these scholarly findings, the US Congress cannot seem to pass a public option or single payer bill even though a majority of the public and health practitioners support these policies. Corporate media has largely shut these approaches out of the discussion, often even when dealing with veteran’s affairs.5
In keeping with the founders’ notions of natural rights and intent in providing for the general welfare, we would do well to note that healthcare is a human right, workers have the right to the fruits of their labor, environmental degradation is a crime against humanity, and war is terrorism. These positions should all be part of national discourse in a truly free press. The health and meaningfulness of our cultural dialogue, as well as the future of our republic, may well depend upon how swiftly and significantly we address the current Truth Emergency and what we do about it.
Mickey Huff is an associate professor of history at Diablo Valley College, former associate director of Project Censored, and on the executive committee of Media Freedom Foundation and Media Freedom International.
Peter Phillips is a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University, former director of Project Censored and president of Media Freedom Foundation and Media Freedom International.
This essay was excerpted from a longer chapter in the forthcoming book Media and Social Justice, edited by Sue Curry Jansen, Lora Taub-Pervizpour and Jeff Pooley of Muhlenbuerg College. Read the full chapter on the Media Freedom Foundation website at http://www.mediafreedominternational.org/2010/01/23/media-democracy-in-action-the-importance-of-including-truth-emergency-inside-the-progressive-media-reform-movement/.
- The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press study, “Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low Public Evaluations of the News Media: 1985-2009,” September 13, 2009. Online at http://people-press.org/report/543/; For more on the Truth Emergency concept and movement, see http://truthemergency.us.
- From the Share the Wolrd’s Resources website at http://www.stwr.org/globalization/world-bank-poverty-figures-what-do-they-mean.html.
- See http://www.starvation.net/
- See the report at http://www.grain.org/articles/?id=39 and for more details see http://www.grain.org/foodcrisis/.
- Reuters, “Study links 45,000 U.S. deaths to lack of insurance,” September 17, 2009, online http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSTRE58G6W520090917. Though this was reported, it seems to have had little impact on the political policy discussion on healthcare reform. For the Veteran’s study, see Democracy Now!, “Study: Over 2,200 US Veterans Died in 2008 Due to Lack of Health Insurance,” November, 11, 2009, online at http://www.democracynow.org/2009/11/11/study_over_2_200_us_veterans.