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The Long Arm of the Media

By: for ISKCON News on April 10, 2015
Opinion

Thousands of people rally on the streets of France.

Judges sitting even at the topmost rungs of the judiciary as well as government leaders in all countries read newspapers online and in print. They also watch TV newscasts, which in many leading countries are broadcast during prime time. 

Almost everyone gets news. All types of people commonly read news online and in print, watch television, take in movies—dramatic and documentary— and are fascinated with celebrities, be they of sport, music, dance, cinema and or entertainment venues.

Top government officials and judges are influenced by such news even though they are meant to be arbiters of truth and totally independent of public opinion. They are supposed to be unbiased, neutral and unprejudiced.

Judges are thought to be great thinkers, people who can hear opposing arguments and still detect and determine the truth.

Unbiasedness supposedly pervades governments and the judiciary. However, such reportage often has a life of its own. Reports—even of ghastly events—are sometimes entertaining. Newscasts and journalists have extraordinary power.

Government leaders are expected to protect their citizens and to keep them free from anxiety. Unfortunately, bribery in government circles— “every man has his price”, so said Sir Robert Walpole 1676-1745—is widespread throughout the world. The corruption of honesty has become a sad but real factor of modern life.

Bribery may be of low-level, such as slipping a motorcycle policeman a large banknote, or high-level, like secretly paying a lobbyist millions of dollars to support or undermine a piece of proposed legislation.

Judges are affected by high profile cases. An example is the ten-year-plus legal battle named “George vs. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness”. In this case, the US Supreme Court—probably influenced by a 24-hour vigil conducted outside the National Archives building (in the same city as the US Supreme Court sits) by ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness) adherents—threw out the George charges of “brainwashing,” remanding the case back down to the California Supreme Court of Appeals. After deliberation, the principal of the three appellate judges announced that the court had arrived at a decision that would satisfy concerned parties. He ruled that the then minor, Robin George, the main plaintiff in the case, would receive only US$75,000 for the “wrongful death” of her father, and that her mother, Marcia George, would be awarded approximately US$1.9 million for “emotional distress”. This judge apparently thought that satisfying the interested parties was as or more important than determining truth, although he apparently acted responsibly.

The influence of the media cannot be underestimated in democracies and even in non-democratic regions.

The Al Jaber Group’s media section, based in Abu Dhabi, has had a significant impact on governments throughout the world.

Charlie Hedbo is a French weekly satirical newspaper housed in a Paris suburb. On the morning of 7 January 2015, twelve people were killed in the Charlie Hedbo newspaper offices by two terrorists, using AK-47 assault rifles and submachine guns. Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch claimed responsibility. The killers targeted employees of the newspaper, saying cartoonists’ caricatures of Mohammed were what conservative Muslims considered blasphemous. After the killing, the gunmen left the scene, shouting (according to witnesses), "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo!"

Cartoonist Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier,  murdered in the attack, was the Editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo. 

Subsequent to this tragedy was a major outcry involving millions of citizens, many of whom sported signs reading, "Je Suis Charlie" (“I am Charlie”). The remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo continued publication.’s The following issue’s print run was 7.95 million copies in six languages, in contrast to its typical print run of 60,000 in the French language only.

This episode indicates the power of the media. The cartoons—seen throughout the Internet—were ultimately responsible for over 3.5 million people rallying on the streets of France to protest the murders.

Freedom of the press has become a pulse on the public mind. Plane crashes, terrorist attacks, box office takes of major motion picture releases and the winners of sports competitions have become major topics of conversation. Such events generally take precedence over news of political initiatives, gardening features, festivals and children’s activities. Such news becomes a topic of everyday conversation.

Movies can have a major impact on the public mind.

The 1984 film called The Killing Fields glorified the newspaper reportage that exposed the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the Kampuchean despot, thought to be responsible for two million citizen deaths. The movie won eight BAFTA Awards and three Academy Awards. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "The film [The Killing Fields] is a masterful achievement…” The Killing Fields became part of the public mind, having been viewed by millions of people worldwide.

Warfare is not exempt from media pressure. During the brief “Desert Storm” armed conflict (2 August 1990 to 28 February 1991), the US confined media organisations—excepting the US TV network CNN—to only one ship in the Persian Gulf. The war was marked by the introduction of live news broadcasts from the front lines of the battle, by CNN. Obviously, the US government wanted the world to know about its power over a small Middle Eastern country.

Breaking news is generally displayed with moving images and sound. Wikileaks led the way with video clips of US military actions inadvertently killing media personnel. Wikileaks embarrassed many government officials by exposing hundreds of thought-to-be private communications. As a result of Wikileaks’s hacking, governments have tightened their security, trying to make their emails hacker-proof. At least two major motion pictures have been made about the Wikileaks founder, although the passage of time as made the organisation a bit unfashionable. Complete transparency or total freedom of the press is, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said  a “consummation devoutly to be wished".

The world of entertainment, that includes movies, television, online games, popular music, sports competition, drama, dance and partying, hold powerful control over the public mind. Such forms of divertissement have a distinct attraction that often compels people to avoid the more boring and tedious necessities of life.

No one is immune from the feeling of loneliness. We often feel supported by psychological counsellors—including psychiatrists—social media and support groups.

Books, another form of media, also sway the public, especially the intelligentsia. An MIT professor, named Sherry Turkle, wrote a book called Alone Together. Her writing highlights the fact that “virtual” acquaintances may not be actual friends. Specific instances are cited to prove that true friendships are generally not available over The Internet. Turkle intimates that modern technological shelters can be a form of disconnect from the hard realities of life.

There is a limit to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. For example, it is illegal in the USA to shout “fire” in a crowded movie theatre. The late French existentialist Albert Camus wrote, “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad”. This quote indicates that government-controlled media, is a dangerous thing. However, media-controlled government may be equally or more dangerous.

Freedoms, though often limited, usually have a powerful leverage. The British so-called tabloid newspapers have huge print-runs. Even though these publications are routinely assailed, circulation figures are evidence of their pervasive power. Sometimes referred to as “the gutter press”, mainly for their excessive use of nudity, blaring headlines and sensationalism, their weightiness should not be underestimated. Headlines such as “Princess Linked to Alien Sex Scheme” and “Shock Horror Weekend for Bishop with Message Parlour Arab" are attractive to a majority of newspaper readers.

Leading consumer protection advocates often vilify large corporations for their power to muscle their way into State and judicial decisions. These big enterprises often own media organisations. Such conglomerates include Viacom, the Al Jaber Group, Time Warner, Comcast, Sony, The Walt Disney Company and Fox.

Most of us are victims of the powers that be. But whether we are killed or kissed, the media dominion will have its impact on our lives. It has been said that “You can’t fight city hall”, but another, perhaps more penetrating adage, might be that “You can’t fight the media.”

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