The obedient media

The documentary filmmaker behind 'Shadows of Liberty' on his work to expose the corporate stranglehold on the media. 

Jean-Philippe Tremblay
1 October 2013

“The media conglomerates are not the only ‘industry’ whose owners have become monopolistic in the American economy. But media products are unique in one vital respect. They do not manufacture nuts and bolts: they manufacture a social and political world”. 

This quote from Ben Bagdikian’s book, The New Media Monopoly, changed my life and inspired my team and me to embark on a six-year journey making a film about what we believe is the most important issue facing the world today; the world’s corporate media monopoly and their stranglehold on democracy and information.

The story is told through the people on the front-line, those journalists who dedicate their lives to bringing us the truth and holding power accountable.

The film’s first story is about how advertising dictates the news. Roberta Baskin was chief correspondent for CBS News, and her update on Nike sweatshops in Vietnam had suddenly been taken off the air. Around the same time, CBS concluded a deal to broadcast the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics on their network, and Nike was involved in sponsoring the world-sporting event. When Baskin turned on her television and saw the CBS journalists wearing Nike jackets during CBS News broadcasts, she started asking questions.

After the deal to broadcast the Olympics, CBS News journalists were handed ‘Nike Goody Bags’ that included a range of Nike clothes, including jackets, prominently featuring the ‘Swoosh’ logo. CBS journalists were told from management that they had to wear the jackets whenever they appeared on air. Baskin questioned CBS News motives and actions and demanded that the jackets be removed. As a result she was demoted and forced to leave, after an illustrious journalism career that had won over 75 journalistic awards for her work. Roberta Baskin’s career in mainstream journalism was over. At the time, Westinghouse Electric Corporation owned CBS News, and Baskin’s reports about Nike’s sweatshops in Vietnam have disappeared.

Our doc goes on to tell five other stories of award-winning journalists who were cut out and brushed aside by their news organization because their powerful reports about government and corporate corruption conflicted with their news organization’s agendas. This film is dedicated to these journalists, heroes of our time, who give their lives and freedoms for our enlightenment. Giving these voices the platform they deserve is what ‘Shadows of Liberty’ is about.

The film shows how a handful of corporations have come to control most of the information that we see, hear and read, creating a media monopoly that manipulates our political, economic and social world. Beginning with how the English-American revolutionary, Thomas Paine, launched a democracy enhanced by independent information with his influential pamphlets, it traces how mega-conglomerates with diverse business interests came to own and control media outlets and turn them into profit-making machines as opposed to democratic tools for the people. Media’s extraordinary influence and power in the world forces us to ask ourselves serious questions about the world we live in.

The film exposes just how the war in Iraq was promoted through government-hired PR agencies that filtered their false information through the most trusted media outlets. It also tells the tragic story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb, and what happens when he gets to the truth about the link between the US funded and backed war against the democratically elected government in Nicaragua and the cocaine trade in the US.

We mark the critical moments in media history that led to the BIG 5 conglomerate takeover. Ronald Reagan was a corporate man working for General Electric(GE) as an actor in the 1950’s, hosting the GE Theatre on CBS, and in many ways he always remained their corporate man, even as President of the United States in 1980, when he allowed the controversial takeover of the RCA Corporation, one of the biggest media conglomerates at the time, by General Electric. Reagan’s deregulation favoured privatization over public welfare, and as a result, media ownership rules have been amended to give extraordinary power to the massive media conglomerates, a path new governments have followed ever since.

Unjust wars are being fought, governments are imposing unchecked power, and the imbalance between the corporate and public welfare is greater than ever. The media monopoly and its role in our democracy is one of the most important and topical issues of our time. The subject remains crucial not only for the state of the media itself, but it is critical for all issues facing the US and the world today. As we move forward in this digital age, it seems clear that corporate power and governments are just as determined to control the latest revolutionary media tool, once predicted to bring about the ultimate diversity of voices - a new representation of the democratic ideal.

My hope is that, through this film, more people will get a sense of how the corporate control of information in our democracy came to be. People everywhere respond and demonstrate against injustices, yet their voices are either not reported or not taken into account. We want to inspire change and accountability by championing the idea of an independent media where truth and integrity are the norm and not the exception, and where corporate and government motives do not distort the truth. This film was made to inspire that awareness, to support independent media, and help promote a free Internet.

Shadows Of Liberty’ is screened this Wednesday night, October 2, 7:30pm, at Riverside Studios in London, Hammersmith. The film is presented by DocHouse and will be followed by a Q&A with the author, who directed and produced the film. 

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