Some Examples of Corporate Influence in the Media

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, December 26, 2004

The following are just a small set of examples of corporate influence in the media, on issues that have been highlighted elsewhere on this web site. This section cannot aim to be comprehensive as there are so many examples! Therefore, some different types of examples are introduced here. However, over time, more will be added.

On this page:

  1. Some general observations
    1. Creating Fake Citizens on the Internet
    2. Ridiculing and Discrediting Scientists on Health and Environmental Issues
  2. Influence on Media Coverage of the Kyoto Conference
  3. Chiquita's Influence
  4. McDonald's Influence
  5. Monsanto's Influence
  6. Military Industrial Complex and Military Contractor's Influence
  7. Disney's Influence
  8. General Electric's Influence

Some general observations

By no means a complete set of tactics, the following have been tactics common over many issues.

Creating Fake Citizens on the Internet

A Public Relations firm contracted to biotech giant Monsanto apparently used fake people on internet listserves to appear independent and raise questions and concerns about critics and unfavorable scientific findings that even pressured the prestigious science journal, Nature, to detract an article. George Monbiot is worth quoting about this:

While, in the past, companies have created fake citizens' groups to campaign in favour of trashing forests or polluting rivers, now they create fake citizens. Messages purporting to come from disinterested punters are planted on listservers at critical moments, disseminating misleading information in the hope of recruiting real people to the cause. Detective work by the campaigner Jonathan Matthews and the freelance journalist Andy Rowell shows how a PR firm contracted to the biotech company Monsanto appears to have played a crucial but invisible role in shaping scientific discourse.

... The Bivings Group specialises in internet lobbying. ... An article on its website, entitled Viral Marketing: How to Infect the World, warns that there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organisation is directly involved... it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first listen to what is being said online... Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously. A senior executive from Monsanto is quoted on the Bivings site thanking the PR firm for its outstanding work.

... Sometimes, Bivings boasts, we win awards. Sometimes only the client knows the precise role we played. Sometimes, in other words, real people have no idea that they are being managed by fake ones.

George Monbiot, The Fake Persuaders 1, The Guardian, May 14, 2002

Ridiculing and Discrediting Scientists on Health and Environmental Issues

While business lobby groups and business funded scientists have attempted to protect many causes, from tobacco to oil (in the climate change issues), the media's poor attempt at balance has worsened the problem.

Eric A. Davidson is worth quoting on this:

The media likes to present both sides of any issue as if they were boxers of equal stature and strength, and so scientists with opposing points of view are interviewed as if they held equal stature and respect within the scientific community. In terms of strength of argument and credibility, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change created by the United Nations] scientific consensus about the importance of global warming is a heavyweight compared to the bantam weight of the handful of dissenting scientists. Unfortunately, the well-funded and ideologically and financially motivated bantams are running circles around the pensive, cautious, lumbering heavyweight, and the impact of the bantams' clever program of misinformation far exceeds their numbers or their scientific credentials. Their strategy has been to find little chinks in the armor of the global warming evidence, draw attention to these minor points, blow them out of proportion, and thereby gain publicity in the popular press that cases doubt on the strong mainstream scientific consensus on global warming. When subsequently debated in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, these issues are usually put to rest, but by then, the damage has already been done in the popular press, and the global warming naysayers achieve their goals of undermining confidence in the science behind the global warming consensus.

Eric A. Davisdon, You Can't Eat GNP: Economics as if Ecology Mattered, (Perseus Publishing, 2001), pp. 110 - 111

George Monbiot, in 2004, notes a similar issue, whereby media attempts at balance has led to false balancing whereby disproportionate time is given to more fringe scientists or those with less credibility or with additional agendas, without noting so, and thus gives the impression that there is more debate than what really exists 2 in the scientific community about whether or not climate change is an issue to be concerned about or not.

But Monbiot notes that this happens in other issues, such as the issue of smoking. Davidson in the above book also highlights other industries where businesses have felt afraid to make changes, such as reducing lead in gasoline, or doing something about acid rain, or about CFCs and the Ozone layer. In all cases, concerns about job losses, denials about whether it was actually an issue, and so on, have turned out to be false.

For more information on this site, see for example:

  • Reactions to Climate Change Negotiations and Action3 about business motives to derail and discredit discussions and scientific findings, and about corporate media strategies.
  • Genetically Engineered Food and Mainstream Media4 that looks at how biotech companies are trying to deal with the public backlash against genetically modified foods.
  • War, Propaganda and the Media5 looks at various propaganda techniques, both during war time, and peace time, where tractics like false balancing are discussed.

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Influence on Media Coverage of the Kyoto Conference

During the Kyoto Climate Protocol Conference, large industries who could be affected by environmental legislation were able to influence the outcome, using the media to its best advantage. The Global Warming6 section on this web site has more information.

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Chiquita's Influence

Chiquita, a company directly influencing USA to commit to a Banana Trade War7 had a damning media report about its terrible working practices and illegal activities such as bribery, tax evasion, violence towards some workers and even killings 8. Yet, the sensation wasn't that Chiquita was so unfair in its methods, but more that the reporter that investigated this apparently stole some information from internal Chiquita voicemails. The paper then retracted the story after huge pressure from Chiquita, an advertising customer, and denounced the report for three days on it's front page! Its truly amazing that while the reporter gets all the stick from everyone, the real villain9 is still at large!

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McDonald's Influence

McDonald's has also come under scrutiny for similar reasons. The Corporations section10 on this web site has more information on this.

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Monsanto's Influence

Monsanto and others are trying to heavily promote (prematurely, which is where a lot of the problem also lies) genetically engineered (GE) or Genetically Modified (GM) food as the way to solve world hunger. What is not acknowledged is that food shortage around the world is more of a political problem11. GE food may be a good alternative in the future after much more testing and guarantees of safety, but the current push and types of GE technology (like Terminator seeds12) being promoted suggest that the intention is perhaps more profit-oriented.

Two award-winning Florida TV producers working for Fox were fired13 after they refused to broadcast false reports14 about Monsanto's controversial genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone15.

While there have been many cases of corporate groups supporting PR firms or setting up fake consumer groups to try and lobby a certain position favorable for its interests, Monsanto had apparently gone a step further by using fake people16 on the internet on some listserves that discussed science issues. (This itself is not really a new tactic, as it appears that a number of companies in various industries have been doing this.)

Check out the GE Food17 section on this web site for much more in-depth information about GM foods general as well as more about how PR, media relations etc have been affected by bad publicity and how companies have tried to react to this.

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Military Industrial Complex and Military Contractor's Influence

Some military contractors are enormous corporations and wield a lot of power and influence. Their products can literally affect the lives of many people. However, as corporations, their bottom line is important, so it is in their interest to promote an environment where the need for continual high spending on military is required. This then leads to a lot of propaganda. For more information about the role of the media and how they are also influenced by the military industrial complex, see this web site's sections on:

  • War, Propaganda and the Military18
  • The Arms Trade19

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Disney's Influence

As an example of influence, Disney's size and popularity provides a good example. Disney is well regarded for providing wholesome family entertainment, with numerous films, cartoons/animation movies and so on. However, with the increasing size, owning the ABC news station, and enormous vertical integration, there have been increasing criticisms of Disney as well, ranging from the subtle cultural and even racial, gender and class bias depicted in their cartoons and movies, to their ability to naturally (directly or indirectly) influence major news stories via their ABC ownership20.

That is not to say that Disney is necessarily sexist, racist and so on by intent. It is possible that the drive for profits is more important and leads to less criticism, because from a business perspective, they have been very successful and implemented the most appropriate strategies to expand and grow. As Michael Eisner, CEO of Walt Disney Co. said in an internal memo:

We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.

Michael Eisner, CEO, The Walt Disney Co., (Internal Memo). Quoted from Mickey Mouse Monopoly-Disney, Childhood & Corporate Power21 (see also p.29 of the transcript which is provided as a link from this previous link.)

Because it is sometimes hard to imagine criticism of Disney, especially as a prominent icon of American culture that has provided light entertainment, fun and laughter for so many, the following links provide more in-depth look at Disney in this respect, and in the light of its increasing size and influence:

  • Background info22 from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
  • Additional info on what Disney owns23 from Columbia Journalism Review
  • A search24 for Disney from the Mediachannel reveals many articles
  • Mickey Mouse Monopoly-Disney, Childhood & Corporate Power25 a documentary looking at the gender, class and racial aspects of Disney movies and animation.
  • The Mousetrap; Inside Disney’s dream machine26 is issue 308 from New Internationalist Magazine, December 1998. It has a collection of articles related to Disney.
  • How Disney Magic and the Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity in the Digital Age27 by Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock, TruthOut, August 4, 2010

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General Electric's Influence

General Electric (GE) also the largest military contractor as well as enormous multinational company producing many household appliances and other things, owns the NBC network. As a small example of their influence via the ownership of one of the major media networks in the U.S., GE Vice Chair and NBC President Robert Wright lobbied the New York City Council against a pending resolution in support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to clean up the Hudson River.

One of the implication of this use of media to wield political influence was that journalists subtly get the message to not report on thi