The press is melting; circulation and ads sales at most legacy outlets are steadily falling, and the public trusts the product less and ignores it more. In a recent Gallup poll a record 60 percent of respondents replied “not very much” or “not at all” when asked how much they trusted the news media to tell the truth fully and fairly.
The public is right to be skeptical. There are some great individual reporters —like Mary Williams Walsh who covers state pensions at the New York Times—
but increasingly the good stuff is hard to find. Too much of what appears falls considerably short of what journalism at its best can be.
At the moment, the impending election has intensified debate over the press. This is not always the fault of the media. Shooting the messenger is a national election year sport and people who don’t like a certain poll or a certain development in the election campaign are quick to attribute political motives to the pollster or reporter who brings unwelcome tidings.
There are plenty of people on the left who accuse the mainstream press of bias; for people who think MSNBC is the best major news outlet but is still too timid, CNN and the legacy networks are obviously tilted toward conservative, establishment policies and politicians. Magazines like The Nation regularly rail at what writers see as a corporatist bias in the mainstream media that helps prevent movements like OWS from sweeping the country because of their failure to report fully and fairly on the corruption of corporations and the schemes of the rich.
But the most focused criticism of press bias these days tends to come from the right. Particularly in an election year, conservative critics attack most of the MSM for deliberately distorting the news in order to support Democrats. During the dip in Governor Romney’s fortunes following the two conventions, many GOPers attributed the whole thing to what they saw as shamelessly biased media treatment.
For what it’s worth, I think that both The Nation and Fox have some valid criticisms of the MSM. The legacy press clearly prefers the liberal establishment to either the hard left or to social conservatives and libertarians. However, the right is correct that once the press ventures out of its center-left, establishment comfort zone it is more sympathetic to the hard left than to the populist right. The non-stop MSM hit pieces on the Tea Party, searching almost desperately for nuts and Nazis at Tea Party events in order to discredit the movement and the drum roll of predictions that the movement was about to disappear, were impossible to miss. The contrast with the much more welcoming treatment given OWS would, I think, convince an observer from Mars that much of the press hunted for evidence to hang the Tea Party and looked past compelling evidence that OWS was deeply flawed, largely without serious political support or impact and increasingly influenced by some very shady movements and folks.
The result is a press that lists to port. Billionaires who give money to Democrats are assumed to be acting out of concern for the public interest and “the issues”; those who support Republicans are seen as seeking special favors. (I’ve met billionaires on both sides and as far as I can see the motives of conservative and liberal contributors are not that different: a mix of genuine ideological faith with a healthy understanding of the value of having close ties with powerful people.)
If the president were a conservative Republican rather than a liberal Democrat, I have little doubt that much of the legacy press would be focused more on what is wrong with America. There would be more negative reporting about the economy, more criticism of policy failures and many more withering comparisons between promise and performance. The contrast between a rising stock market and poor jobs performance that the press now doesn’t think of blaming on President Obama would be reported as demonstrating a systemic bias in favor of the rich and the powerful if George W. Bush were in the White House. The catastrophic decline in African-American net worth during the last four years would, if we had a Republican president, be presented in the press as illustrating the racial indifference or even the racism of the administration. As it is, it is just an unfortunate reality, not worth much publicity and telling us nothing about the intentions or competence of the people in charge.
The current state of the Middle East would be reported as illustrating the complete collapse of American foreign policy—if Bush were in the White House. The criticism of drone strikes and Guantanamo that is now mostly confined to the far left would be mainstream conventional wisdom, and the current unrest in the Middle East would be depicted as a response to American militarism. The in and out surge in Afghanistan would be mercilessly exposed as a strategic flop, reflecting the naive incompetence of an inexperienced president out of his depth. The SEALS rather than the White House would be getting the credit for the death of Osama bin Laden, and there would be more questions about whether killing him and then bragging endlessly and tastelessly about it was a contributing factor to the current unrest. Political cartoons of Cheney spiking the football would be everywhere. It’s also likely we would have heard much more about how killing Osama was strategically unimportant as he had become an increasingly symbolic figure and there would have been a lot of detailed and focused analysis of how the foolish concentration on bin Laden led the clueless Bush administration to neglect the rise of new and potentially much more dangerous Islamist groups in places like Mali. The Libyan war would be widely denounced as an unconstitutional act of neocon militarism, with much more attention paid to the civilian casualties during the war, the chaos that followed, and the destabilizing effects on the neighborhood. The White House fumbling around the Benghazi murders would be treated like a major scandal and dominate the news for at least a couple of weeks.
If Bush were in the White House, the Middle East would be a horrible disaster, and it would all be America’s fault.
Many people on the right look at this and other examples and conclude that the major press outlets are deliberately distorting the news in the hope of shifting public opinion to the left and supporting the President’s re-election. This is not, in my view, the main reason for press bias, but it is a real phenomenon. There clearly are people in the press who think they are called to this work to support and further a political and moral vision of what kind of place America should be. They have come to the media because they want to “change the world” as so many idealistic young people put it. As human beings who try to incorporate their ideals and their passions into their professional lives, they believe in many cases that conservative governance would be a disaster for the country, and they are sure that an “informed” public opinion would reject conservative nostrums. Given that, they want to make sure that their own work contributes to an enlightened, informed public opinion and so they consciously approach their work by looking for stories or angles that reinforce liberal narratives and undermine conservative ones. Environmental reporting in the MSM is largely dominated in my reading by this kind of activist journalism; there are a lot of reporters out there who yearn to Save the Planet.
There is another motive for press bias that operates on both the left and the right. Media critics often think of “the media” as an independent power standing above society and imposing an agenda on it. But most media outlets are desperately seeking eyeballs: they’ve got to have readers or viewers or their advertising rates fall and they lose the revenue on which they depend. In today’s competitive media market with its falling advertising revenues and weak balance sheets for most newspapers, that concern is stronger than ever. Every editor, every publisher knows that the way to attract eyeballs is to give the people what they want. Fox News isn’t going to run many stories whose liberal spin alienates its core audience—and the New York Times and CBS also feel the temptation to help their readers cocoon rather than exposing them to ideologically unsettling perspectives. This isn’t absolute; Fox features Bob Beckel and the NYT has David Brooks, both of whom ably challenge the dominant narratives around them, but the balance of reportage and opinion at both outlets confirms rather than challenges the preexisting beliefs of readers.
This is the media as pimp rather than puppet master; it is following its audience, not leading it around by a ring through the nose. Every outlet pretty much has to be aware of this; a point of view is part of the brand identity of any news source. The New York Times reflects the “gentry liberalism” of its upper middle class audience; Fox reflects the populist conservatism of its own viewers. In a pluralistic society with a free press run on commercial principles, this is the kind of media universe you are likely to get: companies will try to identify and serve economically and demographically rewarding niches of the public. (Outlets like Sirius Radio impartially offer a mix of channels in music and opinion, hoping to cover the bases by offering music and politics to suit every taste.)
However, at bottom the question of press bias is not about deliberate and conscious distortion of the news—either to influence public opinion or to build an audience. At bottom press bias is the consequence of honest efforts to report the real news by sincere and thoughtful people.
There is a lot going on in our busy world these days, and every reporter and every editor has be selective. They have to scan the vast flow of events and select a relative handful of stories that seem more important than the rest. To do this, you have to have a view of the world. In putting together the international news section, you can only run a few stories a day. Do you write about a cabinet change in Austria, a provincial election in India, a political show trial in Russia, a trade dispute at the WTO, ethnic conflict in Burma, a troubled vaccination campaign in Nigeria, a corporate merger in Italy, a lèse majesté case in Thailand, an anti-American demonstration in Pakistan, a statement on Iran from an Israeli opposition leader, the coca harvest in Bolivia, a central bank scandal in Malaysia, a budget crisis in Ukraine or a debate over the euro in Germany? And these would be just a few of the events that you might be looking at every day of the week.
How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you sift out less than one tenth of one percent of all the events that happen in any given 24 hours and put them in your paper?
Unless you use the dartboard method, you have to make conscious choices about what is important and what your audience will likely want to read about. These decisions inevitably reflect your sense of where the world is headed, what the driving forces of history really are, and how important different issues and different regions in the world are to your readers.
In other words, you must exercise your bias to function as a journalist. There is simply no other way to do it—and the more information at your disposal, the greater the flow of news, the more important your bias becomes.
What is true with the foreign news is also true of domestic events. Even the most copious newspaper must filter the news through principles of selection, and those principles reflect a world view: a deep set take on what the great issues of the day may be, which movements and actors are the most consequential, and what events qualify as news. If you deeply believe that the grand narrative of America is about the triumph of progressive politics, you will see a movement like the Tea Party as a doomed throwback like the KKK populism of the 1920s and you will look for racist clowns and Nazi boobs at its rallies because that’s what your worldview tells you that you are likely to find.
In principle, for a good news organization this kind of bias is a feature not a bug. Fox viewers and New York Times readers have a pretty good sense of what kind of filter the editors apply to the news flow and they are drawn to these outlets because they enjoy this kind of filter and think it makes sense.
The quarrel over press bias isn’t really about the need for a principle of selection and the right of every news organization to choose its own selection principle. It is a quarrel about power. Back in the glory days of the blue social model, the journalistic establishment was stable and stratified. The three television networks of the day (ABC, NBC and CBS for you younger readers) held a virtual monopoly on national television news. The Time-Newsweek duopoly included the only two genuinely national sources of weekly news in print. There were, in those days, no national newspapers. Each great metropolitan area was served by what was usually a slowly decreasing number of newspapers, three local network affiliate television stations and, if you were lucky, a public station (no cable or internet, kids, so you could only get the TV stations within range) and a somewhat larger number of AM and FM radio stations.
There wasn’t much room for alternative media. Dead tree media has always been expensive; to launch a new newspaper in a local market took a lot of capital. That was doubly true when it came to trying to set up a national news magazine. Restrictions on the broadcast spectrum sharply limited the number of radio and television stations that could serve any particular geographic area.
In those days press bias mattered a great deal more than it does now. These days, if you hate network news or the slant of your local newspaper, a whole world of alternative information channels awaits you on the internet. But in the blue heyday when people had access to such a small number of news outlets, the slants of media editors on the news were more influential. Publishers like Henry Luce were lionized and flattered (though rarely listened to) by presidents and kings; Congress passed laws to prevent one company from monopolizing all the news sources (radio, TV, newspaper) in any particular media market. The FCC regulated what television stations could do, requiring them to air opposing views from time to time. Part of the rationale for establishing a public broadcasting service was to ensure the availability of a news source not owned by one of the big media companies to most people across the U.S.
Television was much more powerful than any other media format at the height of the blue model period. No print publication reached or could reach the whole country every day, but first the radio and then the television broadcast news anchors were heard far and wide. Their faces were more widely recognized than those of many leading politicians; network news programs were well funded and well produced — bringing better, fresher and more plentiful national and international news to many markets than people had ever been able to see before in any medium.
In some ways, it would seem that the wars over media bias should have declined as the number of media outlets exploded and as new media allowed a greater diversity of voices to be heard. Liberals in South Carolina and conservatives in Vermont have a much easier time finding news sources that fit their worldviews than they did fifty years ago. Yet the proliferation of media options has if anything been accompanied by a greater polarization in the public over the press and, as we see from the Gallup poll, a declining confidence in its fairness and accuracy.
The reasons, I think, lie in the way that the decline of blue model society and culture have played themselves out in the changing landscapes of the media as an industry and of popular culture and politics. Political attitudes and philosophies in the press and around the country are profoundly affected by the consequences of the blue model breakup and the early stages of a new type of post-industrial society. The media has a dual role in this great drama. On the one hand, media companies and the people who work in them are protagonists in the drama, dealing with the consequence of the breakup in their industry and in their lives. On the other, they are, or claim to be, authoritative interpreters and chroniclers of these changes.
The press was a part and a very important part of the leadership of blue era America. The elite national press at that time was deeply grounded in the assumptions and ideas that shaped the progressive society of the Fordist era and played a significant role in shaping the dominant political ideas of the time.
Journalism is one of the elements of our society that has been most profoundly affected by the decay of the blue social model and the rise of the information age. Old worries about news monopolies in local markets seem almost quaint when so much information from so many sources is so easy to get and when online startups (including blogs) are so easy and cheap. The erosion in the power of the great media companies of the past and the efforts of the great media enterprises to rethink their franchises for the new era have transformed the industry almost beyond recognition.
The national elite press does not, on the whole, welcome the decline of blue model America and, like academics and others whose interests, self-image and power in the world are adversely affected by the reshaping of American society, it naturally and almost inevitably interprets many of the changes taking place through the conceptual model of the Grim Slide from the time of Ronald Reagan to the present day. The changes in American society look like the systemic erosion of the social achievements and protections of the progressive era, and the economic misfortunes, falling wages and declining job security of many old media journalists reinforce their dark forebodings about what the transformations mean.
The elite press was once the custodian of a cultural consensus about the way America should work. There was always disagreement, and many people were angry about the role of the press but in the blue model’s heyday those dissenting voices were confined to the margins both by the structure of the American media system and by the strong social consensus in favor of the blue status quo. These days, the elite press is less custodian of a consensus than embattled defender of a controversial vision. Opposing voices are louder and more effective, and the underlying assumptions of the elite’s worldview are more openly and widely contested.
I’ll return to this subject; the changes in the media and in the relationship of the elite edia to society as a whole are an important part of the contemporary American scene.
And of course I don’t claim to report on the media from a position of Olympian objectivity. Via Meadia is no exception to the general rule that bias is a basic and necessary component of a publication of any kind; making our principles of selection and our philosophy of journalism as transparent as possible is one of the ways that a journalistic enterprise can be honestly and usefully biased rather than disingenuously so. The VM view, that the transformation from late-stage industrial society to early-stage information society is disruptive and painful but ultimately liberating and benign, gives us a take on world and national events that at times contrasts very sharply with the dominant currents in the MSM. This means, we hope, that our media coverage will be interesting and fresh, but readers will have to be the judge of that.