A television spot voiced by Sam Waterston for the political magazine, The Nation, features the line; “…and that famous liberal media bias you just can’t get anywhere else.” The recent comments by a White House communications staffer that Fox News was not a news company but a propaganda arm of the GOP, has renewed the focus on the question of media bias. The venerable Bill Moyers summarized the problem for media today in a somewhat different manner; Fox is a Republican machine, but the “mainstream” is motivated by ratings rather than Democratic agendas. As Moyers points out, this leaves nobody to do the business of the American people.
Free speech is the most abused right in the Constitution. The concept that is used as a crutch by paparazzi and rabble rousers is meant to protect the speaker (or writer) from government reprisal. It does not protect Rush Limbaugh from accusations of racism, nor does it protect the President from accusations of being a Communist or Muslim. The concept allows a free media or individual to investigate and/or report on the relevant actions of the government and its officers/agents on behalf of the citizens. This notion is, unfortunately, a dying ideal due in large part to the reality of our short attention spans and limited education. Real reporting on government activity is conducted on several of the better organized internet sites in addition to programs on PBS and the BBC. The reporting is fully formed and meticulously cited because the time exists to support the technique.
Network news is able to show less than a dozen stories of less than 3 minutes on a typical broadcast. We have for years been getting our news through a medium that is Twitter like in its brevity. How do you explain health care in less than three minutes? How do you define the parameters of Afghanistan in that time? The less words a news writer is able to use, the more the individuals phrasing and context dominate the story. Last week, I watched several different network and cable news stories on Afghanistan prior to watching a Frontline program on the same topic. The network and cable programs were filled with short sound bites from politicians and pundits from “each side”. The Frontline presentation was a well organized compilation that described multiple sides, each with a well defined set of reasons and plan.
The football fans reading this would not likely sit down to watch a game without listening to several minutes of description (complete with graphical aids) of the individual players, coaches, and possible strategies that would be involved in the game. When it comes to national security or economic recovery, we lose interest if the commentator can’t identify the good guys, bad guys, and one critical point in less than a couple of minutes.
Now that we have identified the cause for the loss of media accuracy (us), we should look at the reality. When it comes to the battle to label the “mainstream media”, the reasons are clear. Stories written and reported from the perspective of working class voters are not likely to favor Conservative thinking. This is because Conservative policies are meant to benefit the working class indirectly (in an economic sense) by enabling the business class to grow rapidly and take the working class with it. There are, I would argue, valid and reasonable points scored in the favor of this “supply-side” economic argument; those points just don’t resonate with a voter looking in the short-term. By impugning the reputation of media sources, the Conservative movement has, for the last thirty years in particular, been able to gain ground in demographics not associated with the Republican base. People have begun to distrust the media as much as the politicians. The fact that the same interests have attacked the concept of government in the same terms over the same time period is not a coincidence.
The current label being tossed around, is that the mainstream media is colluding with “Marxist Obama” to lead the nation towards Socialism. That sounds like scary stuff, but it fails a critical test. What is in it for the media? We know why Fox News wants to support Republican policies and personalities; the parent company, News Corp. has paid less than 6% in corporate taxes worldwide since the mid 1990’s (at a time during which supposedly liberal ABC parent Disney has paid 31%). Fox News president Roger Ailes was a consultant for Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the elder Bush. What is not clear is what would make the other companies support a Communist plot?
The “Big Three Networks” are publicly traded, capitalist ventures whose major shareholders and corporate officers all sit in the high tax brackets and pay capital gains regularly. The previous paragraph should have identified why we could expect ABC to have a Conservative bias, rather than a liberal one (see the taxes they have paid). NBC parent GE, famously and repeatedly attacked as an Obama co-conspirator by Fox News, was the firm that launched Ronald Reagan’s political career (indeed GE did not pay corporate tax for many years beginning, not surprisingly, after Reagan took office). The multi-billion dollar firm is engaged in a multitude of businesses that are vulnerable to intensive federal regulation; again, the motivation of the corporate parent would indicate for a Conservative bias. CBS is owned by Sumner Redstone, who is in fact a self-proclaimed Democrat. Of course Redstone endorsed George W. Bush against John Kerry in 2004, so I don’t think it fair to assign any parent company bias to CBS.
If the corporate parents have a natural Conservative tilt, and the officers and managers are better off financially in a Conservative environment, I find it hard to believe that the networks, and their cable offspring, would be capable of engendering a deep-seeded liberal bias to their reporting. As for a Communist conspiracy, the Soviet Union, as I recall, did have a news service; one news service. It was called TASS, and it is not clear that the reporters and producers were paid very well, nor is it apparent that Communist functionaries have ever had the time or inclination to indulge “personalities”.
Where does that leave the members of the rational middle? Most news programs, even the news lineup shows on Fox hosted by Shepard Smith, have value as guides to what needs to be looked at by the citizens of our participatory democracy. The opinion-driven host and panel shows are likely to structure facts in the way an attorney might; they are trying to convince the jury of public opinion. Watch and believe them at your peril. If you are not reading about the news, you probably don’t understand the news. That takes time, but I think the country is worth the effort.
The shows today are fancy and entertaining, but most of us learned long ago not to judge a book by its cover.
The rational middle would like to hear YOUR judgement of this column….