Escaping the Prison of Ignorance

An Alternative Media Christmas


by Michael I. Niman   ArtVoice, December 19th, 2002

America is a nation whose cultural veneer is deeply gouged by seemingly unbridgeable canyons, separating us from each other by as many ways as we have to identify ourselves.  There’s rich and poor, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, atheist and religious, generous and stingy, old and young, working class and middle class, cyclist and motorist, urban and suburban, skiers and boarders, and so on.  For the most part, we hold various interests in common.  We all want to happy, safe and financially secure.  We celebrate varying levels of diversity.  Most of us are complex individuals, simultaneously fitting into multiple categories.  And when we get together and actually converse with people who in one way or another are different from us, we usually find out that we’re not that different at all.  With the few exceptions of folks like the Bushes, who for all intents and purposes live on another planet, we all have variations of the same fears and hopes.  Our canyons are, in effect, bridgeable. 

The Information Divide 

The deepest canyon we have to contend with is the information divide.  All too often we label ourselves with political terms such as “left and “right,” or “liberal” and “conservative.”  We enroll in different parties and, for the one third of us who vote, vote for different politicians.

But let’s look at this critically.  Perhaps the divide really isn’t based on political ideology.  Perhaps it’s simply an information divide.  Not left versus right, but informed versus ignorant.  We started seeing evidence of this when Reagan was president.  For eight years, poll after poll, conducted by organizations from across the political spectrum, told us that Americans overwhelmingly rejected Reagan’s policies.  Yet, these same pollsters told us the Gipper himself was popular, which brings up the question – why would voters support a candidate who opposes a notion of government they hold dear.  Or more to the point – why do people vote against their own interests?

The answer is simple – most voters don’t have a clue.  Americans rely on a media that has spent the later half of the 20th century providing less and less hard news and information.  In it’s place we have Oprah and Debra Norville.  While people in places as diverse as Costa Rica and the European Union are turning on their TVs and radios, and watching and listening to politicians and citizen activists with divergent views argue the issues of the day, Americans are left with a never-ending parade of freaks. 

The Suits vs. The Unwashed

The few remaining hard news programs that we have hardly give us any news anymore. None of them give us a diverse array of opinion.  A study conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University before the Enron scandal found that the economic impact of white collar crime was 50 times that of traditional crime such as burglary.  Yet, every night, we’re treated to the same perp walk of impoverished powerless criminals and street thugs.  While we were loathing the unwashed, however, the suits looted our retirement accounts.  Most Americans were blindsided to find out that it was the suburbs and the boardrooms where the most serious crimes in American history were taking place.

Our TVs are still ablaze with a nightly parade of crackheads, while CEOs conspire every day to further pillage our rapidly diminishing natural resources while poisoning our air, water and now, food – all in the name of greed.  Executives dreaming of new ski-chalets and island getaways cook up plans to contract out to sweatshops and “downsize” their workforces.  Lexus-driving yuppies dream of chrome-laden Hummers as they carry out their orders, running collection agencies or crafting widget ads.  All of this sociopath behavior is sold to us as normal – worse yet, we’re supposed to aspire to being bastards ourselves.

These are not American values, no matter what the corporate media tells us.  People simply aren’t aware of what’s going on in the world.  When they find out, when they start to scratch the surface of reality, when the spin stops and the propaganda wears thin, they become incensed.  American workers haven’t just lost healthcare, a right to a financially secure future, access to safe food and a right to a clean environment – we’re losing our culture.

Information is controlled.  Eighteen years ago 50 corporations controlled the majority of American media.  Media activists saw this as an alarming threat to our democratic (small “d”) values, and hoped to reverse the trend.  Today, however, just nine corporations control most of the globe’s media.  The majority of these companies, or the investment organizations that own them, also control big chunks of the oil, weapons, timber, nuclear power and banking industries.  In short, the major media outlets that, in theory, should be aggressively reporting the news are owned by most of the very players they should be reporting about. 

The effect on reporting has been chilling.  The biggest stories of the day, those dealing with resource depletion, deforestation, health care issues, our food chain, labor issues, the widening gap between the rich and poor, irresponsible development, aquifer depletion, and so on, are all off limits.  For a reporter earning a week-to-week paycheck, they’re too hot to touch.  The resulting climate in America’s newsrooms supports a self-censorship that is second nature.  The driving forces behind America today are short-term corporate profits and the concentration of corporate power.  Today’s news has succumbed to being nothing more than propaganda for this status quo.  Any message that challenges it is branded “radical” and dismissed.  Advertisers, who in essence, are slaves to their corporate agenda, further enforce this orthodoxy.  And the corporate agenda is held hostage before the deranged god of short-term profits.

The McBuffettlo News

None of this should be alien to us here in Buffalo.  The Buffalo News personifies everything that is wrong with the corporate media.  It’s wholly owned by investor Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway company.  Their other investments include major shares of Coca Cola (whose aggressive promotion of liquid candy is a major factor in our childhood obesity epidemic), McDonald’s (aggressive marketing of high fat junk food), Weyerhaeuser (timber – deforestation), Benjamin Moore (chemicals), American Express (banking), Geico (auto insurance) and a smattering of energy companies. 

Folks at The News explain that Buffet, for the most part, takes a hands-off approach to running The News.  This being the case, it’s even more alarming that The News seems to reflect Buffet’s worldview more than it reflects Buffalo’s traditional blue-collar worldview.  The last time I looked at The News was on Sunday December 8th.  The front page sported a 48 pt. headline reading, “Big bucks – for life.”  Pictured below the headline, however, was not a lottery winner, but a retired Cheektowaga civil servant.  The big bucks in question, it turns out, was the health care premiums local governments are struggling to pay out for retired workers.  Two politicians were also pictured on the front page, with their quotes, reading “The financial burden is crushing” and “The taxpayers are getting milked,” prominently displayed in bold.

The headline inside of the paper where the story is continued, reads, “Locally, 94,000 lack coverage.”  The outrage in The News’ story isn’t, however, that 94,000 folks have no health insurance whatsoever.  They just use the number as a point of comparison.  The outrage here is that these elderly retirees have better health care than the rest of us.  And they’re being vilified for it. Nowhere in The News’ story does the author, instead, compare the plight of Erie County’s un and underinsured to that of folks in virtually every other industrialized country in the world – whose citizens all enjoy the same level of health care as the local retirees in question.  The problem here should not be that some retired civil servants have adequate health care – it should be that most of the rest of us don’t.  The News’ tactic here is to turn Buffalonians against each other – with those without the crumbs envying those with the crumbs – and no one questioning why we’re fighting over crumbs when we are citizens of the world’s richest nation.  This is a worldview that serves Warren Buffet, the second richest human on the planet, while spitting in the face of practically every resident of Western New York

An Esmond X-Mas Tale

This sort of bias is so routine in our media environment that it flies under the radar – most readers don’t even notice it.  Instead, we’re incensed at Cheektowaga’s retirees who are living large with their low prescription co-pays.  Perhaps they should be eating cat food, so that Don Esmonde could superficially report on their mysterious impoverishment at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As voting citizens in a democratic country we have an obligation to keep ourselves informed about local, national and world events.  We need to move beyond the narrow self-interested worldview of the corporate media, because, quite frankly, their interests are not our interests.  Forget about any romantic notions you still might be harboring about the mainstream press – they’re not in business to keep us informed.  They have one purpose – to generate the highest return possible for their investors.

And you can’t count on ArtVoice to keep you informed either.  As I’ve written before, this is primarily an arts paper whose first responsibility is to supporting and covering the local arts scene – which it does quite well.  Yes, ArtVoice, runs this column, as well as a host of stories weighing in on issues ranging from ugly bridges to millionaires holding sports franchises hostage in their quest to raid the public till.  But, quite frankly, there’s a lot more going on in the world then we can report in these few pages.

This is where media consumers must take control of their own lives.  Yes, a handful of corporations control the media that most of us see, but they don’t control most of the media that we could potentially see.  We tend to consume that which is easily available.  We pick up ArtVoice because it’s everywhere.  The same hold true for The Buffalo News. We see the same few movies that are playing in all the theaters.  We listen to the music that a handful of consultants program for us.  We watch images that our TVs deliver to us.  But few of actually go out and look for an alternative.

Liberation for Christmas

The alternative, however, is readily available.  And with less than a week to go before Christmas, there’s no better time to discover it.  Instead of crowding into malls to search for useless widgets and sweatshop garments for your loved ones, how about giving the gift of liberation this Christmas?  Simply buy a gift subscription to one of the following publications and stuff a card announcing the upcoming subscription into someone’s stocking.  It’s a gift they’ll enjoy (or hate) all year long.  And buy a subscription or two for yourself while you’re at it.

To make this task easier, and sort of bring the mountain to you, I’ve created a web page that you can use to get discounted subscription to some of my favorite news sources.  It’s

The Grip Media List

My alternative media list is topped by The Nation, a weekly magazine that has been providing bulletproof news, investigative reporting and commentary, since 1868. Subscriptions are $39.97 for 47 issues (1-800-333-8536).  Next on my list is the Multinational Monitor, which was founded by Ralph Nader.  It’s a monthly journal focusing on corporate wrongdoing around the globe.  To order a subscription, send $29.95 to Multinational Monitor, P.O. Box 19405, Washington D.C., 20036.  In These Times is also an excellent bi-weekly source of news and views.  It’s $24.95 for 24 issues (1-800-827-0270). Extra!, the watchdog of the corporate media, exposes bias in its monthly pages.  It’s $21 for 12 issues and 12 smaller reports (1-800-847-3993).  The Progressive is a monthly magazine featuring in depth political pieces and investigative reports.  It’s $12 for an introductory subscription (1-608-257-4626).  Mother Jones Magazine is a glossy variation on the theme, coming out six times per year, replete with in depth articles and investigative reports.  Ask for the introductory rate of $10  (1-800-438-6656).  The regular rate is $20.  Culture Jammers with a few bucks to spend should check out Adbusters, a colorful Canadian glossy anti-glossy rich with anti-consumerism and inspiring rhetoric about liberating the mental environment.  A ten issue subscription is $40 (1-800-663-1243). 

For vigilant and sometimes nasty local political coverage, I suggest scouring Buffalo’s coffee shops and taco joints for a free copy of the bi-weekly ALT/Alternative Press.  You can also have it mailed first class to your house for $36 per year (send check to Cullman Publishing, P.O. Box 729, Buffalo NY 14205).  Bruce Jackson’s on-line Buffalo Report  also provides good local reporting and analysis ( Joe Illuzzi’s PoliticsWNY provides a clearinghouse for local political rumors and conservative commentary (

I also recommend a free (donations requested) email subscription to the weekly World War Three Report, the Weekly Spin, and the daily Truthout.  All three can be accessed via  If you want to stay abreast of local peace and environmental actions and events, Jim Whitlock, a local activist, maintains an active email events list – write to him at   A much more complete alternative media listing is available at

Information can set us free from the prison of ignorance.