It seems that there is an ever-increasing trend in our society. Big corporations are becoming more and more influential in our lives. As they gain more and more muscle in our government they also invade our schools and many other facets of our lives. Perhaps the most disturbing area of potential influence, however, is corporate control of the media. Can the American media uphold its values of free press under pressure from big corporations? Can they continue to present the absolute truth? The simple answer, especially in my opinion, is no.
The movie The Insider provides us with an excellent case to back that point of view. Perhaps one of the biggest stories of this decade has been the tobacco industry. We saw them stand before Congress and tell the world that cigarettes were not addictive. The industry was able to “lawyer” its way out of trouble time and time again. They essentially used legal maneuvers, and certainly money, to keep the truth from the American people.
Finally, we saw all that come to an end. When Jeff Wigand decided it was time to tell the truth, he put everything he valued at risk. He stood to loose his family, any chance at a job, and quite possibly his life. He knew all these things and still he went on, because he thought he could make a difference. He knew that his testimony would never be heard in a court of law, so where could he turn.
The answer: the fourth and fifth estates, or the press and television. Every night millions of Americans sit down and watch the nightly news or read the paper. We know that we will be told all the days news, that we will be educated about what is happening in the world around us. We also know that we will be updated on issues that we care about as individuals and a society. Another delivery mechanism for information is television magazine shows like 60 Minutes. People know that when Mike Wallace talks to them, they should listen.
They can also look at his reputation and know that he is telling the truth. Wigand put faith in that fact. Wigand agreed to do an interview with 60 Minutes because he knew that people would listen. He knew that the absolute truth would finally be out in the open, and that it would come from a source that people would believe. He risked everything because he had faith in the media and journalists. What happened next is, quite frankly, disgraceful.
When the tobacco industry, specifically the company B&W learned that CBS intended to air the interview, they began to lean on the CBS corporate office. They threatened lawsuits that could quite possibly mean that B&W would end up owning CBS. There were other factors as well. Westinghouse was about to purchase CBS. That meant that corporate managers stood to make lots of money. A lawsuit with B&W could have easily made Westinghouse pull out of the deal, and people would loose money.
Essentially the whole situation came down to an issue of money. CBS News decided not to air the story. It is quite obvious that they did not make that decision based upon any journalistic issues. They were being leaned on by the corporate office, which was looking at dollar signs. CBS News was setting aside the truth for money, something it never should have even considered doing.
Than goodness that Lowell Bergman was there to stop the lunacy. He correctly pointed out that the CBS corporate office had no right to tell CBS News what stories it could and could not air. The truth is the truth, no matter who it damages. Bergman embarked on a crusade to see that the whole story was aired. Eventually CBS did air the entire interview.
The only did so after receiving sharp criticism in The New York Times. The Washington Post, also showed that the smear campaign that CBS was using as justification for not airing the story, was nothing more than trumped up charges. CBS was left looking quite nasty, and decided to show the interview. The whole point is that business has no right to decide what is news. They have no right to come and stop a story from airing because it might hurt their profit margin.
Obviously large news organizations need to have a corporate division to handle business affairs, but business should not be allowed to effect good journalism. At one point in the film, Bergman makes a comment about the press only being free to someone who can afford it. That is a powerful comment. The whole reason that the First Amendment exists is to ensure that the government cannot interfere with what we see and hear. The sad thing is, we are allowing business to do it instead.
In our fine democratic tradition, we have never allowed to control what the press prints or broadcasts. We realize that education about issues is the best insurance that we have that our political system will survive. We cling to our belief in free speech and free press as one of our greatest accomplishments. Big corporations cannot be allowed to control what we see and here. If we did, all our news would be is a series of infomercials.
We would never know the truth about what was happening within those companies. If they did something wrong, they could simply not publish it. Our faith in the news would be a sham. As we look at the news, we see the war against big business being waged. In Seattle, protestors are declaring war on the World Trade Organization.
Our courts have decided that Microsoft is a monopoly, and they are siding against big business one class-action suite after another. Imagine what would happen if the big corporations had kept all that out of the news, if no one knew what was happening. What a crazy world we would be living in.