Suppression of Fact, Fake News, and Paid Media  

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By Avik Gangopadhyay, Copy edited  By Adam Rizvi, New York, TIO: In these tough times, when we are fighting a global pandemic, the reporting standard of the mainstream media channel has come into question repeatedly. The mainstream media’s inclination for sensationalism and propaganda-driven news has led to inaccurate news dissemination. The rise of fake news and misinformation pumped through mainstream media has led to a steady decline of trust and confidence in mainstream media. There have been numerous incidents from the recent past where mainstream media had equally contributed to this problem.

The media is not an ordinary business that handles commodities, it deals with ideas. Fake news or misinformation is often deemed as innocuous but we have instances from both the past and the present to show that it has also led to the human cost and often lead to fatal consequences. In 2014, the World Economic Forum published a report listing fake news or misinformation among the top 10 growing challenges before the World. Fake news is more dangerous than paid news. Fake News has the potent power of disturbing the peace in society.

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The paid news problem as an organized phenomenon appears rather intractable, involving as it does, lawmakers and politicians cutting across party lines and representatives of sections of the corporate media who coexist symbiotically. No agency is seriously trying to combat the pernicious practice of “paid news.” If other organizations, including organizations that claim to represent the interests of journalists and other media professionals, played a more proactive role in curbing this corrupt practice, the phenomenon of masquerading advertisements as news could be curtailed to some extent. This is unfortunately not happening at a significant pace.

“Paid news” in several parts of the world essentially emanates from the fact that much of the mass media is dominated by corporate conglomerates that are primarily interested in the maximization of profits. The “fourth estate” often emphasizes commercial considerations rather than search for the truth and hold accountable those in positions of power and authority.

The independence of the media and its ability to bring about transparency in society by playing an adversarial role against the establishment get compromised because of corruption within the folds of the media itself. Paid news is one particularly egregious manifestation of the ills of the corporatized media that puts out information that poses as if it has been independently and objectively produced but has actually been paid for.

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Paid news is a more complex problem. Large sections of the corporate media have created a structural imperative towards such corrupt practices — such practices entail negligible costs but promise potential and actual monetary gains that are substantial. Universally, rent-seeking, profit-maximizing entities will, as a general and even intuitive rule, act to increase returns rather than look at social externalities. But when the mass media adopts such corporate norms, it sends a signal that it is willing to diminish or even abrogate its role as a protector of public interest and enforcer of accountability.

It is no surprise, then, that the paid news problem as an organized phenomenon appears rather intractable, involving as it does, lawmakers and politicians cutting across party lines and representatives of sections of the corporate media who coexist symbiotically. This nexus cannot be weakened easily. At the same time, a more alert citizenry, including readers of newspapers and viewers of television channels, can and has made a difference in bringing the problem of paid news to the public domain.

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In the previous years, the UN has set the theme of the World Press Freedom Day to highlight “legal environment for press freedom, giving special attention to the role of an independent judiciary in ensuring legal guarantees for press freedom and the prosecution of crimes against journalists.” At the same time, the themes addressed the role of the media in sustainable development, especially during elections – as a watchdog fostering transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. The themes also aim “to explore legislative gaps with regard to freedom of expression and information online, and the risks of regulating online speech.” Like every year it is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom throughout the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3 around the world, in the form of debates and workshops. UNESCO has launched a global campaign on media and social media channels, with the theme Journalism without Fear or Favour in an increasingly complex media landscape, with the sub-themes: Safety of Women and Men Journalists and Media Workers, Independent and Professional Journalism free from Political and Commercial Influence and Gender Equality in All Aspect of the Media. The World Press Freedom Day 2021 has highlighted three key topics: Steps to ensure the economic viability of news media; Mechanisms for ensuring transparency of Internet companiesEnhanced Media and Information Literacy (MIL) capacities that enable people to recognize and value, as well as defend and demand, journalism as a vital part of information as a public good.

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The notion of freedom of the print media arose to combat feudal despotism and feudal ideas in England and France in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Writers like Voltaire wrote against religious bigotry in Candide, Zadig, Letters on England, and Letters philosophiques. Rousseau made a scathing attack on the feudal political and economic system in The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man also played a significant role in helping European society progress from feudalism to the modern era. So freedom of the media was meant to benefit society and help it move forward in history.

If media’s the most powerful entity on earth, then why there is a vibrant perception among people that freedom of the Media cannot be regarded as always good? Is it because they have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent? Because that’s the idiom of power or that is the reason they control the minds of the masses. Whoever controls the media controls the mind.

There are instances where freedom of the media was used to block progress and subsequently help businessmen to make money. There is nothing wrong with making money but this must be blazed with social responsibility. Businessmen cannot be allowed to say or promote anything that should be permitted to make money even if the rest of society suffers.

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Today multinational corporations control the politicians. They control the media. They control the pattern of consumption, entertainment, and thinking. The influence of the media is complex: in its representation, in its power of communication and interpretation, it is a remarkable amplifier of fancy and illusions.

It is often debated that media has lost its way. People apprehend that the proprietors of these organizations have put on a form of censorship as they’re more interested in celebrities, narcissism, rich people, good-looking people, and successful sportsmen. The mainstream media spins stories that are largely racist, violent, and often irresponsible – stories that celebrate power and demonize victims, all the while camouflaging its pedagogical influence under the cheap veneer of entertainment.

Fake news and paid news have transformed the field of media journalism into claustrophobia. Fake news can be as simple as spreading misinformation or as dangerous as smearing hateful propaganda. The great thing about media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. The media has a great role to play in promoting scientific and rational thinking and combating backward ideas. Time is ripe enough to wake up against the menace of ‘paid news’ culture in mainstream media. The practice that involves money in unethically acquiring media space for the beneficiaries remained an important issue in many countries. It is alleged that many media houses, irrespective of their gamut of business have started selling news space after some ‘understandings’ with ‘politicians and corporate people without disguising those items as advertisements’. Numerous Editors’ Guilds expressed concern at the growing tendency of a section of media groups to receive money for some ‘non-advertorial’ items in their media space, as the practice ‘violates and undermines the principles of free and fair journalism.

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Many urge that the corporatization of the media world has been a threat to the existence of free media. Some newspaper owners are greatly influenced by political clout and the proprietors grant space for vivid coverage for the benefit of their ‘friendly politicians’ in the newspapers. Even some lowest-paid journalists enjoy regular payments, like monthly lump sum compensation from politicians in power. Licenses for wine shops are offered to reporters and unfortunately accepted happily by some, with the inherent understanding that they only write positive stories and stab negative reports against their politician-financers.

The favourite catchword of the social-psychologists goes less debated: ‘freedom of the media is a double-edged weapon… it depends for what purpose it is being used.” We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by all: the media, the governments, the big industries, the religious and the political groups. As society is bombarded with pseudo realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms, one doesn’t have any choice but to ask often, ‘What is real?’

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In recent times, we have had numerous incidents where mainstream media has spread fake news which includes both TV news channels with large viewership and widely circulated newspapers. Together, they have not only spread fake news but used this fake news or misinformation as a tool to communalize and politicize the issues which have led to tragic results.

Yes, the media has changed. Print and broadcast licenses are given these days to leanings, or philosophies, to use a sober idiom, instead of people. People get confused and think there is no difference between news and entertainment. People who project themselves as journalists on such media don’t remember the ethics of the press or the first thing about journalism. If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference. Perhaps that defines the tumultuous rise of social media because that has restored power back to the people.

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Compiled & Curated By Humra Kidwai




Avik is Author and Columnist, based in Kolkata, India.

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