The starting point to understanding the how mainstream media fails to accurately report the news is the consolidation of media ownership in the United States. In 1983 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U.S. In 2002 that number had decreased to 10 companies (McChesney & Nichols, 2002). By 2004 that number had decreased to only five companies. As Nichols and McChesney state, All in all, these [few] firms control the overwhelming percentage of movies, TV shows, cable systems, cable channels, TV stations, radio stations, books, magazines, newspapers, billboards, music and TV networks that constitute the media culture that occupies one half of the average American’s life. It is an extraordinary degree of economic and social power located in very few hands (Nichols & McChesney, It's the Media Stupid, 2000, p. 28).
Five companies control the bulk of information disseminated to the American public via mainstream media. How can one have a diverse discussion of ideas if a handful of people or, in the case of the media, a handful of corporations controls the information that the public receives via mainstream media? The answer is that one cannot. Corporations have one interest in mind: Profit above all else. Financial gain is their only reason for existence. Informing the public is not the corporate media’s principal function, making money is.
More on media consolidation, false equivalencies and the myth of liberal bias below the fold.
With earnings being the primary concern of corporations the news media began to change. In a 2001 interview ABC anchorman Peter Jennings discussed one of the significant changes in the evening news:
For all of the early years I spent in this business, [the evening news shows] were loss leaders. We were leaders in the broadcast news field, and our owners were prepared to take the loss for the stature and the public responsibility of it. That all changed when they figured out that news made money. And so the bottom line became a much, much bigger issue (Jennings, 2001).This phenomenon was not isolated to just broadcast media. Newspapers that relied on classified ads to support them were reeling from the loss of revenue as eBay, Monster.com, and Craigslist gave advertisers a much broader reach for a far lower price. It did not take long for the classified advertising business to dissolve and with it went the source of most profits of the local newspaper (Gillmor, 2010). With profits gone from classified advertising, newspapers turned increasingly to business advertising and increasing subscription fees—both were a recipe for disaster.
Broadcast and print media turned towards entertainment as a means to keep viewers tuned in and subscribed. Media outlets focused on celebrity gossip or on a national news story that should have stayed local. When serious news was presented, journalists pretended to find two sides to every story, even when one side of the story was the opinion of an individual or group who had no facts to back up their opinion. This relentless “dumbing-down” of journalism to the point that it was pure info-tainment pushed audiences even further away (Gillmor, 2010).
Add in the fact that the majority of advertising dollars for newspapers was now coming from businesses that wanted to avoid controversy. Newspapers could no longer go after the controversial stories in the manner that they had in the past. Thus a newspaper could not afford to lose advertising dollars because the viewpoint of an advertiser may not coalesce with that of a story that was published by the newspaper about local politics. Not only has the media been dumbed down, it is little more than what Gillmor calls “vanilla reporting” (Gillmor, 2010).
False Equivalencies and the Myth of Liberal Bias
Of these changes in the media, the most troubling aspect is the false equivalency where two sides to a story are presented as having equal weight when only one side is valid. It is like presenting an argument that a wall painted black is actually white. The driving force behind the false equivalency in reporting is the myth that there is a liberal bias in the media. A bias that until twenty years ago did not exist and because of this incorrect perception that the mainstream media leans to the left, mainstream media outlets have gone out of their way not to be accused of having a liberal bias (Gillmor, 2010). Where did the myth of liberal bias in the media come from?
The answer to that question lies within a right-wing think tank called The Media Research Center that has been pushing the liberal bias in the media meme for over twenty years. The Media Research Center has done a series of studies that they say proves that there is a liberal bias in the mainstream media. To many these studies seem reasonable; however, when one dissects them we can see that the analysis put forth by the Media Research Center is skewed in a way that will prove their point of liberal bias in the media regardless of what the facts actually are. They have multiple studies including the ones below that purport to show the following:
Each of the above named studies from the Media Research Center goes into a loop. The study on the public recognizing bias in the media cites the studies on journalists voting for liberals and journalists stating that they are liberals to prove that the public recognizes the liberal bias in the mainstream media. With each study referring back to another Media Research Center Study it is similar to an infinite loop in computer programming where repeating instructions just continue to run and refer back to each other without actually accomplishing anything. So the proof that the public recognizes bias in the media is that journalists vote for liberals and journalists say they are liberals. While the proof that journalists are liberal and that journalists vote for liberals is that the public recognizes the bias of a journalist.
- The Public Recognizes the Bias
- Journalists Vote for Liberals
- Journalists Say They Are Liberal (Media Research Center, 2008)
The final and fatal flaw with these studies from the Media Research Center is that not once do they actually address what news is being reported. Of course the public recognizes the bias. The right has pushed this meme for over 20 years. It has been repeated so many times that people just assume it is true without regard to the facts. As for whether a journalist votes Democratic or Republican or whether they say they are liberal or conservative has no bearing on the reporting of the news. All of the studies by the right leave out the most important fact; what bias is actually in the news as reported?
The answer is that systematic research has found no consistent partisan or ideological favoritism in news content despite frequent complaints of biases (Lee, 2005). Yet studies of press coverage find that references to the liberal bias on the news outnumber references to a conservative bias by more than a factor of 17 to 1 (Nunberg, 2002). If you repeat a lie often enough people begin to believe that lie.
Behind the Media Research Center’s flawed research is the pro-business right wing and
Republican Party who have long understood that changing the media was a crucial part of bringing their right wing ideas into the public sphere (Kuttner, 2001). As McChesney, author of The problem of the media, states,
To the general public the conservative critique is not packaged as an effort by the wealthiest and most powerful elements of our society to extend their power, weaken labor and government regulation in the public interest, and dramatically lower their taxes while gutting the public sector, aside from the military...It is marketed as a populist movement...battling the establishment liberal media elite (McChensney, 2004, pp. 112-113).The right-wing’s agenda of weakening labor, government regulation, lowering taxes at the expense of education, public transit, Social Security, and other social programs will not garner votes for right-wing candidates. In order to get the public to vote against their best interests the right-wing pushes their agenda forward into the public sphere in a way that potential voters buy into the argument of liberal bias in mainstream media.
To make the right-wing agenda palatable to the general public think tanks like the Media Research Center were created to put forth the idea of the “liberal media elite” (McChensney, 2004), with the sole purpose of re-framing the mainstream media in a way that it could not be trusted or relied upon to tell the truth.
All of the issues discussed above have hobbled mainstream media in reporting on news that impacts us personally and as a country. It makes our nation weaker and creates a nation of dunces—which is just what the right wants. Because as Noam Chomsky said, “you don’t allow the bewildered herd to become participants in action. They’ll just cause trouble” (Chomsky, 2002, p. 18), and the last thing the right wants is trouble from the bewildered herd.
Chomsky, N. (2002). Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
Gillmor, D. (2010). Mediactive. U.S.
Jennings, P. (2001, February). Online News Hour. Evening News. (T. Smith, Interviewer)
Kuttner, R. (May 6th, 2001). Comment: Philanthropy and Movements. American Prospect.
Lee, T. -T. (March, 2005). The Liberal Media Myth Revisited: An Examination of Factors
Influencing Perceptions of Media Bias. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43-
McChensney, R. W. (2004). The Problem of the Media. New York, NY: Monthly Review
McChesney, R. W., & Nichols, J. (2002). Our Media Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
Media Research Center. (2008).Media Bias Basics. Retrieved March 25th, 2012, from
Media Research Center: http://www.mediaresearch.org/...
Nichols, J., & McChesney, R. W. (2000). It's the Media Stupid. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
Nunberg, G. (May 6th, 2002). Label Whores.The American Prospect.