Wednesday, September 13, 2006

That damned liberal media... always distorting the news

There is a great deal of criticism about the main-stream media circulating today. But much of that criticism badly misses the mark. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not coming to the aid of media conglomerates who distort the news, or selectively choose what counts as news, for ideological or commercial reasons. But I am saying that every time a conservative mindlessly parrots the old line about the media being liberal, far from serving as a watchdog guarding against and correcting media bias, they are instead helping cover up the real abuses of the news at the hands of mass media.

As Eric Alterman demonstrated in painstaking detail in his book What Liberal Media?, the media considered as a whole - despite the party affiliation of individual reporters - is neither conservative nor liberal, neither Republican nor Democrat. Rather, it is a commercial enterprise interested less in a well informed public and more in lining the corporate coffers with gold.

In practice this means that the media consistently fails to confront power by arming the electorate with information. Instead of being told how we are being constantly screwed by those who want to use us to make themselves more obscenely wealthy, instead of being told how money and power are being consolidated into the hands of a very few, we are fed a constant diet of junk. Distracting frivolities.

Of course, all of this is a painful oversimplification, but such is the nature of blogs. While there are many diverse forms of media, and many different groups and interests represented within each form of media, the entire enterprise is handily reduced to "corporate media" or "mainstream media," or, far too often and far too inaccurately, the "liberal media." But, if we are being honest in how we use our language, we ought never to conflate "liberal media" with "corporate" or "mainstream media." Simply put, "liberal" media outlets - and there still are a few out there - have a very different interest than mainstream corporate media outlets. Liberal media, strong in its ideological convictions, believes that a well informed public will come to see that the political philosophy of the so-called "liberals" is the best way to address what ails our country. Mainstream corporate media believes - if one can describe this as a belief - that a well informed public is bad for advertising revenue.

As such, there is tremendous conflict between liberal (and even "conservative - as it, too, has ideological principles which require a well informed public, I hope) media and the mainstream media; though not that the mainstream media would notice.

The LEO, the standard bearer for local liberal media, has just published an article on the 10 big stories - vital for a well informed public, which is necessary for democracy - which have been censored, ignored, or under-reported by the mainstream media, as identified by Carl Jenson of Project Censored. Alongside these stories are Project Censored latest edition of Junk Food News - 10 stories with little or no news value which have been all over the news, distracting and dumbing down the public.

Of course, to a certain extent blaming the media for covering Tom Cruise instead of, say, civilian casualties in Iraq, Halliburton selling nuclear technology to Iran, or erosions to federal whistleblower protection is like blaming McDonalds for America choosing to eat crap. Corporate entities, the argument goes, sell what people are willing to buy. Celebrity fluff pieces, tabloid news, they sell. Global warming? Al Gore's valiant effort notwithstanding, not so much.

But I have to ask: is a corporate model the best model for the news? Sure we all believe in the gods of the market, who magically work out all things for the good of those who love money. But is the marketplace the best way to test the value of all things? Shouldn't some essentially human areas, such as, say, health care, and, yes, information, be rendered as a service instead of as a product?


Liam said...

I think you're right on about the problem with the media and the problem with the market-worship this country is so prone to.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't some essentially human areas, such as, say, health care, and, yes, information, be rendered as a service instead of as a product?

It sounds like a good idea, but the problem is, who's going to pay for it? If it's not private, it's got to be the government. And I have serious reservations about any American newspaper being run by the government.

And make no mistake, somebody does have to pay for it, because consistently thorough news coverage doesn't happen for free. It takes a paid, trained, professional staff. If you're not paid for your reporting, you've got to earn a living somehow, and it's damn hard to make it to the city council meeting when you're working the closing shift at McDonald's. And you'd better not write a story about McDonald's, either, since you're on their payroll. Being a paid employee of a newspaper frees reporters to tell the truth without negative professional consequences, and enables them to devote the time they need to properly covering a beat.

Moreover, a professional bureau is centralized, with editors who can make sure reporters are covering all the bases.

There are plenty of independent media blogs on the internet, with the kind of "free service" journalism you're talking about, and though some of it is good, it's often spotty.

As far as fluff news...well, think of it as Vacation Bible School--some fun to make the serious stuff more palatable. I'd rather read the meat and potatoes stories than about J.Lo's creepy vampire husband, but a large daily paper has to cater to a huge reader base with varied interests. Besides, I'm pretty much in the business of the fluff news, if you count arts reporting. ;P


By the way, I dig the new layout colors. But I am begging you--begging--to please change the font back. Because the all-caps? THEY ARE KILLING ME.

Tom said...

What all caps? I'm not sure it isn't an issue with your computer or browser. I see no all caps.

Sandalstraps said...


Interesting points, but when you say

If it's not private, it's got to be the government

you set up a false dichotomy. Simply put, in this country there are more than just these two options:

1. large, for profit, private corporation, and

2. government program.

As you well know, my wife works for a "private" company which has a service model rather than a capitalist model. It's mission is not to distribute profits to its share holders, but is instead to provide a service. The problem is, as a culture, we do not provide enough support, enough non-monetary and monetary "reinforcement," to make that mode of operation a sufficiently enticing one.

If information were viewed as a service instead of as a commodity - if we could change our definition of success from making money to rendering a service in the best possible way for the good of the community - the journalists of all stripes would have a very different set of expectations handed to them by their superiors.

You cover the arts, so you know that much of what passes as arts coverage is fluff. But you ought to know that it doesn't have to be fluff. Arts coverage, for instance, doesn't have to read like celebrity gossip, or corporate advertisements for inconsequential movies.

Also, for information to be seen as a service does not mean that people shouldn't pay for it. Our utilities are - or ought to be, though living in Lexington, going through what you're going through with the water company, you know that our oughts are not always our reality - a service. But they are a service which is paid for. A successful utilities company views its primary goal as to provide a service for a community, for which it is compensated. When a utilities company, such as the one that Lexington is battling with, sees its primary job as to make money, which it happens to do by providing, say, water or electricity, then that company has violated the social contract which granted them a near monopoly on the service that they are providing.

My problem with mainstram media is not that it is private, but that, far too often, it sees itself as beholden to share-holders investment portfolios rather than the public interest. As such, it is primarily in the business of making money, and secondarily in the business of providing information. I say this not to indict reporters who are stretched far too thinly to do the sorts of in depth reporting that they'd love to do by parent companies who see that the best way to raise profits is to lower overhead. I say this instead to indict our collective valuing of the market over all other considerations. This is a social sickness.

But it is a sickness that flase dichotomies, which see the only options as being for-profit or government agencies will not solve. Rather, it is solved by a blurring of the line between what is public and what is private, with private citizens taking on public responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

What all caps? I'm not sure it isn't an issue with your computer or browser. I see no all caps.

*blinks* Yup, you're right. My computer at work showed all text as caps. Weird.

when you say "If it's not private, it's got to be the government" you set up a false dichotomy. Simply put, in this country there are more than just these two options:

Sure there are more than those two options. I was speaking of how professional news outlets do, in practice, tend to run: either their content is funded by the government (not true in America, but plenty of other places), or it's funded by advertising sales.

Now, there is a third option, one utilized with great success by Consumer Reports, which is to charge a high subscription fee but have no advertising. It works for them because their reputation as fair dealers rests on not accepting any money from advertisers.

That problem of advertisement/ reporting contamination is circumvented in newspapers, since most newspapers (all large ones) deliberately separate advertising and newsrooms; they're in different parts of the building, and they never interact.

So, I guess I'm taking issue with the statement that a commodity cannot also be a service. Maybe to the advertisers and stockholders, it's a commodity. But that never touches the newsroom. Never. The only expectations handed down to us from our superiors are that they expect us to be good journalists.

A few years ago (so I'm told, because this is before my time), we ran a series about crooked car dealerships; because of those articles, many dealerships pulled their advertising and we lost scads of advertising revenue. But we ran them anyway, with the encouragement of the publisher.

All of which is to say, the profits are not the news writer's concern, so I fail to see how a different business model would affect coverage, except possibly in enabling us to hire more reporters to cover more beats.

The only way I can think of that a reporter might, however obliquely, be concerned with profits is in using news judgment: would our readers want to read this story? Because no matter how you try to sell it or give it away, if it's a poorly written, uninformative story, nobody's going to read it, and your paper is useless.

The problem is, as a culture, we do not provide enough support, enough non-monetary and monetary "reinforcement," to make that mode of operation a sufficiently enticing one.

There are a few non-profit newspapers out there, but they're problematic. Consider this article.

The small-town, non-profit newspaper in Atwater sounds like a cool concept. However, there are serious red flags for me in that article:

--Though running a paper by volunteers is fine for a small-town, weekly paper, that would be completely unworkable for a metro newspaper; they'd need a dedicated staff that could devote the time and resources to covering their beats.

--The staff is paid by reader donations. Again, this works fine for a small town, but they admit there's no "hard hitting" news, and even they question whether a newspaper paid for by readers can cover the community fairly.

I do not think they can. Because newspapers make their money primarily from advertising (and even the Atwater
paper must sell ads, I noticed), they are somewhat freed from worrying about going out of business if they displease readers with a controversial article (something accentuated when circulation is small to begin with).

But when a paper subsists mostly on reader donations, they're subject to the mercurial whims of readers. And without a separate advertising department to insulate reporters from that concern, I have to wonder if fear of public reprisal comes into play in their reporting.

Even if they had a separate ad department, day-to-day reader opinion would still figure more heavily than it does in an ad-funded paper. Simply put,advertisers don't generally care about the article content, as long as it attracts readers who might be likely to buy their products. When readers themselves are ponying up the money, they care immensely about the article content, and feel rather proprietary about it to boot, since after all, they're paying for it.

Moreover, non-profits are constantly struggling financially. I fail to see how getting funding from a non-profit source would improve the ability of a newspaper to hire more, better reporters.

Especially since most news outlets are struggling now with the public's newfound sense of entitlement to free news. Since the advent of the internet, more and more people are coming to expect that they can get the important news for free off or the local TV broadcast station. They absolutely will not pay for news off local newspaper sites, and I do not think they'd be willing to pay for it if all news were to become reader-funded.

That's a real problem, because you can't get in-depth reporting on local issues off the local TV news or That niche is generally reserved for local newspapers. Beyond which, (and I'm just using them as an example) gets all kinds of news from the Associated Press wires; they'd be screwed without the input of local papers all over the world--papers that are funded by advertising.

Putting local newspapers completely online would help cut down costs in terms of printing, and would also generate plenty of advertising revenue, but you'd still have to pay for the staff, domain name and bandwidth. Besides, it's not completely feasible right now because a lot of our readers are older and don't own computers.

Anyway, I'm going to wrap this up before I hit Blogger's word count cap:

I don't think newspapers are generally corporate-run because the non-profit way is unenticing. I think it's because running a major metropolitan newspaper by non-profit just isn't workable at this point.