If we are to make good decisions about health matters, we need accurate information, and an opportunity to debate the options. This is true whether we are concerned about the ecological health of the earth itself, the emotional health of a community, or the physical health of a single person. If those in power are able to limit free speech and use the media to control what the people in a country are able to say, dependable information becomes unavailable. When debate is held within carefully prescribed boundaries, when news and entertainment become indistinguishable, when the sound bite replaces thought, and when there ceases to be a clear demarcation between advertisement and documentary, the health of the community and its members is threatened. Those in positions of power in any society seldom like free speech. Still less do they like a free press. This is as true today as it was In the 16th century when Giovani Bruno (click here for poem) was pursued from city to city and finally burned alive for speaking his mind – a mind that did not see things in the prescribed manner. In some countries, governments are quite upfront about the fact that they do not want a free press, and are open in suppressing all forms of free speech that they see as a threat to the order they impose (see China’s Press Crackdown). In other countries, such as the U.S., the ruling elite very much likes the appearance  of a free expression of opinions, and uses more sophisticated means for limiting free speech, shaping public opinion, and controlling the press. In Manufacturing Consent  Edward Herman and Noam Chompsky spell out in some detail the forces that severely limit the kind of open discussion of public issues that needs to occur if we are truly to become a free society.


Corporate Control of the Press

We have been witnessing for some time the continuing merger of media corporations so that increasingly the news comes under the control of a very few large companies. These companies have a stake in how the news is presented. The media giants are linked in a variety of ways with the industries that produce arms, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, oil, and other major commodities, and they all tend to share a common set of interests. One of the “myths” that Robert McChesney talks about in The Problem of the Media is the belief that the natural dynamics of free enterprise will more or less automatically create a free media. A media that is dependent upon advertising for its very existence cannot escape corporate control. The bottom line for all business corporations is the profit margin. To assume that by seeking greater profits corporations will at all times act in the interest of health is absurd. It is profitable to sell inferior or dangerous drugs at inflated prices. It is profitable to pump all sorts of toxins into the environment and refuse to assume responsibility for them. It is essential to have a media that is not dependent upon advertising if we want a full and balanced view of the news – including information and stories that would challenge the power of the corporations.

The Shaping of News

A very carefully engineered image of how the public is meant to view the world is sketched out in the news every day. A variety of techniques facilitate this “shaping process” while maintaining the appearance of a balanced and accurate presentation. First, of course is the matter of emphasis. Does a story receive a large spread on the first page or a short note on the 32nd page? Then there is the matter of how “experts” are chosen. Newspapers and news casts pretty much know what the various “experts” are likely to say on any given topic, and they choose them accordingly. The choice of language is anther important factor. Unexamined and unspoken assumptions are often conveyed by the terms that are used in talking about a topic. If a person is described as a “terrorist” because he or she is resisting US policy, then one does not ask why the person is acting or thinking the way he or she is. The appearance of a free press is often enhanced by having experts debate with each other over an issue. One has to examine, however, what the range of the debate actually is. A debate about how to “win” in Iraq is very different than the more basic debate about whether we should be there at all. Finally there is the question of who is given a voice in the media. Howard Zinn did a masterful job of making it clear how important it is to hear the weak as well as the powerful in his “People’s History of the United States.” We see a good example of this destructive shaping of the news described in the article Mindless and Deadly.

Since the first Iraq war the shaping of the news has gone beyond the sort of slanting that has always been a part of journalism. Increasingly the shaping public perception through the manipulation of news is seen as an essential tactic of war and espionage. The article The Man Who Sold the War shows in detail how the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA use deception and lies to uphold images of reality that they deem to be in the interest of the United States.

Fear of the Religious Right

Increasingly the religious right has become an effective force for controlling what kinds of news can be looked at in depth. By and large people from the religious right lack a commitment to the idea of a free society. In addition to trying to control the behavior of all citizens, the religious right spends a considerable about of money and time in an effort to censor speech and hamstring the press. The New Blacklist by Doug Ireland provides a good illustration of how this control of speech is accomplished.

Actual Attacks On “Disruptive” Journalists

Increasingly we see evidence that the government through the FBI and the military is targeting dissonant journalists – both foreign and those from the US. Chilling Political Speech by Bob Barr shows how the FBI is at work to suppress dissent. In Diving Into Falluja Nick Welsh documents a rather disturbing attack on a journalist within the US.
Keeping Secrets
If the press is to be able to inform us, they must themselves have access to accurate information. When governments become excessively secret, the information that people need in order to make informed decisions is not available. Excessive secrecy is always a mark of a totalitarian regime. It was with this understanding that the “Freedom of Information” act was first passed by Congress. Increasingly, however, we are seeing the current government pulling back from actually making information available. In the name of “security” from terrorists, the American people are being denied the information they need to make intelligent judgments about a number of issues that are of vital concern to them.

Connections With Other Topics

Freedom of speech and the press relates to every other topic that we have identified as relevant to health. Whatever the issue, without accurate information and the capacity to discuss competing points of view, it will be impossible to arrive at well considered conclusions. It would be tedious to make this point about each topic individually. However, the relationship between freedom of speech and the press and three of the topics on our list merit special attention.


If democracy is to be meaningful, people must be able to form a clear picture of the world in which they live. When news is shaped by power elites, and they are able to mold public opinion at will, we have not achieved a democracy even though we elect our leaders.

Strategies for Change

Probably the biggest challenge to those who would wish for changes that would not be welcome by those in power is that they lack adequate access to the mass media. Strategies for breaking into the media may be the linchpin on which the success of all other strategies depend. Michael Moore has shown us one way to approach this problem. Other aggressive and creative approaches need to be developed.

Corporate Ethics

It is the corporations that control the media at this point, at least in the US. Some business leaders are, within limits, motivated by ethical principles. But when the free market by itself is allowed to run the world, the public good, and ethical principles in general, are secondary to the profit motive. Even business people who are strongly inclined to act in an ethical manner cannot do so and survive. The “rules of the game” need to be set up in such a way that corporations cannot make profits when they act against the public good.

What Can Be Done?

A prerequisite for establishing a free press and for protecting freedom of expression is the realization that a tension always exists between any established order and the requirements of a truly free press. A free and open interchange of ideas is necessarily a threat to any power elite. It is inevitable that governments and powerful elites will not like their authority questioned, their decisions criticized and the order they have established scrutinized. Therefore it is essential that those who believe in freedom of speech be diligent on an ongoing basis.

There are several steps a concerned citizen can take to become informed despite the lack of freedom in the main-line media, and to push for a more healthy media:

1.If a person is connected to the Internet it is quite possible to find alternative sources of news. Some of those we have found useful are listed in our links. It is also recommended to go to foreign sources of news to get a deeper perspective on issues effecting other countries. In some cases those news sources may be as “slanted” as the news one finds in American sources, but one can at least find information and perspectives there that one might otherwise miss.

2.Political action to try to limit the size of the big media outlets and to open the way for more alternative sites is important, and has been to some degree effective in the last few years.

3.There are various ways to support non-commercial news outlets – either by direct contributions or by advocating for government policies that make it easier for them to survive.