Corporate Media

Photograph Source: National Transportation Safety Board – Public Domain

How Corporate Media Outlets Failed Their Readers in 2024

| Jan 22, 2024

The great failure of the press to carry out the bare minimum of its journalistic mandate—to hold political figures accountable in a representative democracy, and to at least question such obvious electoral fabrications, such as the kind George Santos perpetrated—are prime examples of what Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored from 1996-2010, identified as News Abuse. The complacency of corporate media is a crucial indicator of America’s declining democracy, and exposing media distortions and misdirection, including the spread of corporate and government propaganda (in all its many forms, both systemic and targeted), is the mandate for the study of News Abuse. Its analysis is the starting point for understanding the ongoing toxic political environment and the dangerous discourses that have led to devastating consequences for freedom of expression and the press. Cast a glance back at the last year, and it becomes clear that Phillips’ conception of News Abuse remains sadly relevant. The corporate media’s handling of the following stories offered plenty of clickworthy details, but little investigation into the powerful interests operating behind the scenes.

The Ohio Train Disaster

On February 3, 2023, an eastbound Norfolk Southern freight train carrying 150 cars, including at least five tanker cars containing vinyl chloride, a Class 2 flammable gas and known carcinogen, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, close to the Pennsylvania border. Because of industry lobbying, the train had been exempted from the “high-hazard flammable train” classification that requires more stringent safety regulations. In the following days, vinyl chloride and other unknown toxic chemicals would be released into the atmosphere, exacerbated by a “controlled burn” that lasted for days. The spill would kill wildlife and fish for miles, as residents complained of toxic air quality that burned their eyes and made it hard to breathe. Though EPA officials announced that the community’s water was safe to drink, it was subsequently revealed that sloppy, inaccurate water testing was conducted by the rail industry itself.

Images of the environmental and public health catastrophe published by NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory used atmospheric transport and dispersion models known as HYSPLIT to track cancer-causing air particles as far north as Montreal, Canada. Corporate media reported what could be seen on the ground with images of the black cloud of smoke looming over the landscape, nearly indistinguishable from the cinematography of disaster films. Overhead shots of the piled-up train cars, jammed accordion-style, dominated coverage. Following sensationalized visual footage, the disaster frame focused corporate media toward official announcements and reactions, offering little in the way of background context. That was left to independent news sources.

For example, The Lever published a timely and impressive body of work that detailed years of corporate lobbying and government compliance (under various administrations) aimed at undermining regulatory oversight. Safety measures across the rail industry had been effectively blocked for years, leaving in place a Civil War-era braking system, no requirement to identify many toxic chemicals, and a lack of steel-lined rail cars capable of containing chemicals after a train derailment, among others.Rail companies, including Norfolk Southern, claimed that added safety measures were too expensive, and they continued to increase the number of cars per train, even as they laid off thousands of workers and delivered billions of dollars in profits to CEOs and shareholders.

An extensive content analysis of network news reporting between February 4 and February 13 demonstrated the degree to which corporate media failed to inform the American public about the causes and context of the derailment. Media Matters for America found that major TV news networks on cable (CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC) and broadcast (ABC, CBS, and NBC) aired nearly three hours of coverage on the Ohio train derailment, across ninety-two segments, but only two programs, both airing on February 13, addressed “how regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials by rail were weakened under multiple administrations by rail industry lobbyists, including those representing Norfolk Southern.” The study concluded that national TV news “failed to incorporate critical context about the rail industry’s efforts to weaken safety regulations.”

A Year of Non-Stop War in Ukraine

Many factors have led to a pro-war, pro-Western consensus in establishment journalism as independent views are suppressed and the people who express them are treated with ridicule and contempt. Policy positions that argue against belligerencies in favor of negotiations are all but absent from news cycles. Media critics have identified a pro-Western bias in press coverage of Ukraine, which constitutes one of the most notable cases of News Abuse this year.  As Bryce Greene pointed out, the roots of the escalations leading up to the war in Ukraine were “completely omitted from the Western media. “When corporate media did “explain” the war in Ukraine, it “almost universally gave a pro-Western view of US/Russia relations.” Meanwhile troves of documents and investigations about the extent of Western propaganda and anti-Russian information management campaigns have recently been published across a range of online media. However, as with most wars, opinion polls showed slacking public support for US involvement in the war while the conflict in Ukraine continued with no resolution in sight. For example, in spring 2023, 59 percent of the US public said that limiting damage to the US economy was more important than sanctioning Russia. The PBS NewsHour reported that, in March 2022, “the situation was reversed: 55 percent said it was a bigger priority to sanction Russia effectively, even if it meant damage to the US economy.” Yet Pentagon spending is rarely tied to damage done to the US domestic economy.”

The first anniversary of the devastating war in Ukraine was memorialized with stories of bravery and determination and the strong “Biden-Zelensky bond,” taking up the front page of the New York Times above the fold, with more photographs taken over the course of the war featured on the paper’s inside pages. Few scenes of the horrors of war or accounts of the need to negotiate the conflict between two super powers were evident in media coverage. Such war propaganda has far-reaching consequences and has led to the most “wildly overfunded military on the planet,” even though the US military has not won a significant conflict since the second world war. As Tom Engelhardt asserted, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, nothing has stopped the US military from being “massively overfunded by whatever administration is in power or whatever party controls Congress.” There is no significant skepticism in political discourse as “the one- party state in this country…remains the Pentagon.” The severity of the lockdown on public debate about the war in Ukraine was illustrated when a letter from thirty progressive politicians to President Biden, advocating negotiations to end the war, was withdrawn the very the next day because of “blowback.”

The Pentagon also has enormous influence in shaping popular culture and promoting narratives of militarism across the media spectrum. Since the second half of the twentieth century, the power of the Pentagon over films and entertainment has permeated Hollywood, resulting in a near complete lack of critical narratives, as detailed by filmmaker Roger Stahl’s documentary Theaters of War, which screened at film festivals, on university campuses, and online in 2022. The media consensus that reinforces a militarized ethos of belligerencies over any other solution to conflict attests to the intensity of war propaganda, as its influence extends from Hollywood to the reporting of war itself.

The Nord Stream Pipelines, the US Military, and Corporate Media

Reporting for MintPress News, Jonathan Cook characterized the September 2022 destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines as “an act of unrivaled industrial and environmental terrorism.” “Someone blew up the Nord Stream pipelines,” he wrote, “creating an untold environmental catastrophe as the pipes leaked huge quantities of methane, a supremely active global-warming gas.” The Nord Stream pipelines were a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project built by Russia to deliver cheap natural gas to Europe along the seafloor of international waters in the Baltic Sea. Three of the four pipelines were blown up on September 27, 2022. For almost two weeks, the claim that Russia was responsible for the sabotage made the rounds on the headlines of Western news outlets. Much of US media, from Bloomberg to cable news, pointed to Russian culpability. The Washington Post reported, “European Leaders Blame Russian ‘Sabotage’ After Nord Stream Explosions,” citing European Union officials who admitted they had no evidence of Russian involvement but asserted that Russia had the means and the “motivation.” However, the implausible explanation seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

The news frame of Russian responsibility was difficult to maintain, partly because gas and oil revenues financed nearly half of the nation’s annual budget. In addition to causing Russia great financial harm, the blasts also diminished Moscow’s influence over Germany, which had been heavily dependent on Russian gas. As Cook noted in his article for MintPress News, the narrative required Western publics to believe “President Vladimir Putin willingly shot himself in the foot, losing his only leverage over European resolve to impose economic sanctions on his country.” Yet the country with the greatest motivation, the one that had already threatened the pipelines, was the United States.

Writing for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Bryce Greene pointed to well-established, longstanding opposition to the pipeline by US officials as evidence of Washington’s motivation. More specifically, in February 2022, the Associated Press reported that President Joe Biden “has threatened to block the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline if Russia invades Ukraine.”

In February 2023 renowned journalist Seymour Hersh—who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his 1970 reporting on My Lai and exposed the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq—published his investigation into the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines. His Substack report detailed how the operation was carried out by a Florida-based team of US Navy divers with the help of the Norwegian military. The exposé was the latest in Hersh’s venerable career as a journalist revered for accuracy and integrity, but instead of pursuing the leads and evidence included in Hersh’s report, the establishment press ignored, discredited, or dismissed it. Many outlets quoted US military officials’ statements— which simply denied Hersh’s allegations—as conclusive. One Reuters headline read, “White House Says Blog Post on Nord Stream Explosion ‘Utterly False.’”In an attempt to trivialize and distract, the New York Times handed its opinion page over to Ross Douthat, whose barely coherent meanderings merged the Nord Stream puzzle to questions about the origins of UFOs, whether Jeffrey Epstein killed himself, what happened between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, and other “unsolved mysteries of our time.”

Time to End News Abuse

From political campaigns and environmental disasters to war and the exposure of systemic censorship, establishment media seem incapable of clarification, explanation, or even sketching the contextual origins of news events. Instead, they rely on standardized framing, jingoistic rhetoric, and distractions or outright fabrications—all hallmarks of News Abuse that, no matter how inaccurate, are rarely corrected, and almost never come back to discredit the candidates, pollsters, political officials, propagandists or pundits who espouse them.

It is time for corporate media to represent the views and interests of the majority of Americans, instead of repeating the increasingly transparent lies told by those in positions of power and wealth. Until they do so, establishment media bear a significant share of responsibility for the environmental and human destruction wrought by the endless pursuit of elite interests for money and political control.

This article is adapted from Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2024.

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