Dear Microsoft: Please give us Non-Profit News

Microsoft has sold its remaining 18% share of MSNBC, which now becomes, just NBC.  It is being reported that Microsoft wants to be free to develop as a news portal.  MSN general manager Bob Visse issued a statement saying, “We’re talking about using technology and using data to solve information delivery and news delivery in new and innovative ways. It’s really difficult for us to do that when we have an exclusive, single-source relationship with one news provider.”

AFP suggests that Microsoft was inspired by the success of the Yahoo!/ABC [Walt Disney] news portal.  But it sounds as though the corporation may also want to use the news portal to drive customers to its Bing search engine, which I find woefully inadequate.  (In fact, I tweeted yesterday that everything in the new Spiderman movie was believable except that Peter Parker would use Bing as his search engine).

We don’t need another source of corporate news online.  We certainly don’t need more portals that exploit real news operations like Britain’s The Guardian, which is struggling to stay afloat.

As for MSNBC’s original arena, television news, only six major corporations own most broadcast television news outlets in the United States.  There has also been alarming concentration of ownership in radio, e.g. Clearchannel, which has boycotted artists for their political views.  The situation in television news won’t be better if there are seven corporations.  Corporate-owned news has served us very badly as ownership has become concentrated.  This, despite the valiant efforts of many honest journalists and editors, who, however, operate in an extremely unfavorable business environment and are often shunted aside in favor of infotainment and fluff or political misdirection.  Much of the pressure comes, not just from the corporate higher-ups, but from the advertisers who pay for the news to be carried on the airwaves. In essence, cornflakes and tampons rent the news for us, but only as they please.

One of the six, Rupert Murdoch’s SkyCorp, has acted more like an organized crime syndicate than like a news organization.  Its minions have hacked into people’s telephone message machines and have blackmailed politicians into passing laws allowing Murdoch to own even more of the media.  Murdoch apparently even dictated policy on Europe to former PM John Major.  That Murdoch’s US operations, such as Fox Cable News, behaved better than their English colleagues is unlikely.  As it is, Fox bullies politicians and activists, engages in character assassination, and spews an continuous concatenation of carefully sculpted canards at the American people.

I wish the billionaires at Microsoft and elsewhere would instead found a charitable foundation to provide the news, and give it financial and editorial independence.  I am arguing that someone with real resources needs to do for the news what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does for health in Africa and libraries in the US.

A big, visible non-profit specializing in news could be a game-changer for the whole culture. Investigative reporting is dying as the big corporations would prefer not to stir up trouble.  Journalists are fired for refusing to join in group-think.  Scams like the Iraq WMD propaganda are purveyed to us sensationalistically, so as to increase the advertising revenue generated by the “news.”

The future of news-gathering and analysis that benefits the public and is not just a prop for the status quo lies in finding a way to escape the trap of concentrated corporate news.  It is to the extent where corporate television news is killing us, declining to report key stories like climate change and the Libor scandal.  I can’t explain why, but corporate tv news still sets the agenda in the US. As a blogger, I always know that I can get more hits by addressing something tht is being argued about on television magazine shows than in doing real news analysis (luckily for my readers, I don’t really care about hits; I have a day job).  But the persistence of the influence of corporate news even in a blogosphere that theoretically should be unmoored from it underlines how pernicious and pervasive it is.


Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared on July 17, 2012, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.


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