Large, corporate-owned media are free trade proponents. However, as described in the free trade section of this web site, the actual way in which the current form of overly corporate-oriented free trade has been carried out (compared to the theories and idea) is an area of much discussion and warranted criticism. As a consequence, the coverage of alternative views and critique has been either avoided, or almost ignored, because the same international system (given the label of free trade) benefits the large media companies and their owners that are also global.
Diverse views are therefore not expressed and not available for most people.
Is it really even "free trade" being promoted?
An almost ironic situation for example is how free market capitalism is said to be supported and promoted by the mainstream when the concentration in media ownership itself, as well as in other industries, is anything but free market capitalism. It is more akin to the older mercantile or monopoly capitalism that Adam Smith exposed and so decried.
Adam Smith, often regarded as the father of modern capitalism, wrote the influential famous book, The Wealth of Nations in 1776. This book exposed the mercantile and monopoly capitalism of the preceeding centuries as unjust and unfair, and proposed a free market system. He himself was very critical of the influences of concentrated ownership (which is also a way to reduce competition) and large corporations as interfering with free market capitalism (although many who do exert influence don't mind doing so in his name, and calling it free market!) Smith is worth quoting at length:
As Adam Smith warns, only after great precaution, careful, scrupulous and suspicious attention should commerce-related policies from corporate interests be accepted.
Yet, the mainstream media itself is owned by various multinational companies (primarily in the entertainment industries, but from other industries as well).
- These multinationals in the area of the media as a result have worked to widen the market and narrow the competition as described ealier in the ownership section.
- Being a carrier of information to the general public, the importance of a mainstream media free from such political influences is important.
- Yet, as mentioned in the previous sections, this concentration of ownership brings with it political and economic agendas that are less accountable.
- Furthermore, the interests of the multinationals in their own, and related industries, will naturally be reflected in the mainstream media.
- Even a warning from over 200 years ago by Adam Smith has been ignored!
Hence, this makes it even more difficult these days for the general public to apply great precaution, careful, scrupulous and suspicious attention to the claims from monied interests. Instead we see continued support at national and international level for those aspects of political, economic and trade agreements that benefit the interests of the concentrated owners. (Sure, sometimes these interests will overlap with that of the public, yet as discussed throughout the Trade, Economy, & Related Issues section of this web site, that is not usually the case.) Furthermore, politicians and businesses have continued to label the system that they promote as being free trade or free market etc.
For example, almost all the mainstream media covered the WTO protests in Seattle at the end of 1999 with a very negative slant towards the protestors. For more about that, see this web site's section on the Millennium Round in Seattle.
At the beginning of 2000, keen to avoid the embarrassment of Seattle, the world economic powerhouses (corporate leaders and major governments) met again at Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum. Here, as well as reiterating the positive benefits of free trade, the mainstream media were actually urged to be the message carriers of the virtues of free trade and the New World Order. That should perhaps start to ring alarm bells. This surely sounds like the mainstream media are being asked to push forth a certain propaganda, rather than remain (or, more accurately, become!) objective and allow alternative views to be voiced, fairly.
President Bill Clinton indicated similar things himself. He stressed how open, or free, rules-based trading was the only possible way forward and that the media would have to be responsible for selling that message to the public to gain their support for this New World Order. (Interestingly, this is also what the new U.S. President, George Bush said, in Quebec, 2001, during the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement negotiations that saw similar protests). But no-one questioned him (or Bush) about the reality it actually is;
- Who is free? (And what is free -- it is mainly capital, which has had the increasing ability to move around unchecked. It is part of the reason that volatile capital flows have led to economic collapse in some countries during the global financial crisis towards the end of the 1990s.)
- What are the actual rules (are the rules themselves actually fair or not)?
- Who can get away with not having to abide by the rules? (Typically it is the multinational corporations and more powerful western governments -- after all, who would be able to force them to abide by the rules?)
- And, ultimately, who benefits, and who doesn't?
These are the types of points that the protestors are typically trying to make. Yet, the media helps to generally avoid voicing such hard-hitting criticisms that are close to home. (Often, they may concentrate on the views of groups who are against free trade for ulteria, nationalistic reasons, and make it seem as though all who oppose the current form of globalization have these reasons behind their motives.)
If these questions are allowed to be tackled and answered from a diverse set of perspectives, it may help result in increased public debate. This may help pressurize fairer rules, practices and accountability on to corporations which they would then need to abide by. This in turn would increase the possibility for globalization to become a positive force compared to how it is seen today by so many.
While national control of the media can give rise to censorship, propaganda and other forms of control, as with America and elsewhere, too much corporate ownership can also have numerous negative effects.
Towards the end of the 1990s, even the mainstream media's reporting on the global financial crisis can warrant criticism. Their phrases used (an Asian Financial Crisis, crony capitalism which was the fault of people in the affected countries and so on), their angles portrayed, the influences of western corporations etc. all resulted in coverage that tended to implicitly, sometimes explicitly, blame others. It came over as though excuses and other explanations had to be provided so as not to let us imagine that some of the root causes would ever come from the home-grown "prescriptions." The following quote provides another way to look at it:
And a more general pattern of propaganda can exist which is often hard to see when there are loud claims of free speech and independence and impartiality as the following quote summarizes:
Even the U.S. 2000 presidential elections stories, which included many controversies, to say the least, were affected by poor media coverage, as this article attests to.
And this problem of corporate media ownership leading to presenting only neoliberal economics etc isn't just a concern in the western mainstream. Wherever media is being corporatized and owned by global corporations, the same issues are ocurring. As an example, India is facing such critique, as this following article questions why the stories of poverty — in a country with a large number of the world's hungry — no longer appears on the front page in the way it used to. And if it does, that causes are not really explored:
In the article quoted above, P. Sainath also describes how additionally, the stories are now about those who have increased their affluence in India and benefitted from the Structual Adjustment policies that have affected so many.
The current form of corporate globalization has been criticized for increasing the vast inequalities around the world, including in the richest nations in the world. J.W. Smith offers a warning,
While Smith wrote the above in 1994, it is applicable today as well, with the recent wave of news about corporate crime and fascination of some CEOs and other executives as some major American companies have faced bankruptcy or have collapsed. Yet, the media, while offering an outpouring of news and analysis have by and large concentrated on individual characters and looked for scapegoats (CEOs being the current flavor!). The impacts of the underlying system itself has been less discussed and when it has, often been described as basically ok, but just affected by a few bad apples. As media critic Norman Solomon describes,
Access to Information and Economics
While it sometimes appears as though trade and economic issues are boring and not of interest for most people in a society, it is in fact one of the most important. Economic decisions affect not only businesses, but individuals. Most wars throughout history have had economic and trade resources at their core. Legislation, or removal of some, can have an impact on factors such as working conditions, job security and wage stability. Access to information, then, plays an important part of enabling a society to know more about its nation's trade and economic policies.
Most agree that one part of allowing access to information is to ensure governments make their information available to their public in the first place. This is also enshrined in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. However, while there is some progress being made in increasing the transparency of some governments, it is often just rhetoric. In addition, it is just one aspect of society. In the increasingly globalized world where some transnational corporations wield a lot of political power as well, there are legitimate questions about whether private corporations should also be held accountable to the public via access to their information.
International institutions like the World Bank recognize the importance of the media in development issues. As a result they are attempting to address this more. However, they wish to directly influence journalists to promote their ideas and perspectives of markets and globalization etc, whereas critics, including Frank Vogl, former World Bank Director of Information and Public Affairs suggest that the Bank instead supports NGOs and independent foundations to carry out education for journalists. This way, the Bank is not seen as unfairly influencing important issues. Additionally, by supporting a myriad of NGOs and others, they may provide a better forum, or potential, to provide more balanced critique and support, based on issues at hand, rather than ideological influences and perspectives, which would be the effect if the World Bank was to directly influence journalists. (See this article from the Bretton Woods project for more information on this aspect.)