Notes on the Atrocities Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...
Monday, April 21, 2003
Media Paranoia redux
I started a response to Dead Flat in the comments, but it was going on at blog-length, so voila!--here it is.
The maximizing-the-audience argument makes sense theoretically, but in fact, news isn't subject to the pure economics of supply and demand (at least not in television). The reason is that news has historically had a special place in radio and television. This arose from agreements between media companies and the goverment; in serving the public good--providing objective news--companies are able to use the public airwaves. So the news segment has always been small. Under the old terms of the agreement, the way you got a bigger audience was as you describe--better news.
But then came the slow process of deregulation that pretty much removed this protection. The result is news that does pander to the largest audience--and the result is Condititis (relatively benign) and Fox News. On the first issue, there have been studies that show a skew in the news toward the sensational (Columbia Journalism Review, FAIR). And increasingly, there's evidence that the news is biased toward the left (also here). Furthermore, there's a lot of evidence on the effect of corporate ownership and the way corporations themselves are covered, which is hardly unbiased. (Cycle: corporations contribute cash to politicians who pass laws favorable to corporations; corporations own media who report favorably on these laws but do not offer a negative view; the same politicians pass laws that remove public oversight and regulations about content, and then allow media giants to consolidate. All of this is enormously biaseand there's plenty of evidence to show the pattern.)
There's a subtle feedback loop as well (here I'll have to appeal to Dead Flat's sense of the logical, because I can't cite a study). Because the media's not legally beholden to objectivity or serving the public good, it has no balancing effect. If the President says Saddam was directly involved in bombing the World Trade Center, there's no real reason for the media to provide a critical rebuttal. Thus the President creates the news (and it's not surprising that the only country on earth whose citizens are convinced by this argument are America's). GE owns the company--well, it will probably be hard to print that article critical of GE's anti-environment policies, so better to write about, well, here's a nice story about J. Lo. Or, put another way, that the media has no motivation to be critical of the government or corporations means it's not, particularly. That's a bias I worry about the most.