Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In a political climate characterized by distrust, apathy, and despair, it is often easier to lament problems rather than propose concrete solutions to solve these issues. The media has a large role in propagating “scandals” of little to no significance rather than providing the audience with coverage of substantive and impactful issues. The media acts this way for one simple reason: scandal sells and C-SPAN does not. As long as the dissemination of news through media remains a profitable market, the demand of consumers will always drive the content.
Consumers’ media demand is often linked to their own pre-conceived notions and beliefs. As the consolidation of media has continued, several media outlets have ceased to exist, resulting in only a handful of mass media networks for consumers to tune into. In the 1980s, 50 companies owned 90 percent of American media. Over two decades later, the number of companies owning that share has shrunk to just six. As mergers of large corporations continue to occur, there is decreased diversity of opinion available in the media we are able to access. This is a frightening prospect because we are given an illusion of choice; we are deceived into thinking that we can select the network that will give us the most comprehensive and perhaps unbiased coverage, but in reality, the same few executives control all of these supposed options.
This trend of fewer and fewer networks occupying more and more of broadcast time has also resulted in viewers selecting from only a few premier news networks, many of which happen to feature a partisan slant.
By bringing in experts from various ends of the political spectrum, biased networks give the illusion of a fair and balanced angle despite the fact that the issues they choose to highlight and the facts they choose to provide often still promote a particular viewpoint. Networks that are biased in their delivery of content give way to a concept called reinforcement theory. Reinforcement theory is the idea that people generally like to have their beliefs reaffirmed and confirmed, so as a result, they seek news in the form of rhetoric that will reinforce what they already believe to be true. An example of this would be an extremely liberal individual choosing to only get their news from MSNBC, a rather liberal news network, or an individual who identifies strongly with the Republican Party tuning into Fox News, a network with a significant conservative bias.
This in turn leads to an even more partisan political scene where opinions are based more on rhetoric than actual fact. As networks attempt to cater to their target audiences, news becomes dumbed down, with scandals being played up and substantive information being downplayed, that is when significant matters are brought to the table to be discussed at all.
In the aftermath of the 2012 Benghazi attack, in which the lives of four Americans were tragically taken, the media spent months covering the event, to the point where political analysts argued that the incident had been exploited for political gain. During a Fox News segment, media critic Juan Williams argued that “there is a drumbeat among conservatives — including some at Fox News — to turn [Benghazi] into a full-fledged scandal as opposed to a horribly tragic episode that killed four Americans […] And I do think that some Republicans — I’m not saying all — are trying to use this as a weapon against Hillary Clinton.” Now, in light of Clinton’s recent email scandal that has overtaken magazine covers and primetime television coverage alike, one must wonder what issues are being overlooked while we focus on her use of personal emails rather than the rapidly growing debt or escalating tensions in the Middle East.
This is not to say that the public should not be made aware of political scandals and conflicts when they arise, but the problem lies within how the media relays this message; when such incidents are sensationalized for the purpose of increased viewership and ratings, news networks are no longer fulfilling their civic responsibility to inform the public, but only carrying out the obligation they have to their shareholders.
A recent Gallup poll indicated that American’s trust in the media has dipped to an all-time low of 40 percent. The cause of the problem of growing distrust in media is multipronged then; not only are our networks biased in their partisan leanings, but they also serve an interest that is not aligned with the interest of the public at large. Most importantly, they are not vested in the welfare of our democracy, despite the fact that they are a very powerful agent of our governing system.
In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission implemented a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine, the premise of which was that news networks had an obligation to their viewers to show both sides of an issue. By requiring networks to allocate time to discuss all distinct viewpoints in relation to a particular issue, the policy was intended to ensure equitable coverage to all sides of an issue in order to prevent bias. After, many political analysts argue that the policy, which was repealed in the late 1980s, had prolonged or perhaps even prevented the rise of party polarization during its enforcement.
The notion that the Fairness Doctrine violates the First Amendment is not an unfounded one. However, unlike the United States Supreme Court, I maintain that corporations are not people, and the freedoms of individual citizens ought to be prioritized over that of a few wealthy executives. The true freedom of speech issue lies within one wealthy individual having a disproportionate ability to voice their opinions and concerns through the mass media. The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice often acts to prevent large mergers and acquisitions that could threaten the free market; perhaps it is time that they begin protecting the American people from the threat of an oligarchic “free” media.
Featured image courtesy of www.wendyduke.com.