Conspiracy Theory Rock, aka Mediaopoly, on SNL

The legend of this Robert Smigel TV Funhouse segment is that it was yanked either by Lorne Michaels, NBC executives, or GE executives who either thought it wasn’t funny or hit too close to home. A Google search turns up not only multiple copies of the video on YouTube but also commentary from eager conspiracy theorists. Once you see it, though, you can understand why some touchy executive at Rockefeller Plaza might want it taken out of circulation (which exactly what the Chomsky/Herman propaganda model would predict). However, it did eventually turn up on the official SNL TV Funhouse DVD, and Robert Smigel has gone on to a very successful career, so I guess it couldn’t have pissed off too many important people, right?

Whatever you think might be the reason that this segment was pulled from subsequent repeats of SNL, it does make some legitimate points about corporate ownership and deregulation of the media. Here are the lyrics (with links to relevant information):

It’s a media-opoly
A media-opoly.
The whole media is controlled by a few corporations
thanks to deregulation by the FCC.

You mean Disney, Fox, WestingHouse, and good ol GE?
They own networks from CBS to CNBC.
They can use them to say whatever they please,
and put down the opinions of any one who disagrees.

Or stuff about PCBs.
What are PCBs?
They come from power plants built by WestingHouse and GE.
They can give you lots of cancer that can hurt your body,
but on network TV, you rarely hear anything bad about the nuclear industry.
Like when WestingHouse was sued for fraud?
Which time?
GE made defective bolts.
It was an unreported crime.
Or when it was boycotted for robbing nuclear bomb plants just to squeeze a dime.
That’s a footnote by the way.
A footnote protects you from folks who doubt what you say.
Now maybe the voices in my head will go away.

But the bigshots don’t care.
They’re all sitting pretty thanks to corporate welfare.
What’s that now?
They get billions in subsidies from the government.
It’s supposed to create jobs, but that’s not how it’s spent.
They use PACs and soft money to support Congressmen
who will vote for weapons programs again and again
and let them dump toxic waste where the young ones play.

GE made the bullets that shot JFK.
You contribute to this chain every time you buy a product sponsored on this show.
That’s what NBC doesn’t want you to know.
So the next time… BEEP
Please stand by, please stand by.
It means there’s technical difficulties supposedly,
so if you see a “Please Stand By,”
you know it’s all part of GE’s big lie.
Why’d they take Norm MacDonald away?
Because he made too many jokes about O.J.,
but Lorne Michaels overruled.
Now don’t be fooled.
He and Marion Barry went to the same high school…

 

Consolidation and conglomeration

Directly related to our recent discussions in Journalism 1 about consolidation/conglomeration and its impact on the news media:

Media Consolidation Infographic

Source: Frugal Dad.

To this I would add that here in Louisville, Clear Channel Radio runs seven different stations. Main Line Broadcasting runs five radio stations. WHAS-TV is owned by Belo; WLKY is owned by Hearst; WAVE is owned by Raycom; and both WDRB and WMYO are owned by Block Communications — which has an agreement to share programming with WBKI. None of the corporate parents are headquartered in Louisville.

For an example of how consolidation/conglomeration can lead to both better efficiency (and higher profitability) as well as decrease diversity, just take a look at these websites with identical format & design for different newspapers all owned by Gannett:

Did you know that DealChicken is a Gannett company? That explains why the CJ (online and print) has DealChicken ads everywhere. And did you know that Gannett is a partner in the MetroMix project, which runs lifestyle websites targeted towards the 21-to-34-year-old demographic in dozens of cities? That’s why you suddenly find yourself on MetroMix when searching the CJ site for concert listings or movie schedules.

Even LEO is no longer locally owned. It’s part of a national company called SouthComm which owns more than a dozen free weeklies, although you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of the chain imposing anything on LEO. The websites for SouthComm’s various properties all have their own design & format (unlike Gannett’s), and their obsessively local focus probably keeps management from imposing any top-down marketing schemes.

Obviously it’s not possible to generalize about all corporate-owned media outlets. Without working at each one and observing the flow of leadership firsthand, it’s impossible to say if the owners are making content decisions or leaning on reporters who cross the corporate line. But it is safe to say that the primary concern for each of these organizations is and always will be the bottom line; the old Bingham “reputation for placing principle before profit” is long dead.

Passive voice makes perpetrators disappear in news headlines

As a journalism educator I try to teach my students the mechanics of writing (apostrophes are for contractions and possessives; “principal” vs. “principle”; avoid the passive voice) as well as the fundamentals of journalism (seek the truth and report it; be the watchdog of democracy; hold power accountable). One common practice in modern journalism that combines bad grammar with bad reporting is the vanishing subject.

There are plenty of examples out there:

Who shot these suspects? The headlines don’t say. Perhaps readers will assume that police shot them, but in at least one case that’s not true. In all three of the above examples, passive voice is used to remove the subject of the sentence — the actor that is taking action against the suspect.

After Jeffrey Johnson shot Steven Ercolino at the Empire State Building on August 24, headlines from all over made the same mistake:

Everyone who saw these headlines probably (understandably) believed that it was another lone-gunman multiple-victim massacre like the Aurora movie theater shooting or Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage in Arizona. But the fact that police were actually responsible for the nine victims outside the New York landmark was (A) not a secret; (B) known to reporters at the time (see paragraph 8 of the CNN story); and (C) completely omitted from many headlines.

This is not the result of some type of conspiracy. The culprit is more likely to be a combination of lazy reporting and fear of offending sources (about which more below).

Aside from blatant use of the passive voice to make actors disappear, there are other ways to disclaim or mute responsibility for horrific acts committed by powerful people. For example, look at these two New York Times headlines:

What’s the difference? Look closely. Perhaps you noticed right away: in the first headline, the active voice is used to report a mass murder by a suicide bomber. In the second headline, the passive voice is used to cast doubt upon the death toll from a US drone strike. Note that it’s not “US drone strike kills 60 in Pakistan” … instead, the strike is “said to kill” 60 people. Who said it? According to the article, it was local residents and news reports. The cited source for the first article is “officials and medics.” What indication are we given that the latter sources are less reliable than the former? None. And yet the second headline waves away the facts of the matter. Oh, someone said that sixty people were killed. People can say anything, you know, especially when it comes to casting aspersions upon our great nation.

And yet several other news organizations had no problem reporting the drone strike in a more direct way:

Although they disagree on the final body count, there is no disagreement on culpability for the massacre, and no attempt at inserting weasel words like “alleged” or “said” to obfuscate that culpability.

Perhaps the media sources above are simply anti-American and too quick to believe the worst about the United States? Perhaps. But that still doesn’t explain the NY Times’ willingness to print the Yemen suicide bombing death toll as a fact and the Pakistan funeral bombing death toll as an allegation. What would very easily explain this discrepancy would be the Times’ unwillingness to alienate their official Pentagon and White House sources who have a vested interest in both maximizing fear of al-Qaeda in Yemen and minimizing civilian casualties and military atrocities in Pakistan.

This unwillingness to offend powerful sources was named years ago by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky as “sourcing,” the third filter of their propaganda model:

Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out that ‘Professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate.’ (source)

Obviously police departments are also on that list of official sources, which explains very well why police who make enormously embarrassing mistakes often vanish from headlines, leaving only an object (the “suspect”) and the action that mysteriously happened (“shot” or “killed”) without any apparent cause. Journalists ought to be on guard against this phenomenon and write their stories–and headlines–accordingly.