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Drive-By Journalism: The Assault on Your Need to Know Paperback – July 1, 2002
From the Publisher
The dominance of corporate news media -- on the air and in print as well as the Internet -- means a narrowing of public discussion at a time when the number of news outlets has been proliferating at a rapid pace. Corporate sponsorship is homogenizing political commentary and tilting it increasingly toward one side, leaving roughly one-half of all Americans with less and less voice in the public forum.
If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, then news representing a wide range of sources and interests is the prerequisite to that vigilance. Yet the news business prefers to analyze everything but its own responsibility to maintain an informed electorate so vital to a free society.
It doesn't have to be this way. Amidst his chronicle of the destruction of the news, the author lays out a serious challenge to the news business to exercise its responsibility as well as its freedom.
From the Author
I wrote this book to sound an alarm about how journalistic irresponsibility is threatening our freedoms and our representative system of government. I issue a challenge to those in charge of the news business to take a serious look at what they are doing and report to the American people. It is time for those who monitor everything else to monitor themselves in a serious way before all is lost, including the press's own freedom.
Top customer reviews
As a result of deregulation of the news and entertainment industries, a steady series of corporate mergers has concentrated the media into a five-firm oligopoly of unprecedented power. We may think we have a lot of channels to choose from, but they all come from the same handful of sources, all of which are more interested in satisfying corporate investors than in producing an informed electorate. Rather than compete, the media conglomerates collude like mafia bosses, divvying up the available markets, using every available second of air time to sell us products, services, and a consumer lifestyle. This does not speak well to the likelihood of our getting trustworthy news.
Rowse deftly slaps down the ridiculous yet pervasive myth that the mass media are liberally biased and demonstrates conclusively that quite the opposite is true. Although many reporters have liberal tendencies, they are not the ones who determine which stories get reported. News networks have become lap dogs for their parent companies, and these media giants are as conservative as they are powerful. Moreover, they respond to advertisers, not the viewing public. NBC, for example, wouldn't dream of reporting on General Electric, the most notorious polluter in the nation, because GE is now NBC's parent company. The same is true of ABC and Disney, CBS and Westinghouse. In fact, every major network is now owned by the biggest advertisers in the nation. Don't think that isn't affecting what gets reported on the 6 o'clock news.....
According to Rowse, about 40% of what we see on the news these days is not even the product of investigative journalism; it is pre-packaged propaganda "donated" to the networks by political and corporate public relations firms. By accepting these gracious handouts, the networks can reduce the number of expensive journalists they employ. The result, of course, is that networks no longer investigate; they merely serve as conduits through which powerful organizations deliver their pre-fab images to the public.
Perhaps Rowse’s most frightening point is the link he makes between poor news reporting and citizen apathy. With nothing but info-tainment and scandal stories on the news, Americans have no viable means to choose between one candidate and another, between one policy and another. So they don’t bother. With voters thus sidelined, well-funded corporate lobbyists have the undivided attention of our lawmakers, whom they outnumber 40 to 1.
This book is well-documented, well-organized, well-written, and vitally important in our times. Better still, it’s truly interesting. Rowse provides fascinating insider anecdotes that bring all his statistics to life. Very highly recommended.
Casual news observers will recognize this quote, or at least the essence of it.
During the build-up to the Gulf War, this story, told by a teen-age Kuwaiti girl, was repeated again and again in the news media. As much as anything else, the anecdote softened public resistance to American intervention in Kuwait - a huge military undertaking that never completely shed its mercenary hue, but which enjoyed broad public support nevertheless thanks largely to a media that seemed ill-equipped or unwilling to get beyond the veneer of official proclamations and gee-golly techno-wizardry to the tough business of covering a war.
Less casual observers might know that the story was a pure fabrication. In fact, it took two curious reporters relatively little effort during the war's aftermath to discover what the entire Washington press corps had missed - not only was the story not true, but the girl who told it was the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador.
What very few of us probably realize to this day, however, was that the tale was just one piece of a coordinated propaganda campaign conducted by PR flacks on behalf of the Kuwaiti royal family. All told, the Kuwaitis spent $11.5 million to win the hearts and minds of their American saviors, most of it paid to Hill & Knowlton, one of the largest public relations firms in the world. For that relatively modest sum, Kuwait was able to summon the sympathy and might of the world's most powerful democracy, despite Kuwait's own questionable commitment to human rights. And going along for the ride the whole way were the American media.
The victory of public relations over reportage prior to the Gulf War is just one of the fascinating nuggets found in Arthur E. Rowse's Drive-By Journalism: The Assault on Your Need to Know, a blistering indictment of the current state of American journalism. A veteran journalist and media critic who has worked for National Public Radio, U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, Rowse writes like a man who knows how the sausage is made and isn't too pleased about his grandchildren having to eat it.
His book chronicles a spate of journalistic cardinal sins and exposes a rogues'gallery of media decision makers who have turned the sacred business of informing the public into a scramble for ratings and profits.
Elian, Monica, O.J. and JonBenet are just the tip of the iceberg, and, in Rowse's view, symptoms of a much more pernicious dynamic than just the public's demand for sensation and scandal.
At the heart of the media's current reliance on fluff, trivia and sensationalism, he argues, is the trend toward corporate ownership of media outlets. While journalism has always been a business, the profit motive was once far more balanced by - even subordinate to - journalistic standards.
In the 1960s, when CBS head Bill Paley was questioned by a member of his news division about the cost of his ambitious plans for news coverage, his response was more typical of that era: "Don't worry about that. I've got Jack Benny to make money for me. You guys cover the news."
Since then, says Rowse, mainstream media outlets have fallen all over themselves to slash staffs while favoring grislier, more sensational, more irrelevant coverage. Thus, crime reporting has become more frequent and more strident even as crime has dropped, while stories with emotional impact like the Elian Gonzalez saga supplant coverage of policy decisions that affect millions of Americans.
And instead of discussion about candidates' qualifications or stances on pressing national problems, campaign coverage is dominated by trivial horse race issues like who's raised the most money.
This hasn't just made us more uninformed, argues Rowse. We've also become much more susceptible to disinformation. Eager to fill the hard news gap left by the media have been special interest lobbyists, public relations flacks and think tanks - well-funded and well-organized groups with agendas to sell.
Rowse also explores the well-worn canard that our mainstream media are predominantly liberal. Not only does the prima facie evidence - that media are increasingly coming under the control of profit-driven corporations - suggest a conservative tilt, a look at the opinion pages of daily newspapers, where aggressive spin is encouraged, tells a different story as well. Of the top political columnists in the nation, the far-right Cal Thomas, with 537, is syndicated in the most dailies. George Will is second with 450. In fact, based on client numbers, Rowse counts a 3-to-1 advantage for conservative columnists over liberal ones. Add in talk radio, which is almost exclusively the province of right-wingers, and the liberal media myth explodes.
Other disturbing trends cited by Rowse are the increase in "gotcha" journalism; a snowballing, media-fueled cynicism about government's ability to address national crises; and a tendency to tilt reporting toward advertisers and affluent readers at the expense of broader coverage. (If the stock market is this strong then inflation-adjusted wages couldn't possibly have fallen in the last 20 years, right?)
If there's a criticism here it's that Rowse is woefully short on solutions, and those he does offer feel like spit in the wind. Perhaps the only real recourse, then, is for us as individuals to simply smarten up. Drive-By Journalism is a good first step down that path.