"A free press stands as one of the great interpreters between the government and the people. To allow it to be fettered is to be fettered ourselves."
Justice George Sutherland Grosjean v. American Press Co. (1935)




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The average American spends 9.2 hours each day using consumer media
(SOURCE: Brill's Content, 4/99)

Capitalism vs. the First Amendment

Indirect censorship of the mass media


he First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees, among other civil liberties, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Journalists throughout America rely on this amendment daily, as it allows them to practice their trade in an ideal manner, free from outside intervention and miscellaneous accusations which serve as a hindrance to objective reporting. Ideally, mass media exists as a series of autonomous units, acting to effectively report current and impending information. In reality, numerous outside interests legally and covertly mold the information being released and reported to serve their best interests. The mass media of today's society no longer serves as an impartial social tool, constantly disseminating objective news to all walks of life, but as the reverberating voice of the ruling social class (Schiller, 211).

George Orwell, in his essay "The Prevention of Literature," noted "...the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions... Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution (Orwell, 1)." In relating Orwell's essay to the problems addressed in this paper, the society he speaks of can be construed as one of three things: advertisers, corporations, or the government, with two or more often working hand-in-hand to indirectly censor the media.

Advertising is the lifeblood of mass communication, including television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Advertisers indirectly censor the media - the root of nearly all censorship is economic. Publications glean nearly all their revenue from advertisers, and, naturally, these advertisers want to distribute their advertisement in a method that will reach both the highest number of people and the ideal consumers without offending a single person. The number of readers a publication has is not nearly as important as those readers being the "right" kind of readers (Bagdikian, 2nd ed., 52). Advertising researchers decide what the optimal audience would be for their product. Indirectly, the economic law of supply and demand reigns supreme in the world of journalism. Unless the journalist wishes to face unemployment, he or she must deliver what the masses want to see. The audience is a symbolic cash cow. If it is not kept content, it will not produce - that is, its members will not exercise their purchasing power based on the advertisements seen in media. If something offends them, or bores them, they will not pay attention. The presentation of crisis, or even of ideas which stray from popular opinion, can create anxiety in an audience, and thus disinterests the advertiser (Benson, 12).

Unfortunately, there is a simple solution to discrepancies between publishers and advertisers: change the content to suit the advertisers. The desire of the American media to procure profits for themselves makes the initial aim of journalism--public service--a secondary goal (Dennis, 6). Journalists are an unfortunate victim of this resulting change in content. Typically, they are far removed from the vast sources of wealth being made from these changes and compromises of character. Still, their bosses possess power over them - in a sense, their jobs are on the line if they do not exchange their ideals for those of their profit-driven supervisors.

In divining the "ideal" advertising audiences, researchers look for one principal commodity: affluence. The need for sparking a social reform or informing the masses is secondary to reaching the largest marketable audience (Bagdikian, 4th ed., 207). According to Nicholas Johnson, Former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), "...Although a splintered market will assure minorities that their interests and problems will be aired it will not assure anyone outside of their group will hear... A communications system which caters very well to minority views may be to that extent, less capable of getting their views across to the public (Schiller, 157)." If a publication is reaching minority groups it is almost guaranteed to have a short life span and not be an effective form of communication because it lacks the backing of advertisers. Since the minority groups are not who the advertisers strive to reach, publications catering to them have a hard time finding economic support, since it is rare that a company could reap any form of benefit through advertising.

Many Americans rely on news broadcasts as one, if not the exclusive, form of learning what is happening in the world. The news media, once perceived as a hallowed institution in which total faith could be placed, has also bowed to the aegis of the advertising industry. The news media's primary content has shifted the way much of today's media has, placing emphasis on news to please the advertiser rather than news to inform and enlighten the viewer. The news is essentially directed to middle and upper class businessman, a prosperous demographic. No news broadcast can deliver all the necessitated information to all society when it excludes a third or a half of the population. This phenomenon has led to a blatant termination of the ideals that were once cherished by the media, and has consummated in the discreditation of the news media as a fundamental democratic mechanism.