A look at the role of the mass media in modern democracies.


by Dan Butts and Mike Whitty

"The 'inner body' may help us to preserve our  biodiversity"

Television reaches into the homes of 98% of the American population. Television is also the main source of news and information for most people. A healthy democracy requires citizens to have the information and understanding to question leaders, decisions and agendas.

Media analyst Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, contends that media must do two things to be democratic. First of all, it’s (the system as a whole) going to ruthlessly account for the activities of people in power and people who want to be in power so you know what they’re actually doing.

Secondly, it’s going to give a wide range of opinions of the fundamental social and political issues that citizens need to know about... that’s the test of a media system in a democracy. By that standard, he writes, our current media system is a fiasco.

Omissions and distortions of critical news are now systemic. For example, the massive mainstream American media commentary on the U.S./British war on Iraq disregards or downplays the economic, political, security, and human costs and gives scant attention to U.S. interests in Iraqi oil, Middle East dominance and building a global empire.

Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, by renowned journalist/publisher John R. MacArthur, expands on media lies and threats to basic democratic principles during wartime.

Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press describes how the press is actively contributing to the demise of democracy through self-censorship and attacks on courageous truth-tellers as well as concerted corporate and/or government efforts to kill the controversial stories and careers of award-winning journalists. 

Commercial TV is highly toxic, especially for children and heavy viewers. Beyond the constant bombardment of distortions, superficiality, pseudo-realism, and sensationalism—sex, sleaze, and scandal—television undermines our mental and public health.

Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader condemns media corporations as ‘electronic child molesters’ who exploit young children with programs that teach addictions, violence as a solution to life’s problems, and low-grade sensuality, from junk food to pornography.

Educator Joseph Chilton Pearce laments that television has destroyed the imaginations of most children and that heavy watching means Evolution’s End. Duane Elgin, author of Awakening Earth and a report on “Collective Consciousness and Cultural Healing,” concludes: “By programming television for commercial success, we are programming the mindset of our entire civilization for evolutionary stagnation and ecological failure.” 

U.S. Television and other commercial media and entertainment—90% of which is owned by 10 mega-corporations making billions in profits and spending millions to bribe politicians and regulators—promote reckless consumerism, fear, violence and degrading stereotypes; conceal the severity of our multiple global crises; refuse to question the constant lies, deceptions, and half-truths of our leaders and fully examine their corrupt policies; ignore the far-reaching excesses and abuses of corporate power; fail to call upon the wise voices of a Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, or a Dada Maheshvarananda, and betray the public’s right to images, messages, and visions promoting real peace, justice, human dignity, and a thriving, sustainable planet.

The U.S. media—led by AOL/Time Warner (WB & CNN), General Electric (NBC), Disney (ABC), Viacom (CBS), News Corporation (Fox), and AT&T (cable)—is a corporate-state propaganda system that restricts free speech, stifles public debate, and systematically manipulates public opinion as we’ve seen in the coverage of the wars on terrorism and Iraq. Corporate advertisers, directly and indirectly, censor media news and programming.

Television news shows and daily newspapers all turn to the same think tank pundits whose expert opinion and commentary shapes or frames the way viewers interpret events. Think tanks, such as the rightwing Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, are primarily funded by wealthy businessmen, corporations, and the mass media. Corporate-dominated PR firms are also hired to produce self-serving video news releases (‘canned news’) for the networks.

U.S. Democratic Media

Beyond corporate media control there are now independent presses like Common Courage, South End, Seven Stories, Odonian, and others, which publish radical books. Alternative radio programs include Democracy Now! and the Women’s International News Gathering Service. Free Speech TV (FSTV), the first full-time, progressive television channel in the United States, broadcasts 24 hours a day seven days a week on Echostar’s Dish Network.

Some 60 Independent Media Centers (IMCs) have sprung up all over the U.S., and worldwide. Small-scale, locally controlled radio is yet another positive development in community broadcasting. The Grassroots Radio Coalition (GRC) mission statement speaks about building the “cornerstones of participatory democracy... more than audio outlets, volunteer-based community radio stations are cultural institutions in their communities, reflecting the unique concerns and passions of the people who live there.”

Pacifica, a network of 5 national public radio stations, comprises the largest source of progressive alternative daily news in the United States and covers numerous topics generally ignored by mainstream media, such as ecology, unionism, feminism, racial equality, anti-war initiatives, and other passionate concerns.

In 1997 the PBS show, “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” began covering the major news across the religious and spiritual spectrum as well as current ethical issues, such as questions dealing with biomedical research. In 1997 the Wisdom Channel, a television and radio network dedicated to personal growth, social consciousness, and healthier living, was also launched. Its current audience is nearly 4 million in North and South America.

The Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles offers a variety of useful materials and publications to promote media literacy in schools, churches synagogues, and among parents and the general public.

The broad-based Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME), which is democratically governed and self-funded, is committed to reforming corporate media, developing independent media literacy curricula, and building regional chapters (

Global Democratic Media

A number of leftwing parties have taken the most aggressive stances regarding media issues—as part of broader programs that challenge corporate conglomeration and market-driven globalization, according to Robert McChesney and John Nichols in Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media.

There is an acute awareness of the relationship between open, free, pluralistic, multi-directional, and ideologically diverse media and real democracy. For example, Sweden’s left party argues that “in a living democracy it is necessary to have a broad and independent choice of media.”

The party, which received 12% of the vote in the 1998 national elections, advocates abolishing all advertising on radio and television, and bringing subsidies for print media expressing alternative and sometimes unpopular views. Its members have also been active in establishing radio programming to serve Sweden’s immigrant community, women and young people.

Most of Sweden’s parties now support the popular ban on TV advertising to children. Greece and Norway have enacted similar bans, and other European nations are contemplating doing so.

The platform of the Canadian New Democratic party now attacks media conglomerates by name and places the struggle for democratic media in the context of broader battles over globalization. The New Democrats are fighting for investments and policies that protect Canadian culture and strengthen, not undermine, the voices of their artists, writers, creators and citizens.

New Zealand’s Alliance party, a coalition of greens, Maori rights campaigners, and refugees from the Labour party, called during the 1990s for a radical restructuring of the nation’s broadcasting: limiting foreign ownership of television and radio stations, developing new government-funded television and radio networks and stations to serve minority communities, and massively increasing support for and funding of existing public-sector broadcasting.

The small yet energetic Australian Democrat party, which is a force in that country’s Senate, has developed perhaps the most sophisticated political response against concentration of media ownership, domestic content issues, monopoly and commercialism.

McChesney and Nichols conclude their survey with the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre (Brazil) in February 2002 (and 2003), where 70,000 people from across the world made media a defining issue in their quest to generate an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism.

Collectively, the media—the nervous system of an evolving global consciousness—is the largest potential driving force for real democracy and social evolution that the world has ever known.

 Dan Butts publishes Internet reports on social, global, and media issues. See his new book Corporation$ Hurt Us All: Saving Our Rights, Democracy, Institutions, and Our Future at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Michael Whitty, professor at University of Detroit Mercy, is the Director of The World Institute for Future Values This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">(This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).


This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 2  Posted on the web on November 10, 2006