Who Will Watch the Watchers?

on the media

The Roman satirist Juvenal is generally credited with first expressing the question of who is responsible for being sure the guardians, the watchmen assigned to look out for the rest of us will provide warning if something is amiss. The phrase in Latin, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, has been cited for centuries when issues of political corruption arise, a philosophical problem cited in Plato’s Republic. 

In the wake of Edward Snowdon’s revelations about the extent of illegal surveillance conducted at home and abroad by the National Security Agency, this question has begun surfacing again among pundits and political observers, e.g. this editorial in the Tampa Bay Times last July.  News articles appear daily which implicitly raise this question, like this and this from today’s New York Times.  Or this from CBS News.

A long running NPR program, On The Media, examines such issues on a weekly basis, as does its media correspondent, David Folkenflick.  For several years in the early 1980s, the PBS weekly series Inside Story with Hodding Carter as chief correspondent looked at contested news stories, in collaboration with the National News Council until that media watchdog organization folded in 1984 for lack of attention and support.

Efforts like these to help citizens better understand how the media operate, under what standards, how they are paid for, and the extent to which they are willing to publicly discuss such issues are critical to a well functioning “fourth estate” assigned the task of holding elected officials accountable in a democracy.  More than ever, investigative journalism and programs addressing issues of media accountability require much greater awareness and support for citizens to elect responsible leaders via the ballot box. The Media Stewards Project firmly believes public service media are better suited to perform this important task.


Public Service vs Commercial Media

Funding for public service media in the United States is woefully inadequate, something few citizens know or care much about, to a significant degree because media education is not systematically taught here. There is a relation between between the two that is almost never discussed beyond academic circles, much less in the mainstream media. It’s worth considering why this is.

A good place to start is this open letter to journalistsFederal Communications Commissioner Mich by former FCC Commssioner Michael Copps in the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review in which he describes the lack of media coverage of the many townhall meetings he organized across the country over a decade to discuss the pros and cons of commercial media consolidation.

If a community’s media was under consolidated control – with a large and distant company owning the major broadcast, and, often, newspaper outlets – the coverage would be somewhere between slim and none.  But if I was visiting a town where independent media still existed and locally employed journalists were on the beat, there would be advance notice that a meeting was going to happen; there would often be live TV coverage; and the event would be reported in detail, often on the front page of the local paper.

A basic tenet of media education is that citizens should constantly think about the economics underpinning all media enterprises, and the degree to which they are serving the public interest. These considerations are taught in our public schools on an ad hoc basis, by the relatively few teachers who consider this an important subject, at best between five and ten percent. In stark contrast, nearly all school curricula in Canada, Germany and most other industrialized democracies include some degree of fundamental media education, a policy issue given virtually no consideration here.

Why, Michael Copps asks, have journalists devoted so little time and attention to helping citizens understand critical aspects of delivering high speed broadband service to all citizens, and the political chicanery associated with designating broadband as a telecommunication service, as opposed to an information service. Media literate citizens would have at least some idea why these issues are important.

There is a reason why the public media sector is where such issues are most often given serious consideration – because they address their audiences as citizens, not primarily as consumers whose attention they can sell to commercial interests. There is a fundamental difference.  In the past, independently owned media enterprises, often held by families with a healthy respect for the public interest aspects of their work, could provide a critical mass of what insiders call “accountability journalism”.  These have diminished almost to the vanishing point and, with them, a traditional media commitment to factual reporting, sound editing, and a willingness to hold the powerful accountable, posing a major challenge to the non-profit sector. 

It is no coincidence that the CJR cover story in the same issue with the letter to journalists from Michael Copps is: Who cares if it’s true?  Both are worth reading to better comprehend how dominant commercial media have become, and that media education must be taken much more seriously by all citizens.

The Oscars as a Media Education Teachable Moment

DeGeneres tweets a selfie

Reviews of how well Ellen DeGeneres performed as MC for this year’s Oscars ceremony were decidedly mixed. Many felt she simply wasn’t very funny in her remarks, while others found amusing to various degrees her decisions to have pizza delivered to celebrities in the audience at one point, or arranging a “selfie” to be taken of her posing with a group of Hollywood stars. 

Some of the media coverage of these pre-produced stunts touched on the degree to which they were clever examples of product placement, also known as embedded marketing, in which a product, or service, or trademark is prominently featured in a program or performance where it is noticed, subliminally or consciously, in a context other than a commercial advertisement.

In this case, the product used to take the “selfie” was a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 cell phone, which DeGeneres then used to send the photo into the twittersphere, which was then re-tweeted so many times that minutes later she joked it crashed the Twitter server. Indeed, it was seen by over three million people within a day and became a popular talking point about this year’s Oscars.

The trademark that appeared on the Big Mamas and Big Papas pizza boxes delivered on camera to the stage was a Coca-Cola logo, which may have been seen by more members of the estimated audience of 43 million than the actual commercials Pepsi paid big bucks to appear during the show breaks – though the Coke brand appeared spontaneously – seemingly for free – as part of the stunt orchestrated by DeGeneres.

Many viewers watching these product placement moments were vaguely aware there were economic considerations at play, but few had much of an idea of what might have been arranged, or how. A number of news outlets the next day reported this story in some detail, such as this analysis in the Wall Street Journal.  Since commercial media enterprises are such big business, readers can often find an insider’s account, usually in the business section, of otherwise obscure considerations of how the attention of a mass audience is directed for an economic purpose.  

The fact that more viewers do not automatically think more critically about how money, often very big money, is being made by someone in these moments reflects the sad reality that media education is not systematically taught in American public schools.  Indeed, most people have at best a vague notion of what media education is or how to define it.  Among other things, to be media literate is to know well that all media are constructed for a purpose; that media always feature some information over other information; and always have an economic dimension that is usually not apparent.

We Americans take delight when it is reported that the Oscars are seen each year by billions of people all over the world, but remain remarkably unaware of the degree to which commercial media dominate our public life. It is no accident that media education is taught more systematically in countries beyond our shores for the simple reason that, since the end of World War II, they have been on the receiving end of a flood of highly produced, visually arresting commercial representations of American culture which they recognize as different from their own. Media education offers people the critical skills they need to better comprehend what they see and read in a increasingly mediated world.

What can be done about this?  Stay tuned.