It is estimated that just six companies own 90 percent of the U.S. media.
Over the last couple of years, the U.S. government has been aggressive in its attitude toward the news media. From heavy-handed prosecutions and threats to whistleblowers to revelations about the intelligence community’s illegal use of mass surveillance to reports of journalists being bugged, the perception of a free press in the U.S. has been severely tested.
In the recently-released Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index, the U.S. fell 15 spots in 2014 — from 32nd place to 46th. This marks one of the most severe declines of any nation on the index. Among “first-world” nations, only Italy and Japan ranked lower than the U.S..
“Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it,” wrote Reporters Without Borders in its press release. “Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.”
A disturbing pattern
Issues of concern that Reporters Without Borders pointed out was the conviction of Chelsea Manning. Manning — formerly Private First Class Bradley Manning — was court-martialed and sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking to Wikileaks the largest collection of stolen classified documents in the nation’s history. Among the documents leaked were military field reports, State Department diplomatic communiques, Guantanamo Bay detainee assessments and a video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter opening fire on a group of iraqi children and journalists in Baghdad.
Manning was acquitted of the charge of aiding the enemy, which could have carried the death penalty, but was charged with violations of the Espionage Act — among other charges. The Espionage Act has also been used in another RSF-cited case: the U.S. push for the extradition of whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Snowden, while an employee at National Security Agency-contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, downloaded and stole hundreds of thousands classified NSA and “Five Eyes” documents. Snowden gave the documents to former Guardian freelancer Glenn Greenwald — who has revealed revelations through a series of exposes.
The Snowden documents have revealed that the NSA and the CIA have been acting extralegally and unconstitutionally in the means they surveil electronic communications and that they have eavesdropped on heads of state, for example. The U.K. — which has been aggressive in its treatment of the Guardian and the detention of Greenwald’s partner David Miranda for nine hours on terrorism charges, saw a three-spot drop this year to 33rd place.
More troubling than this, however, is the cited case of Barrett Brown, who — due to his investigation of the hacking of Stratfor computer network, may face up to 105 years in prison.
Last year, Jeremy Hammond, a computer hacker and political activist attached to the hacktivist group Anonymous, pled guilty to one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for his part in stealing five million internal emails from the Stratfor servers and publishing them.
Stratfor, an international security and intelligence-gathering firm, is used by both the public and private sectors. The emails revealed doubts and the indication of knowledge refuting the official U.S. government story that the body of Osama bin Laden was buried at sea and suggestions that Stratfor planned to use its corporate intelligence to profit in global trading.
The emails also included allegations that companies paid Stratfor to gain intelligence on protestors, and that the Czech Republic threatened to cut all ties to the U.S. and NATO if the U.S. didn’t provide the nation with missile defense and F-16s to use against Russia.
Brown, who has been alleged to be the unofficial spokesman for Anonymous, was indicted for adding a link to publicly-released information offered during the email leak and for attempting to publicize personal information on a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent. The government argues that — as the published information contained credit card numbers, Brown was contributing to identity theft by sharing the link.
Many argue that the charges pressed against Brown does not fit the crimes he has been alleged to have committed and that he is being punished for his affiliation with Anonymous. RSF argues that all of this, along with the Justice Department’s seizure of the Associated Press’s and Fox News’ telephone and email records without notice during a CIA leak investigation and the July 19, 2013 ruling that ordered the New York Times’ James Risen to testify in the whistleblowing trial of a former CIA agent, represents one of the most aggressive lockdowns on the American press in modern history.
Since the Press Freedom Index was first introduced in 2002, the United States scored a worse score than its current ranking in 2006, 2007 and 2012. RSF argues that the government’s attack on the press will discourage investigative reporting.
“The aim of the US government’s use of mass surveillance and its pursuit whistleblowers it to prevent the leaking of information about national security even when there is a clear public interest in this information being made known,” said RSF in response to the news of former FBI agent Donald Sachtleben being sentenced to three and half years imprisonment for revealing to an Associated Press reporter how the CIA stopped a plot to blow up an airliner that was flying between Yemen and the U.S.. The Justice Department secretly seized the records of 20 of AP’s telephone lines to identify the leak.
“Who will now dare talk to the media on such a crucial subject? And, after this, how could journalists covering this subject count on the limited protection offered by a federal shield law? Sachtleben’s conviction is part of a global intimidation strategy that obstructs freedom of information and the public’s right to know.”
Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg and Andorra topped the 2014 list and Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Syria, Somalia and China had the worst press freedom rankings.
A shrinking playing field
Despite this, many argue that the Press Freedom Index does not accurately reflect the state of free press in the U.S. and globally. It is estimated that just six companies own 90 percent of the U.S. media. Comcast, for example, owns NBC/MSNBC/CNBC/NBCNews.com, Telemundo, TV One, USA Networks, Bravo, the Weather Channel and Universal Pictures. Disney owns ABC/ABC News, History Channel, A+E Networks, Lifetime and ESPN. CBS owns CNET, Showtimes Networks, Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books. Along with Viacom, Time Warner and News Corp., less than 300 media executives control the distribution of information for more than three-fourths of all Americans.
Currently, with the exception of al-Jazeera America (which is owned by the government of Qatar) and BBC World News (which is a British publicly-owned company), all of the nation’s cable news channels are owned by one of the “Big Six.” With the news that Comcast is seeking to purchase Time Warner Cable, the number of information providers and information distributors are shrinking, contracting the freedom reporters have to share stories that may be negative to the corporate bottom-line.
“Today absentee corporations own more and more of our media. Focused only on the bottom line, they are cutting journalists, gutting newsrooms and replacing meaningful debate with celebrity gossip and junk news,” said Free Press, a public advocacy group promoting public interest in the media. “And many of these corporations are dodging the Federal Communications Commission’s ownership rules to snap up more outlets and create media monopolies in markets throughout the country.
“The more independent outlets a community has, the more different viewpoints will be presented on the air. But what happens when there’s no one left to compete? When one company owns everything in your town, it can cut staff and not worry about getting scooped by a competitor. The fewer reporters there are on the streets, the less journalism there is on the news. The fewer DJs there are at your local radio station, the more automated computers and pre-programmed playlists take over.”