Less than 100 years ago, America was a different place. Not only were the laws of business and social order different, but the news was one organization that people could count on to tell the truth and expose wrongful practices in business and government. The so-called “muckrakers” of the era had a negative nickname, but are looked upon historically in a positive light, as being responsible ushering in a lot of the regulation of business and government that we take for granted today. The muckrakers worked to protect the public’s interest, rather than the interests of greedy business owners and political machinists of the time. At the time, media was very much independently owned but still received major distribution. It was, of course, before the births and explosions of popularity of the household radio and television, and the news that people got had to be read.
Muckraking, American journalism was born and created as a style of writing that was easily accessible by the common man and prided itself on being fair and balanced, and most importantly, telling the truth. Hand in hand with the huge wave of progressivism that came alongside it in the early 20th Century, muckraking influenced a series of changes and birth of government-sanctioned regulatory agencies like early forms of the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the rise of labor unions inspired to take action against greed and exploitation by journalists like Ida Tarbell. It was a time of many reforms, and the media of the day (largely newspapers and magazines) played a huge role in them.
The media 1 of today is much different from during the era of the muckrakers. Today, news organizations have the capability of getting their message to more people in more places through more media forms faster than ever before. At the same time, the media no longer seem to possess the spirit of progressivism, and no longer enlighten the public to the wrongdoings of government and big business in order to spark reform. On the contrary, the media is now big business itself, and only getting bigger with the rise of huge media conglomerates like AOL Time Warner, Disney, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. When it comes down to it, the media is relatively incapable of serving the public good. It may keep them entertained, but by-and-large it does not serve their best interests.
One way to explain that the media does not look out for the public good is by showing how it looks out for its own interests and those of its advertisers and shareholders (aka — it is biased). It is, after all, the essence of a business to want to stay afloat and make money, and media outlets are businesses. If the outlet in question is concerned with staying in business, they will want to please the people that fund their operation through advertisement and large shareholdings in their company. One can deduce, then, that the media outlets, by looking out for their own best interest, are looking out for the interests of their advertisers and shareholders, and are thus inherently biased to report “good news” on these entities and also to not report “bad news” on them. Evidence to support this idea can be found in a recent study on how advertising affects media bias. The study, which focused on newspapers, showed that advertisers are significantly more likely to be mentioned in a positive light by the newspapers in question. In turn, positive mentions tend to boost the advertising that companies do with these newspapers, consequently making the newspaper more money (Reuter, 4-18).
If the purpose of journalism and news reporting is to give the public fair, balanced truths and reports on issues that may concern them, then sound journalism would serve the public good by keeping the public informed and able to make their own sound judgments on issues. However, journalism by definition cannot be sound if it is biased, and therefore the journalism presented by any corporate, advertisement-funded news organization cannot be sound, and thus does not serve the public good. Since all major news sources are publicly traded or part of publicly traded companies, and all media that air their news are funded by advertising, this statement of bias applies to all major news organizations and media.
Sensationalism in place of useful information
A related premise involves the media being sensationalist and out to sell their product (be it by gaining viewers or listeners or selling more newspapers) rather than to report fair and balanced news in the public interest. This topic is addressed in the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine, in part when Moore and interviewees talk about how American news is mostly filled with stories of bloodshed and danger, in order to trick the public into thinking that the media is looking out for our good. However, the case is actually more so that the media are putting out stories that will keep us afraid so that we come back for more information. In essence, they are putting out information that they know will drum up interest in people by playing on their fears so that people will continue to buy their papers and watch their news programs in anticipation of more information that will keep them safe from whatever sensationalized threat said media is reporting rather than focusing on information that will serve the public’s best interest. Moore points out that many of these stories turn out to be largely exaggerated, further illustrating the point that the stories were probably originally intended to boost sales rather than inform the public of a legitimate danger or concern.
Another premise to support the conclusion that the mainstream media do not serve the public good is that the media keeps information from the public.
By its nature, the media and journalists working within the media have the access and know-how to readily research far more aspects of issues than a common person, who would probably not even know that said issues existed if it weren’t for the media. As a journalism student, I have learned that it is a news organization’s job to report stories to the public that the public needs to know and may not know without the reporting in question.
However, a book called The New News Business by former NBC news anchorman John Chancellor talks about how the Associated Press and other groups decide daily and weekly what stories will and will not be told to the American public. How can these groups be looking out for our best interests by withholding information from us? One could argue that perhaps these stories that are essentially censored are not important to the public good in the first place, but the fact remains that if the news is keeping some information from the public, we cannot know whether or not the information we’re not getting is for our good or not, and can only assume the worst. In essence, if there was nothing to hide in these stories, the media would not be hiding them.
The previous premise also relates to this one in that any media only has a certain amount of space to either run or air their stories in. If they are filling their space with sensationalist stories to boost sales, they must be leaving things out that could very well be in the public’s best interest, again sacrificing the public’s need to know for their need to make money. Here, we can see that there is no doubt a form of passive censorship going on in that stories are being omitted to make room for stories that may be less important to the public good that will sell more product (papers, programs, magazines) and in turn get the advertisers’ messages to more people as well. We can see clear ties within all of these premises.
Essence of the cartel/Shrinking competition
Perhaps the biggest premise to support the idea that the media does not look out for the public good is that there is an increasingly shrinking amount of competition in the media. With the rise of conglomerates and media mergers, oftentimes media formats are not even necessarily competing with each other, as many conglomerates own magazines, book publishers, websites, television and radio stations, and newspapers all under the same parent company(s).
With the death of progressivism and the muckraking spirit that I talked about earlier, news corporations now really only have their own regards for ethics as an inspiration to remain unbiased, thorough, and public-interest oriented. With many of these organizations now owned by parent entertainment and technology companies whose owners probably know little to nothing about the accepted code of ethics in journalism, the one thing that keeps them striving to put out an excellent product is fierce competition of so many media outlets (Purvis). However, competition is fading fast as more and more media are soaked up by conglomerates and larger corporations.
Competition would seem to exist in the sheer numbers of news organizations currently existing (even solely in America), however most of this is misleading as basically every major media outlet is run by the same company that is running more media outlets.
One example of this pseudo-competition can be described simply by naming the news outlets owned by any one of the ten multinational corporations–media powerhouses–that make up what critics call the “media cartel.” The ten include AOL Time Warner, Disney, General Electric, News Corp., Viacom, Vivendi, Sony, Bertelsmann, AT&T and Liberty Media (Miller, 1). To illustrate the point of shrinking and illusionary competition, I will list only news-producing companies owned by one of these — News Corp.
News Corp. owns seven newspapers and magazines in the United States, as well as over 40 network and cable television stations (mostly Fox related…not all are news channels but many offer news in some form), and about 20 different broadcast news companies in Australia, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. The corporation clearly has holdings all over the world putting out news under many different names (“News Corporation”). To an unknowing consumer, this multitude of points of view would seem like a huge amount of competition existing in the world of news and would lead one to believe that each must be doing all they can to report good news to win viewers over from competitors. However, at their roots, all these organizations represent one point of view — that of the parent company, News Corp., and the competition isn’t real at all, thus not deterring any of these organizations from not holding themselves to the highest ethical news standards and really giving them the liberty to report what they want however they want under the guise and illusion that they’re being kept in check by huge amounts of competition. Even if competition exists among the other nine media giants, several own stock in each other or share ownership of outlets (“News Corporation”), and many outlets are constantly changing hands or being soaked up by the larger giants (i.e. News Corp., Disney, AOL-Time Warner are all considerably larger than Vivendi, Bertelsmann, or AT&T and over time may well soak them up or squeeze them out of the market).
So, now what?
The idea that the media does not serve the public good is reaffirmed by many different things. The media keeps information from us while filling us with information that we do not need, and look out for the interest of their corporate sponsors and owners rather than the interest of the people that they are supposed to be serving, the people that are buying their products — the public. With the shrinking amount of real, hardcore competition among news and media outlets and the rise of mergers and corporate ownership, the public is losing out on pertinent information and the ability to hear all the news and take from it what they want.
Perhaps the funniest part of all of this, to me, is that the U.S. government has laws in place to prevent foreign ownership of broadcast media. The rationale behind these laws is to keep out bias and reporting of information that could be detrimental to the public good (Japan). However, there are no laws against and no regulation of the shrinking competition and growth of influence among parent companies and advertisers that is contributing to the same thing — disregard of and detriment to the public good by news media reporting based on their own agendas. This brings me to my suggested solution, which is somewhat nonexistent.
As a firm believer in freedom of speech and freedom of the press, I do not think that it is necessarily the government’s job to step in and tell the press what they should be doing. Even in this case where it would be serving the public good, once we introduce government influence on the media, who is to say where it will end. Government influence would probably just introduce new bias and censorship, with the bias shifting toward government interest rather than corporate interest. Clearly, government regulation cannot be the answer, because many of the same problems with the media would still exist, though in slightly altered forms. This may not happen if the government simply placed stricter regulation on the ownership and consolidation of media forces, but again, who is to say that they would stop their regulation at that.
If we can’t turn to the government to solve the problems as it will only introduce more, what can we do?
The solution to me seems to lie with the public. If the public were educated on the problems in today’s media and motivated to fight these problems, who knows what might happen. Large-scale boycotts of media might send the message “look out for us or we won’t look out for you,” essentially giving the media the ultimatum to either give a fair, public-serving account of the news, or lose huge amounts of business. While a movement like this large enough to actually put a dent in some of these incredibly rich corporations would be extremely hard to organize, it is the only way I could see things changing. After all, most of the reasons that the media isn’t looking out for the public’s good have to do with making money, so naturally the way to get them to listen to complaints is by hitting them where it hurts — in the wallet.
After all, muckraking did not usher in so many changes on its own accord. It happened to come at a time that the American public was very progressive minded and ready to make changes. The media educated the people and the people fought to change things. This time, the fight seems harder, as we can’t rely on the media to educate us on how they are failing us, and basically have to figure it out for ourselves.
Journalistic and media ethics seem to be fading these days, with rising cases of fabricated news stories and sensationalism in the news, and bias and censorship becoming more and more pertinent and realized by those who care enough to look into the issues. Almost all negative aspects of any news industry can in some way be related to the rise of corporate ownership and shrinking competition in the field of news and in the media, and so far the American people have stood by idly while freedom of speech and the press are being balanced against the public’s right to know by huge corporations with a lot more on the line than their journalistic credibility.
It is a problem that could easily spiral even more out of control, and probably will, and yet it is almost impossible to offer a viable solution to the problem, because of the problems that would arise from government regulation and the fact that almost as unheard of as unbiased major media outlet these days is any kind of large-scale uprising that actually makes an impact (not to mention the fact that most people probably have no idea that this is even an issue, and might not even care).
It’s also quite an anomaly that the one thing capable of alerting HUGE amounts of people to what a problem this actually is is the one thing that would never dream of doing so — the multinational media cartel.
My arguments were generally deductive generalizations and causal arguments, in the sense that I deduced from sets of “facts,” statements and definitions that media is generally biased, or created a cause and effect relationship between corporate ownership and bias, or corporate ownership and lack of interest in the public good, etc. Other arguments were made by referencing and citing experts on various aspects of media, as well as by drawing contrast between past and present forms of journalism and news media.
Objections to my arguments and sources would probably be based around them being just as biased as I claim what I’m critiquing to be. I have no real response to these criticisms, except to say that the issue can’t be cut and dry without much more information on what exactly is and isn’t reported in the news and by which organizations (information that is not at all readily attainable), and we can more safely trust my deductions about mainstream media and seek our own truths than trust the media to look out for us.
Bowling For Columbine. Dir. Michael Moore. DVD.
Chancellor, John and Walter R. Mears. The New News Business. New York: Harper Perennial.
“Japan to tighten law on foreign ownership of broadcasters.” Kyodo News International (Japan).
Miller, Mark C. “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” Global Issues. Dubuque: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin. pgs. 115-117
“News Corporation.” Who Owns What. Columbia Journalism Review.
Purvis, Stewart. “Digital future puts TV news in the spotlight.” The Times (UK).
Reuter, Johnathan, and Eric Zitzewitz. “Do Ads Influence Editors? Advertising and Bias in the Financial Media.” Quarterly Journal of Economics.
1 Throughout this paper, “the media” is used for all intensive purposes as a blanket term referring to all mainstream media that are corporate owned and/or part of a conglomerate. This includes any media that stay in business through advertisements, parent companies, and public trading and does not include underground media or exceptional cases of honest, unbiased media that are not easily accessible.