Thirty years ago, an estimated 50 corporations controlled most of the media outlets in the United States. According to the disquieting documentary Shadows of Liberty, that number is now down to five – limiting discussion and threatening democracy. On the eve of its Friday opening at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, its Quebec-born, London-based director, Jean-Philippe Tremblay, spoke with us by phone, warning of the "self-censorship" that media consolidation brings.
Your film suggests media organizations keep the truth from people to protect their corporate interests. In fact, a voiceover at the beginning promises: "These are stories you will not be told on radio, on television, in newspapers." So, where did you hear them?
When I started doing research in 2007, 2008, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was holding hearings [into media concentration]. Speaking to people there, journalists and citizens and politicians, who are part of the cast of this film, like Robert McChesney, Amy Goodman, I started hearing these stories. They could be more well known, but they haven't been spoken about in the mainstream media.
It seems many have, though. For example, when you tell the story in the film about how NBC's To Catch a Predator apparently drove a man to suicide, you interview the journalist Luke Dittrich. He had written about the case for Esquire magazine.
Yes, these stories have been written about in independent media –
Esquire is owned by Hearst Corporation, which is hardly "independent media."
Well, if I can finish my sentence – and even some of the mainstream media, absolutely. But I guess what the film also says – because this is a very complex thing to understand about the media – is, even though some stories are reported about, they're reported in a way where there's no echo chamber. The important thing is that these important issues are taken up and spoken about and repeated in different media – not just one magazine, but that they're actually reported in different mediums.
It seems to me you're mainly talking about TV companies: Two of the big five companies you mention – Time Warner and NewsCorp – have a few print outlets, but are mainly in the business of broadcasting. And Disney/ABC, Comcast/NBC-Universal, and CBS don't control significant newspaper or magazine holdings. Nor does Viacom, another large company which split from CBS a few years ago.
No, they don't. But part of what the film does is – it kind of presents how the mainstream media operates. There's an understanding in the mainstream media that they're not going to let independent media come in and produce a major scoop, it's basically a group of organizations that act together as a cartel and they control the media together.
Are you suggesting the heads of these companies get together and say, "Hey, there are some really explosive stories, but for the sake of keeping the populous numb, we're not going to print them"?
I think what happens in this new media monopoly is that it's a very sophisticated type of propaganda, and they've been in business for so long that there's also been some kind of a self-censorship. There's a kind of knowledge within the mainstream media that you're not going to write about certain kinds of stories that go after power or corporations they're working for, because that's just not done.
The New York Times has published deep investigations into what they call the iEconomy, about labour conditions at factories where Apple products are put together; they've looked at Wal-Mart's bribery of Mexican officials. Last year the Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigation into the NYPD's clandestine spying program that monitored Muslims. These are all stories that speak truth to power.
There is some very good journalism out there in the mainstream, but that's not 100 per cent of the time. Let's look at who owns the media, look at some of their business interests, and you may see that maybe actually news is not at the head of their agenda. Their No. 1 priority is profit, and that's why we're questioning the model of the mainstream media and why we should look toward independent media that's getting very, very good these days, and we have to support it, especially on the Internet.
Speaking of the Internet, it seems to me the film largely ignores a lot of the alternative media that's cropped up on the Internet in the past few years, which provides a growing balance to the large media you criticize.
I don't think I ignored the opportunities of the Internet. First of all, the film clearly explains media history in the U.S.: how it came about, how it came to be monopolized by five major corporations. The reason we think the history of the media is so important to present is because we're at such a crucial time now with the Internet, we're at the infancy of the Internet. It was the same thing with radio, television, when broadcast was introduced to the population: They thought, this is going to be a learning tool, it's going to be a democratic tool – and look, it's turned into an entertainment box. And we don't want the same thing to happen to the Internet.
The vast majority of people seem to prefer entertainment over education. Do you believe members of the public hold some responsibility for the choices they make?
I think what we have to understand is that there's so much effort, so much media, so much publicity that's put toward these stupefying shows – whether it's To Catch a Predator or these so-called entertainment programs.
I think if you ask people anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, anywhere in the world, what they would like to read, or what they would like to see on television, and you give them a choice and explain to them: This is what you get if you watch To Catch a Predator, or this is what you get if you watch a debate about an FCC hearing, I'd bet you most people would actually choose to watch a debate that concerns their family, their pocketbook, and their communities.
This interview has been condensed and edited.