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Hichem Karoui: Does press freedom make sense?
October 08, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

I have a tendency to believe that life, like art, is a concatenation of events arranged haphazardly. There is not necessarily any order in them, although some people would like to believe that everything makes sense, even if it is nonsensical. I think things acquire a meaning by the value we give them; for in themselves they may be perfectly absurd.

I will start with a quote from a book considered once among the most important in the studies of American journalism: Media: An Introductory Analysis of American Mass Communications, by Peter M. Sandman, David M. Rubin, and David B. Sachsman. It literally fell into my hands during a visit to “Any Amount of Books,” a small bookshop near Charing Cross, in the summer. I did not read it. However, a few days before relocating to Doha, as I was arranging my library, removing the dust and leafing through some volumes, it dawned on me that “Media” was almost prophetic in forecasting what has just happened this very summer in the UK: i.e. the scandal of Murdoch’s “News of the World.”

Maybe two days before the case of phone hacking came to the knowledge of the public, I was in an exhibition at the National Gallery, and I recall that I stood for a while before a portrait of Mrs Rebekah Brooks on the wall. I studied the portrait, not without admiration for the artist and the model: I had no idea that in a few hours she would set the British kingdom in turmoil.

The question “why did that happen in the country that created press freedom” is still there.

“The concept of freedom of the press,” says Media, is based on the belief that truth emerges in a way, from the conflict between different voices. But freedom can be a dangerous luxury when the number of voices is reduced to two or three. The growth of giant media monopolies — networks, channels, conglomerates, etc. — has greatly reduced the diversity of media voices. This power concentration in the hands of a handful of ‘barons’ of the media represents a major threat against the freedoms stipulated in our First Amendment.”

However, despite the fact that some of its data is outdated, it remains quite readable and usable for much of its text. Anyway, what the book denounced in 1972 is not yet outdated. From the moment a single tycoon controls more than a set of media, there is a danger to democracy. “Freedom of the press is proclaimed based on the belief that when people have access to a wide variety of opinions and information, they will make intelligent decisions.” It follows that governments should not control the media. In the West, this is a basic belief, but to this belief, another is associated: let each publication owner decide for himself, and people will distinguish the differences.

However, this theory only works when the market remains competitive. If there were only one owner of publications in the USA, would not it be dangerous to let him decide for himself? Ask the authors of Media. Indeed, competition between different media can serve the diversity, but when these media are bought by a single magnate, what happens to the diversity?

The authors admit that there are several combinations of media sets, but they include among them four major:

1. Chains and networks — two or more companies having the same activity (television, newspapers, etc.) but located in different cities are owned or controlled by the same person or the same group.

2. Extension of media ownership — two or more companies in the same city but with different media activities, are owned by the same person or the same group.

3. Agreements on unified operations — two companies owned by separate individuals or groups, having the same media business (often newspapers) and located in the same city, agree to coordinate their operations, such as printing or advertising.

4. Conglomerates — a company that is not initially in the communications sector starts buying media companies.

The American sociologist Peter Phillips suggested a new name that better expresses the truth about the mass media in the United States today: corporate media. This designation is for him a reference to the giants of the information’s Top-Bottom monolithic power structure. Phillips cites the findings of a research by Sonoma State University, which analysed the network of the boards of the 10 largest media organisations in the United States.

It appears that these boards encompassed only 118 persons that turned out to be members of boards in 288 national and international companies. This means that the same people accumulate all these responsibilities inside media organisations and corporations. Better: Eight out of ten media giants share the same boards. For example, NBC and The Washington Post both have members from the boards of directors of Coca Cola and JPMorgan, while the company Tribune, The New York Times and Gannett all have members who share Pepsi’s Board of Directors.

And so, Phillips comes to wonder: can we believe that the editors of the Washington Post are objective and impartial when reporting information on Lockheed Martin’s defence contracts? And can we really trust ABC when it claims to run an investigative report on the sources of Halliburton contracts in Iraq?

The sociologist then identifies two options:

— In the first, we believe that the “corporate media give us the uncensored truth on key issues directly related to the interests of American capitalism.” In this case, we can say that the media fulfil the democratic contract with the American people.

— In the second option, we may believe that the “corporate media” serve their own interests rather than those of the people and it will not be possible then to speak of pluralism in the media field, but simply to say that corporate media “represent” American corporations.

Still better: after some research, I found liaisons not only between the media and business communities, but also between them and the community of higher education. This means that the members of the board of directors in a media organisation may also be sitting on the boards of universities and companies as well. For example: the University of Georgetown and Disney; the University of New York and the Washington Post; Gannett and Columbia, etc.

Thus I come back to my provocative question: can we still speak of press freedom? I tend to answer: yes… You know why? Because the distance between sense and nonsense, rational and irrational, myth and reality, is sometimes so flimsy that the only way out of the maze is always to turn right and say: yes, it makes sense!

The author an expert in US-Middle East relations at the Arab Center for
Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute).


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