Why is Michael Bloomberg manipulating the media

The media crisis and the fifth power

They were the fourth power, it was said. But the media are no longer doing their job because they are central political and economic actors themselves.

By Ignacio Ramonet

In many countries the media, which have long been regarded as characteristic elements of democracy - as a kind of barometer of democracy - have themselves become the main problem for democracy. In particular, media behavior towards information has become a problem, and many citizens are in the process of realizing this.

People are extremely sensitive to the manipulation of the media. Many people have realized that the media lies, deceives and manipulates. And above all, that they withhold information on the basis of which citizens would behave differently. There are some recent examples of this. For example the Iraq war. For months, the ruling media - especially in the US - repeated claims by the US government that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein's regime had ties to the Islamist network al-Qaeda. It has been suggested that Saddam Hussein's regime was an accomplice of the September 11, 2001 assassins. In doing so, the media - including the serious ones - have given the Bush administration's arguments credibility. A majority of Americans agreed to this invasion based on media reports. After the war, we learned that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, nor was there any evidence of relations between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Both of the US government's arguments for the Iraq war were wrong. Not a single reputable newspaper had challenged these two claims. The media has really been wrecked.

Spain's media uprising

Second example: the attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2003, in which four suburban trains exploded, two hundred people died and several hundred people were injured. Immediately afterwards, the Spanish government - then under José Maria Aznar - immediately spread an allegation against the Basque underground organization Eta. We now know that there was no evidence of this. Nevertheless, all the major media have taken up this interpretation. Because Prime Minister Aznar had called the directors of all the major Spanish newspapers and told them personally that he had evidence that Eta was responsible for the attack. «El País», for example, already had the front page in print, but after this phone call it was changed and given a new headline: «Eta kills again in Madrid». However, reports quickly circulated in Spain that this official information was false. That was three or four days before the general election. Some journalists began to express doubts about the official version. And the citizens began to inform themselves.

They used guerrilla media, cell phones, and emails to tell each other which radio station or newspaper to watch out for in order to get credible information. Cell phones were used to mobilize demonstrations in which tens of thousands protested against the government's official version and demanded the truth. Although all polls predicted a victory for the ruling party, it was defeated and the left opposition won the election. A few days later the truth emerged: the attacks were not carried out by Eta, but by an Islamist group.

I interpret this as a media uprising of a population that no longer wants the established media to impose any official truth on them. More and more people are convinced that we live in a state of media uncertainty. You do get information, but later discover that it is wrong.

I'm not interested in nostalgia for a golden age of media. The media always had problems, they were never perfect. But one could have expected that the media in today's world with their sophisticated technology, with the possibility of intervening in real time and providing very diversified information, would provide more precise information. But the opposite is the case: the media has never manipulated as much as it does today. The gigantic manipulation of Iraq has at least led to a war that has so far resulted in 200,000 civilian deaths. These are media manipulations with serious consequences. The authors of these manipulations have never been held accountable. George Bush was even re-elected, although it is known that the president lied.

The betrayal of the fourth power

The media used to be said to be the fourth power in the state - alongside legislative, executive and judicial powers. The expression "fourth power" originated in France on the occasion of the Dreyfus affair. After the war between France and Germany in 1870/71, the French officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of leaking secret information to the Germans. Dreyfus was convicted, expelled from the army and exiled to Guyana. But thanks to the newspapers and intellectuals, it turned out that Dreyfus was not a spy. The reason for the whole staging: Dreyfus was a Jew. It was the media that uncovered this case. It was said at the time that fortunately there was a fourth power that corrected the mistakes of the other powers.

Today the big media have less and less this function. Why? The dynamic of globalization has led to an amalgamation between the interests of the media, corporations and politics. They are all central actors in globalization; the financial markets, the corporations, and also the large media groups: Murdoch, Time Warner, Microsoft and others. Due to the numerical revolution, there are no longer any differences between radio, print, audiovisual or internet information. Everything is mixed up today. The big media groups work in all of these sectors. They make mass culture, they make television, they make movies, they make music, DVDs, and sometimes sports. We distinguish between the mass culture sector, the advertising sector and that of information. For the media groups, it's all one and the same. They only have one goal: profitability. In doing so, they have forgotten their civilian mission, they have forgotten that they should be the fourth power. Information is just a commodity - a commodity that is increasingly being sold for free. The trade in information has changed: Before, a medium sold information to people. Today people are sold to advertisers. It is important that a newspaper reaches a large number of people. The more people there are, the more expensive the advertising space can be. In order to increase readership, information is given almost free of charge. The information is simplified so that as many people as possible understand it. In addition, the sensational content is highlighted.

Democratic censorship

Statistics show that people spend an average of twenty minutes each day looking up information. If this time is filled with trivial information, there is little left for serious information. That's what I call democratic censorship. The classic form of censorship as we know it from authoritarian states is disappearing. On the other hand, there is this democratic censorship that does not take away or forbid information, but offers it. We are inundated with information that we don't need. We no longer notice that a lot of information is withheld from us. We don't realize that there is censorship because we associate censorship with scarcity of information. That is why I compare the situation of information with that of food. For a long time we lived in societies where food was scarce. Today there is an abundance of food in most industrialized countries and the supermarkets are full of it. But these foods are contaminated and cause disease. This is how we developed the organic products that are guaranteed to contain no pesticides or other residues. It is exactly the same for information. We used to have little information, today we have a lot of information, but it is contaminated information, it is full of lies, hidden facts and wrong conclusions. This creates the desire for biological information that is guaranteed to be free of pollution and lies. The WOZ could introduce the label “Bio-Information” on its front page: There are no lies here!

Media corporations have become economic actors and they are closely intertwined with political power. The best illustration for this thesis is Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Or (the murdered) Rafik Hariri in Lebanon. Another example is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Building the fifth power

How can we build a countervailing power today, not only against the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, but also against the other powers, the economic power and the media power? All these powers are working together today against the interests of the people. The independent media play an important role here. I came back from Korea yesterday. There are some newspapers there that only appear on the Internet. For example «OhmyNews»: This newspaper is made by dissident journalists - by people who no longer agreed with the political orientation of the major daily newspapers and who now take a critical, independent view of things. This newspaper is free. But it lives from the fact that the readers donate money for every article that interests them. This brings together the equivalent of over 360,000 francs annually.

We need independent journalism with the necessary resources. Journalists need resources to do their job. However, the independent media often do not have these resources. Today the media system no longer wants journalists who research and seek the truth. If they give the information for free, then the publishers don't want to provide any funds for it. The journalists are no longer able to work seriously.

These other, the independent media that bring counter-information, that disseminate a genuinely democratic information, all these actors must join together to form a fifth power. The quality of democracy depends on the quality of the democratic debate. And that only works if independent media that are not afraid of economic reprisals can develop their own information concept.

Ignacio Ramonet
The director of “Le Monde diplomatique” spoke on May 29 in the shipbuilding of the Schauspielhaus Zurich about the crisis in the media. The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the German-language “Monde diplomatique”, which is published jointly by WOZ and the German “taz”. The above text is based on the presentation by Ignacio Ramonet.

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