Friday, November 29, 2002
Why do I feel qualified to rant about economics? For the same reason New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is qualified to rant about the media.
[T]his week Al Gore said the obvious. "The media is kind of weird these days on politics," he told The New York Observer, "and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party."
The reaction from most journalists in the "liberal media" was embarrassed silence. I don't quite understand why, but there are some things that you're not supposed to say, precisely because they're so clearly true.
Yeah, you couldn't tell the media was liberal by, say, looking at the Times' editorial page -- real diversity of opinion there. Maybe the reason there was "silence" is because it is so demonstrably false. Krugman seems to be able to ignore the fact that every single survey of the media demonstrates that reporters and editors are way to the left of the majority of the American people. While America, as evidenced by the most recent election, tilts ever so slightly to the right, every survey of the media shows that 80 percent plus side with the Democrats.
The most notable media watchdog organizations are the Media Research Center (on the right) and Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (on the left). Now, if the frequency of their publications is any indication of the wealth of their source material, then the media has a very definite tilt to the left. Check out both sites and take a look for yourself.
"Clearly true?" I don't think so. The fact that even the "liberal" media is to the right of Krugman, doesn't make them conservative.
The political agenda of Fox News, to take the most important example, is hardly obscure. Roger Ailes, the network's chairman, has been advising the Bush administration. Fox's Brit Hume even claimed credit for the midterm election. "It was because of our coverage that it happened," he told Don Imus. "People watch us and take their electoral cues from us. No one should doubt the influence of Fox News in these matters." (This remark may have been tongue in cheek, but imagine the reaction if the Democrats had won and Dan Rather, even jokingly, had later claimed credit.)
First, I think Hume's comment was tongue-in-cheek. People say all sorts of outrageous things when they go on Imus' show. Second, if Fox News does indeed tilt right (personally, I think if it does, it is very slight), the only reason it seems so far out there is that every other media outlet leans to the left.
But my purpose in today's column is not to bash Fox. I want to address a broader question: Will the economic interests of the media undermine objective news coverage?
Objective news coverage like in, say, The New York Times? I fear corporate influence on news coverage far less than I fear editors (can you say Howell Raines?) pushing an agenda in the news pages. Reporters and editors, by nature, are always suspicious of the motives of management. Besides, as Krugman certainly knows, large, evil corporations are more concerned that their media properties are earning profits, than any particular story or editorial direction. I'd argue that it is far more likely that a private owner, with no journalistic background would "undermine objective news coverage." Take, for instance, Wendy McCaw -- owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press -- formerly owned by the New York Times Company.
For most of the last 50 years, public policy took it for granted that media bias was a potential problem. There were, after all, only three national networks, a limited number of radio licenses and only one or two newspapers in many cities. How could those who controlled major news outlets be deterred from misusing their position?
The answer was a combination of regulation and informal guidelines. The "fairness doctrine" forced broadcast media to give comparable representation to opposing points of view. Restrictions on ownership maintained a diversity of voices. And there was a general expectation that major news outlets would stay above the fray, distinguishing clearly between opinion and news reporting. The system didn't always work, but it did set some limits.
Krugman's answer is government regulation -- simple enough. Of course, practically this would be a nightmare. Go back to the MRC and FAIR sites. Both have evidence of a tilt in the media -- which one is right? And who decides?
Of course, there's also journalistic ethics (likely something that Krugman has only heard rumors of) that most journalists try hard to adhere to. Some do better than others, but nearly every newspaper has an ethics policy that is strictly enforced.
Over the past 15 years, however, much of that system has been dismantled. The fairness doctrine was abolished in 1987. Restrictions on ownership have been steadily loosened, and it seems likely that next year the Federal Communications Commission will abolish many of the restrictions that remain -- quite possibly even allowing major networks to buy each other. And the informal rule against blatantly partisan reporting has also gone away -- at least as long as you are partisan in the right direction.
What a crock. Blatantly partisan reporting? Is it partisan if the media doesn't fawn over every pronouncement from Al Gore? If we really applied the Krugman standard to reporting, would the media be so much better? After all, this is the same columnist who last week excused nepotism only if your politics was right. Or should I say left?
The F.C.C. says that the old rules are no longer necessary because the marketplace has changed. According to the official line, new media -- first cable television, then the Internet -- have given the public access to a diversity of news sources, eliminating the need for public guidelines.
But is this really true? Cable television has greatly expanded the range of available entertainment, but has had far less broadening effect on news coverage. There are now five major sources of TV news, rather than three, but this increase is arguably more than offset by other trends. For one thing, the influence of print news has continued its long decline; for another, all five sources of TV news are now divisions of large conglomerates -- you get your news from AOLTimeWarnerGeneralElectricDisneyWestinghouseNewsCorp.
So, there are five major sources of TV news (Krugman is certainly going to hurt MSNBC's feelings) -- but when Krugman points out biased reporting, he doesn't point to the "major media," i.e. NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox News -- but Fox News alone. Krugman would like to claim that they're all the same, but any viewer knows they're not.
And the Internet is a fine thing for policy wonks and news junkies -- anyone can now read Canadian and British newspapers, or download policy analyses from think tanks. But most people have neither the time nor the inclination. Realistically, the Net does little to reduce the influence of the big five sources.
In short, we have a situation rife with conflicts of interest. The handful of organizations that supply most people with their news have major commercial interests that inevitably tempt them to slant their coverage, and more generally to be deferential to the ruling party. There have already been some peculiar examples of news not reported. For example, last month's 100,000-strong Washington antiwar demonstration -- an important event, whatever your views on the issue -- was almost ignored by some key media outlets.
Which media outlets? Seriously, was this ignored by Krugman's big five? I've got a feeling the answer is NO. Why do I think this? Because if one of them had totally ignored it, Krugman would have singled them out. You can find the Washington Post article on the event here. Notice that the Post ignored it by putting it on A1. Apparently what Krugman really wants is more coverage for his point of view. A point of view which poll after poll shows to be shared by a substantial minority of the American people.
For the time being, blatant media bias is still limited by old rules and old norms of behavior. But soon the rules will be abolished, and the norms are eroding before our eyes.
Do the conflicts of interest of our highly concentrated media constitute a threat to democracy? I've reported; you decide.
No. Media conglomerates don't, but editors like the Times' Howell Raines do.