Large, Corporate-Owned Media are “Free” Trade Proponents

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Saturday, January 26, 2002

Large, corporate-owned media are “free” trade proponents. However, as described in the free trade section of this web site, the actual way in which the current form of overly corporate-oriented free trade has been carried out (compared to the theories and idea) is an area of much discussion and warranted criticism. As a consequence, the coverage of alternative views and critique has been either avoided, or almost ignored, because the same international system (given the label of “free trade”) benefits the large media companies and their owners that are also global.

Diverse views are therefore not expressed and not available for most people.

Is it really even “free trade” being promoted?

An almost ironic situation for example is how “free market” capitalism is said to be supported and promoted by the mainstream when the concentration in media ownership itself, as well as in other industries, is anything but free market capitalism. It is more akin to the older mercantile or monopoly capitalism that Adam Smith exposed and so decried.

Adam Smith, often regarded as the father of modern capitalism, wrote the influential famous book, The Wealth of Nations in 1776. This book exposed the mercantile and monopoly capitalism of the preceeding centuries as unjust and unfair, and proposed a free market system. He himself was very critical of the influences of concentrated ownership (which is also a way to reduce competition) and large corporations as interfering with free market capitalism (although many who do exert influence don't mind doing so in his name, and calling it “free market”!) Smith is worth quoting at length:

Merchants and master manufacturers are ... the two classes of people who commonly employ the largest capitals, and who by their wealth draw to themselves the greatest share of the public consideration. As during their whole lives they are engaged in plans and projects, they have frequently more acuteness of understanding than the greater part of country gentlemen. As their thoughts, however, are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business, than about that of the society, their judgment, even when given with the greatest candour (which it has not been upon every occasion) is much more to be depended upon with regard to the former of those two objects than with regard to the latter. Their superiority over the country gentleman is not so much in their knowledge of the public interest, as in their having a better knowledge of their own interest than he has of his. It is by this superior knowledge of their own interest that they have frequently imposed upon his generosity, and persuaded him to give up both his own interest and that of the public, from a very simple but honest conviction that their interest, and not his, was the interest of the public. The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it. (Emphasis Added)

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, (Everyman's Library, Sixth Printing, 1991), pp. 87-88, 231-232

As Adam Smith warns, only after great precaution, careful, scrupulous and “suspicious attention” should commerce-related policies from corporate interests be accepted.

Yet, the mainstream media itself is owned by various multinational companies (primarily in the entertainment industries, but from other industries as well).

  • These multinationals in the area of the media as a result have worked to “widen the market and narrow the competition” as described ealier in the ownership section.
  • Being a carrier of information to the general public, the importance of a mainstream media free from such political influences is important.
  • Yet, as mentioned in the previous sections, this concentration of ownership brings with it political and economic agendas that are less accountable.
  • Furthermore, the interests of the multinationals in their own, and related industries, will naturally be reflected in the mainstream media.
  • Even a warning from over 200 years ago by Adam Smith has been ignored!

Hence, this makes it even more difficult these days for the general public to apply great precaution, careful, scrupulous and “suspicious attention” to the claims from monied interests. Instead we see continued support at national and international level for those aspects of political, economic and trade agreements that benefit the interests of the concentrated owners. (Sure, sometimes these interests will overlap with that of the public, yet as discussed throughout the Trade, Economy, & Related Issues section of this web site, that is not usually the case.) Furthermore, politicians and businesses have continued to label the system that they promote as being “free trade” or “free market” etc.

For example, almost all the mainstream media covered the WTO protests in Seattle at the end of 1999 with a very negative slant towards the protestors. For more about that, see this web site's section on the Millennium Round in Seattle.

At the beginning of 2000, keen to avoid the embarrassment of Seattle, the world economic powerhouses (corporate leaders and major governments) met again at Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum. Here, as well as reiterating the positive benefits of free trade, the mainstream media were actually urged to be the message carriers of the virtues of free trade and the New World Order. That should perhaps start to ring alarm bells. This surely sounds like the mainstream media are being asked to push forth a certain propaganda, rather than remain (or, more accurately, become!) objective and allow alternative views to be voiced, fairly.

President Bill Clinton indicated similar things himself. He stressed how open, or free, rules-based trading was the only possible way forward and that the media would have to be responsible for selling that message to the public to gain their support for this New World Order. (Interestingly, this is also what the new U.S. President, George Bush said, in Quebec, 2001, during the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement negotiations that saw similar protests). But no-one questioned him (or Bush) about the reality it actually is;

  • Who is free? (And what is free -- it is mainly capital, which has had the increasing ability to move around unchecked. It is part of the reason that volatile capital flows have led to economic collapse in some countries during the global financial crisis towards the end of the 1990s.)
  • What are the actual rules (are the rules themselves actually fair or not)?
  • Who can get away with not having to abide by the rules? (Typically it is the multinational corporations and more powerful western governments -- after all, who would be able to force them to abide by the rules?)
  • And, ultimately, who benefits, and who doesn't?

These are the types of points that the protestors are typically trying to make. Yet, the media helps to generally avoid voicing such hard-hitting criticisms that are close to home. (Often, they may concentrate on the views of groups who are against free trade for ulteria, nationalistic reasons, and make it seem as though all who oppose the current form of globalization have these reasons behind their motives.)

If these questions are allowed to be tackled and answered from a diverse set of perspectives, it may help result in increased public debate. This may help pressurize fairer rules, practices and accountability on to corporations which they would then need to abide by. This in turn would increase the possibility for globalization to become a positive force compared to how it is seen today by so many.

While national control of the media can give rise to censorship, propaganda and other forms of control, as with America and elsewhere, too much corporate ownership can also have numerous negative effects.

The pattern is clear in American journalism: in general, items are more likely to be pursued in depth if they portray flaws in the public, tax-supported sector of American life, and less likely to be pursued if they portray flaws in the private corporate sector. ... Over long periods of time, this results in the public impression that public-sector activities are essentially flawed and should be limited while private enterprises are essentially sound and have no need to change.

Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), p.216.

For more about the trade issues themselves, check out this web site's section on Trade, Economy, & Related Issues.

Towards the end of the 1990s, even the mainstream media's reporting on the global financial crisis can warrant criticism. Their phrases used (an Asian Financial Crisis, crony capitalism which was the fault of people in the affected countries and so on), their angles portrayed, the influences of western corporations etc. all resulted in coverage that tended to implicitly, sometimes explicitly, blame others. It came over as though excuses and other explanations had to be provided so as not to let us imagine that some of the root causes would ever come from the home-grown “prescriptions.” The following quote provides another way to look at it:

Examined for how things come to be rather than how they are, it appears, if anything, [the Asian Financial Crisis was actually] a Western Financial Crisis with Asian victims. A reflection which subsequently occurred to many in the countries concerned, as IMF “rescue” packages seemed to cut government spending and send local businesses to the wall while ensuring that unwise lending by Western banks was repaid in full. This made sense because “crony capitalists” were being punished for their inherent shortcomings. The remedy in future, according to the IMF, was to remove any remaining obstacles to the free play of market forces, opening currency and capital markets to unregulated speculative flows.

What are Journalists For?

And a more general pattern of propaganda can exist which is often hard to see when there are loud claims of free speech and independence and impartiality as the following quote summarizes:

It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attach and expose corporate and government malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality of the command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behavior and performance.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent; The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (Pantheon Books, New York, 1988), pp. xiv, 1 - 2 (Emphasis Added)

Even the U.S. 2000 presidential elections stories, which included many controversies, to say the least, were affected by poor media coverage, as this article attests to.

And this problem of corporate media ownership leading to presenting only neoliberal economics etc isn't just a concern in the western mainstream. Wherever media is being corporatized and owned by global corporations, the same issues are ocurring. As an example, India is facing such critique, as this following article questions why the stories of poverty — in a country with a large number of the world's hungry — no longer appears on the front page in the way it used to. And if it does, that causes are not really explored:

The 1990s have witnessed a rapid growth of inequality the world over... This may occasionally be reported in the press. But questioning the social and economic philosophies and frameworks that generate this inequality is just not done.

P. Sainath, Indian journalist and author, None so blind as those who will not see, The Courier, UNESCO, June 2001.

In the article quoted above, P. Sainath also describes how additionally, the stories are now about those who have increased their affluence in India and benefitted from the Structual Adjustment policies that have affected so many.

The current form of corporate globalization has been criticized for increasing the vast inequalities around the world, including in the richest nations in the world. J.W. Smith offers a warning,

Looking only at their bottom line, and listening to their own rhetoric, the managers of capital are unaware they are moving society back towards the wealth discrepencies of the early Industrial Revolution; this return to quasi-aristocratic privileges is a recipie for eventual contraction of commerce and destruction of their own wealth along with that of labor.

J.W. Smith, The World's Wasted Wealth 2, (Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994), pp. 164-165.

While Smith wrote the above in 1994, it is applicable today as well, with the recent wave of news about “corporate crime” and fascination of some CEOs and other executives as some major American companies have faced bankruptcy or have collapsed. Yet, the media, while offering an outpouring of news and analysis have by and large concentrated on individual characters and looked for scapegoats (CEOs being the current flavor!). The impacts of the underlying system itself has been less discussed and when it has, often been described as basically ok, but just affected by a few “bad apples.” As media critic Norman Solomon describes,

On the surface, media outlets are filled with condemnations of avarice. The July 15 edition of Newsweek features a story headlined “Going After Greed,” complete with a full-page picture of George W. Bush's anguished face. But after multibillion-dollar debacles from Enron to WorldCom, the usual media messages are actually quite equivocal — wailing about greedy CEOs while piping in a kind of hallelujah chorus to affirm the sanctity of the economic system that empowered them.

...Corporate theology about “the free enterprise system” readily acknowledges bad apples while steadfastly denying that the barrels are rotten. ... (“Let's hold people responsible — not institutions,” a recent Wall Street Journal column urged.)

...Basic questions about wealth and poverty — about economic relations that are glorious for a few, adequate for some and injurious for countless others — remain outside the professional focus of American journalism. In our society, prevalent inequities are largely the results of corporate function, not corporate dysfunction. But we're encouraged to believe that faith in the current system of corporate capitalism will be redemptive.

Norman Solomon, Renouncing Sins Against the Corporate Faith, Media Beat, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, July 11, 2002

(The above point about holding people responsible, not institutions, has been echoed by other mainstream media commentators as well (such as CNN, July 26, 2002). At a certain level, this appeal makes sense, but inadvertantly assumes that the underlying system is sound and should not be questioned, which can be a dangerous premise. (See the trade and poverty section on this site for more on such global impacts of the underlying system.)

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Access to Information and Economics

Economic policies are treated almost exclusively as business stories with coded language, more familiar to insiders than general readers or viewers. The absence of analytical reporting i.e., “they say this, they mean that” means that business news, especially when it comes to international stories, is rarely made clear. And international stories are often treated as business stories, as if only the business world should be interested. As a consequence, business values have triumphed, and business news is expanding as other coverage shrinks. This feeling of triumphalism in the business world has trickled down into every corner of life. Writing in the July 24th [2000] Fortune, Geoffrey Colvin urges capitalists to “savor this moment....[B]usiness is at the center and that's pretty much OK with everybody. It doesn't feel remarkable for us for the same reason that fish don't notice water; we live in it ... [L]ook at commerce's role in the culture. It's unprecedented.”

Danny Schechter, Globalization Limits Media Change,, July 26, 2000

While it sometimes appears as though trade and economic issues are boring and not of interest for most people in a society, it is in fact one of the most important. Economic decisions affect not only businesses, but individuals. Most wars throughout history have had economic and trade resources at their core. Legislation, or removal of some, can have an impact on factors such as working conditions, job security and wage stability. Access to information, then, plays an important part of enabling a society to know more about its nation's trade and economic policies.

Most agree that one part of allowing access to information is to ensure governments make their information available to their public in the first place. This is also enshrined in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. However, while there is some progress being made in increasing the transparency of some governments, it is often just rhetoric. In addition, it is just one aspect of society. In the increasingly globalized world where some transnational corporations wield a lot of political power as well, there are legitimate questions about whether private corporations should also be held accountable to the public via access to their information.

International institutions like the World Bank recognize the importance of the media in development issues. As a result they are attempting to address this more. However, they wish to directly influence journalists to promote their ideas and perspectives of markets and globalization etc, whereas critics, including Frank Vogl, former World Bank Director of Information and Public Affairs suggest that the Bank instead supports NGOs and independent foundations to carry out education for journalists. This way, the Bank is not seen as unfairly influencing important issues. Additionally, by supporting a myriad of NGOs and others, they may provide a better forum, or potential, to provide more balanced critique and support, based on issues at hand, rather than ideological influences and perspectives, which would be the effect if the World Bank was to directly influence journalists. (See this article from the Bretton Woods project for more information on this aspect.)

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Friday, January 22, 1999
  • Last Updated: Saturday, January 26, 2002

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