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March 16, 1999

Reporting the News on a "Need to Know" Basis

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by Norman Solomon

A new full-page ad says plenty about the pretenses of major TV networks at the end of the 20th century. Reaching millions of readers across the country, the advertisement declares: "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. Monday through Friday. It's all you need to know." Whether this daily dose of enlightenment includes the commercials is unclear. But the ad's message is direct: Within half an hour, the show enables viewers to understand what's happening in the world. We've all heard that knowledge is power. But ultimate power can flow from being a big gatekeeper -- deciding what information will be widely distributed. In practice, a few media companies determine what most Americans "need to know" on a daily basis.

Consider some comments from the man whose face is prominent in the advertising for NBC's evening news. Nearly three years ago -- when NBC and Microsoft joined forces to launch MSNBC, melding television and the World Wide Web -- Tom Brokaw talked to an interviewer about the need to manage cyberspace for young people. "We can't let that generation and a whole segment of the population just slide away out to the Internet and retrieve what information it wants without being in on it," he said. Brokaw echoed the perspectives of his bosses -- the top executives at General Electric, which owns NBC. The green Internet beckoned. It was the color of money.

Like someone surveying vast forests and yearning to build theme parks, Brokaw saw great entrepreneurial potential. In the summer of 1996, he expounded on his views: "I also believe strongly that the Internet works best when there are gatekeepers. When there are people making determinations and judgments about what information is relevant and factual and useful. Otherwise, it's like going to the rainforest and just seeing a green maze."

Otherwise, in other words, people might actively participate in figuring out what they "need to know." This would be bad for business -- or at least for the mass-media biz, which thrives on telling people what they need while selling it to them.

These days, much of "the news" is distant from even going through the motions of serious journalism about weighty social concerns. Centralized media power to decide what most Americans will find out today and tomorrow -- providing a steady deluge of sensationalism and fluff -- has gone far beyond mere infotainment. Especially on many TV news shows and network newsmagazines, it's now more like "distractotainment."

The power to open the news gates wide goes hand-in-hand with the ability to close them tight. Along with deciding what the multitudes of media consumers need to hear again and again, the biggest and most influential news outlets can also determine what the public doesn't need to hear very often -- or ever.

"We live in a dirty and dangerous world," Washington Post Company owner Katharine Graham said in a 1988 speech to CIA officials at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia. "There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows."

According to Graham, Brokaw and other luminaries of American journalism, we can trust the media institutions that made them wealthy. In effect, they advise us to assume that we need to know exactly what they think we need to know -- and whatever they decide we don't need to know isn't worth knowing. In other words: Don't worry, be credulous.


Norman Solomon's new book The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media will be published in early spring by Common Courage Press (1-800-497-3207; orders-info@commoncouragepress.com).


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