“More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.” On September 8, 2002, Judith Miller and Michael R. Gordon got these words printed on the front page of the Monday edition of the New York Times. Within days we had Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld building for the Iraq invasion based on the article reflecting the “interests” of the public and their concern for “National Security”. Within five months and eleven days the invasion of Iraq began, changing not only the course of U.S. policy once again, but with the assistance of every media outlet calling for action changing public opinion towards half supporting a war based around a false claim. As it turns out most of her information was false from the inside sources of those affiliated with the state and Ahmad Chalabi, who’s interests lied with regime change and admits his falsified information. Yet, although this comes out with one of the longest and most irrational wars the U.S. has started built upon lies, Judith Miller rather than loosing her job for this event, still works within mainstream news with few op-ed’s in The Wall Street Journal and being hired to work for Fox News. Why is this? It’s because this is the system at work.
Classical Liberals would like to say the free market encourages a flea market of opinions, competitive coverage, and decentralization of power so people can say and read what they want to. I argue that media systems run on private, for profit basis that results in a series of filters that results in centralization of power, corruption, and distorted news the consumer receives.
Classical Liberal Argument For Dispersal of Power
I’m not the first to criticize Judith Miller for writing what the Bush administration wanted her to. During her time at the New York Times, she was regarded as a successful journalist. Even though this was the case, there where criticisms coming from both ends of the political spectrum after allegations arose. Yet, these are the same news sources that had encouraged the invasion of Iraq. A classical liberal would argue, that even though there could be corruption there is always another market for fair and balanced news to be had. The highest value for classical liberals is liberty. We have the liberty to choose and liberty to start our own media by taking a risk or utilizing the Internet. New news sources and first hand accounts can be used everyday to provide consumers with the news that they are looking for. Consumers, according to the classical liberal, can pick and choose a certain media outlet that they feel they can trust and agree with, thanks to the choices presented to them. Competition ensures that the media can provide un-biased, trustworthy news sources by consumers simply not purchasing distorted new sources. The classical liberal argues that “the flea market of ideas” with its competitive nature ensures dispersal of power. This is morally appealing because it prevents centralized power in the media. The U.S.’ free market system is promoted by classical liberals especially compared to Soviet Russia, for it does not lead to propagandized news sources. Classical liberals and most rational people do not want state sanctioned censorship or the secret police that come with “government regulated news”.
First Filter: Ownership
In the latest Gallop Poll (September 12, 2012) 60% of those polled said they had not very much or no trust at all in the media. This statistic reflects that even though the free market claims to encourage a dispersal of power, more than half of U.S. citizens still do not trust their news sources. Why is this? Although there may be multiple fronts to news organizations, 90% of the media is still owned by six major corporations. These corporations are General Electric, News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS. These corporations control the news for 277 million American viewers. This results into a centralized form of power, where 232 media executives give out their form of information. (Ragan.com)
The interests of the owners of media corporations differ substantially from that of average readers. In many of the top newspapers, pro-business interests are overrepresented. One may ask why this is the case. People who have the resources to be able to run a corporation have similar class interests. It is not rational for them to be pro-labor and encourage a larger corporate tax, for the taxes cut back profit. However, one may point to corporate giants such as Warren Buffet, the third richest man in the world, who does endorse a large corporate tax. It is not rational for Warren Buffet to endorse a large corporate tax and he certainly is not the norm. It is structurally against the rich’s interests to be pro-labor and pro-redistribution and because these are the interests of the majority of the owners due to the resources they must have to start these businesses. It’s in the nature of those who run businesses to seek and protect their profit, not loose it on purpose. The owners acknowledge advocacy of anti-business rhetoric in their papers would influence public opinion and policy to advocate against their profit and their interests.
One may argue that owners of corporations are not doing the dictating but are hiring others to report news for them in an un-biased fashion. A classical liberal may argue that a journalist has the liberty to present any view of their choosing. This statement is problematic. It relies on a claim that there is a general diversity of opinion amongst journalists for these elite news companies. The problem here is that these business’ present a specific set of views held only be the elite in society. It is not in a CEO’s interests to publish pro-labor, pro-distribution of wealth, poor interests, or anti-imperialist articles. Most people in this class’ interests will reflect more or less similar views on this, regardless of how they view certain social issues (such as abortion and gay marriage). Because of this we see that opinions by journalists closely align with those of their boss’ where it is relevant to the hiring process. They are more likely to hire people who they agree with, rather than those who are aligned with anti-corporate interests. This results in a reporting of the news in a more pro-business manor. As Richard M. Cohen (former producer of CBS and CNN) said, “the corporate culture has met the news culture. They are, and are supposed so be, diametrically opposed to each other. Neither can function with integrity or effectiveness when they merge. I argue that news has been redefined by the marketplace in its own image. News values, once no-frills, no-nonsense, have been recast according to corporate perceptions of what sells.” (Cohen, 36). This leads to the centralization of power in the free market system resulting in narrow, pro-business rhetoric, showing both a lack of diversity in political views and an agenda that benefits one class of people.
Second Filter: Revenue
A classical liberals’ premier value of their life is liberty but secondary to this is profit. News, a classical liberal will argue, is a service to the people, yet this service requires an exchange. This is where revenue supposedly comes in with the consumer’s choice. A consumer, according to classical liberals, is endowed with the ability to choose from the “flea market” of the free market allowing “multitude” of different news sources with varying options. With a structure that encourages very pro-business motives of profit however, it compromises both the way revenue is made and the idea that there are choices. This structure I speak of is the structure of both of the hiring process and the drive for profit. As said in the prior section, when owners are hiring journalists they are more likely to hire those who share the same viewpoints as them. Companies apparently run smoother and quicker do to this similarity of journalists’ views with their employers. This results in similar perspectives and disagreements only arising in elite circles, on their terms. As McChesney says in The Corporate Media and Democracy,” A healthy political culture requires that to some extent each of these forms of communication [the media] be politicized–open to public questioning and discussion. In the absence of a viable democratic journalism, arm and entertainment may fill some of the breach, but they will likely accommodate themselves to the depoliticized or repressive political culture” (McChesney, 9). When the limited choices of news are competing for both profit and certain demographics of the affluent, this results in a one sided opinions that only represent 10% of the population, bringing about depoliticized citizens in their own interests.
Revenue is not dependent on sales and circulation anymore. Since the mid-20th century, revenue has been dependent more upon advertisements purchase of space than any other form of income. This has been a consequence of the realization that newspapers cannot survive without the support of advertisers. As illustrated in 1945, In Britain there where three major labor party newspapers, such as The Herald, that where growing in size, circulation, and influence. However advertisers did no like their advocacy of anti-business rhetoric, and managed to shun their papers with shifting all resources towards pro-business papers. This resulted in all three crashing within a short time period (Chibber, 10/9 Lecture). News sources do not want to contradict their main source of income, and because of this they mold to the same demographic that the advertisers are aiming to draw in. This has resulted in “the Darwinian process of mergers and acquisitions began to wash over the corporate landscape in the 1980’s. We all observed small companies eaten by bigger companies and devoured by even more mammoth corporate interests.” (39) The interests and articles published in news sources then are not of the readers but of the interests of a specific demographic of people who fit the same views. Advertisers’ are looking for a specific demographic when deciding to buy space in elite news sources. They are looking for a demographic that is young, reckless with money, and has a disposable income. The socio-economic status of this demographic is the top 10% of the population who are males ages 18-34 (Chibber, 10/11 Lecture). This demographic reflects the same interests of those who fund, write, read, and agree with elite interests. This is morally problematic due to a large representation of a certain minorities’ opinions due to the pandering to advertisements to make profit rather than to report the news fairly.
A classical liberal may bring up that consumers still have the ability to choose other resources, creating a demand towards opinions that are theirs. This cannot be the case because not only that those who own news sources have a select group of interests, news’ profits are based upon advertisements. This comes into combination of the issue that the audience is not in a power position as well. They cannot tell if the news is providing credible sources or providing news in their interests. Over time one can endure the repetition of elite interests and come to think they are the only interests that matter, seeing as they are the only ones out there. This is misleading towards others. A classical liberal may say there are public options as well for news (such as NPR and PBS). However, when only 15% of public options are subsidized by the government, 85% of their income is advertisers and donors acting as subsidies as well. This leads to a restriction of choices.
Third Filter: Sourcing
The news being owned by major corporations are not interested in public service. Prior to the 80’s this may be different, where most newspapers where family owned, however from ’79 to ’82 during a large recession it resulted in large conglomerates buying up news companies. During this time period it also resulted in gigantic downsizing in news sources, resulting in loss of journalists and especially loss in Foreign Bureaus from 12% to 2%. This is problematic for the American public due to our large involvement in foreign affairs where we have 780 military bases, and this limits our knowledge of foreign news. The correspondents have also been being downsized, where reporters have gone down 50% from 2000-2010. Of these reporters, their interests are aligned of that of a certain class. On top of this there are consequently 20,000 more Public Relations agents than in journalism. There are four public relations agents to every journalist. This is interesting for public relations spike has correlated with both distrust in the media and agenda setting strategies we have seen in the news. PR will provide information and stories to journalists who are already strung weary of resources being in a downsized market. Public Relations’ “sourcing” helps journalists with getting both insider information and making their deadlines for their job, yet poses a large problem of compromising sources that are sided to only one interest. This is problematic for the public does not know if their information is true or not, resulting in misconstrued interests in the audience. An example that brings us back to Judith Miller is that during her controversy she displayed this perfectly along with the sediment of what has happened to journalism, which is that she said her “job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” This shows a lack of critical thought behind journalism, and presenting interests of those who are sourcing to journalists. This shows media’s power concentration in shaping political moments much like the Iraq war along with media willingly giving up their independence. (Chibber, Lecture 10/11) As a former producer of CNN has stated “In cynical moments, one could believe the political establishment has a stake in keeping the citizenry uninformed. That allows the political class freedom and keep the citizenry down on the farm” (Cohen, 58).
Conclusion: The Structure Leads to Distorted News
The implications behind the classical liberal argument do not stand up in practice. These filters are encouraged to occur in a free market system due to people acting in their own interests. This means that 6 corporations control the media for the public, where only the elites’ arguments and interests are presented. The viewpoints are becoming exceedingly narrow, and for those to try to start up a viable alternative are incapable of escaping the interests that come with the wealth. The free market system does not provide a model of plenty of opinions within the media, but a large, influential, and centralized center of elite viewpoints and interests. This structurally goes against the classical liberal argument for it leads into a contradiction to their stances on our liberty to choose. When we have no alternatives to choose from, both liberties and democratic discussions are in the minority.
1. ) McChesney, Robert Waterman. Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy. New York: Seven Stories, 1997. Print.
2.) Morales, Lymari. “U.S. Distrust in Media Hits New High.” U.S. Distrust in Media Hits New High. Gallop Politics, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2012. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/157589/distrust-media-hits-new-high.aspx>.
3.) Pareene, Alex. “SALON.” Judith Miller: From the Times to the Nuts. Salon, 30 Dec. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2012. <http://www.salon.com/2010/12/30/judy_miller_newsmax/>.
5,) Allen, Kevin J. “Infographic: 6 Media Giants Control 90 Percent of Content.”Ragan.com. N.p., 22 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2012. <http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/Infographic_6_media_giants_control_90_percent_of_c_44137.aspx>.
6.) Aufderheide, Patricia. Conglomerates and the Media. New York: New, 1997. Print