The New Oligarchy


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.

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  1. Very well written, interesting article. A few points, however.

    1. Corporations are legally people. That’s the entire justification for incorporation, the creation of a fictional legal entity for the purposes of creating a unified institutional representative and focus. This has been an element of the common law as far back as elements of the common law can be established. The common law was passed as the law of the land in the United States as the very first action of the United States legislature after the Bill of Rights was ratified, so it is very nearly as old as the founding.

    2. The article seems to be disagreeing with itself in many places. For example, arguing that media consolidation is inherently anti-competitive is fine, but then arguing that the media is simply reinforcing extreme views only makes sense if there is a wide range of media options, correct? Attempting to wed these two ideas (consolidation and reinforcement) doesn’t seem to make much sense, given that more options are required for reinforcement and consolidation tends to reduce the number of options.

    3. Additionally, specific statements in the article are questionable. “This trend of fewer and fewer networks occupying more and more of broadcast time.” This line, for example, seems to suggest that there are fewer sources of broadcast (TV) news today as in comparison to 35 years ago (1980). In reality, 35 years ago, there were exactly three (3) TV networks. Today, even with media consolidation, there are more than that number of 24-hour news networks and more than that number of 24-hour news networks owned by different corporations.

    I think the argument could be made either that media proliferation (growth of the number of networks available and the internet) creates excessive reinforcement that then requires intervention by the FCC, or that overall media consolidation may be closing certain topics of public interest from overall discussion. Combining the two requires a more nuanced and complex argument than I think you probably have space for. Additionally, I think if you are worried about consolidation, blocking mergers is a more logical place to start than attempting to permanently police speech.

    In general, however, my biggest problem with the article is that, given the fact that government agencies tend to have even lower approval ratings than the media does, why should we generally believe that a new TV (and possibly internet) Fairness Doctrine would be applied in such a way as to improve the quality of debate and improve the information content of the news, rather than simply serving the interests of the agents involved in its application?

  2. It’s interesting to examine what the media won’t report on. Though it may be that unwarranted focus is awarded to political scandals, it seems doubtful that this is tied solely to profit motive. Clinton’s secrecy regarding her e-mails is sold as a strike against her prospective presidency while much larger issues and controversies related to her and her husband’s policy decisions (i.e. the al-Shifa bombing, NAFTA, her general hawkishness) are ignored totally. The media, though certainly concerned with profit, refuses entirely to discuss many subjects which fall outside the domain of ‘respectable discourse’. For example, you didn’t see any papers reporting on U.S. activities in Cambodia and Laos during the late 1950s and early 1960s, though such reportage would likely have generated a great deal of profit. In 2011, the full release of the Pentagon Papers went almost unnoticed by all the major wire services and newspapers. The archetypal example is probably that of East Timor, an absolute scandal that was systematically suppressed by U.S. journalism and can be interestingly compared to the wealth of journalism on the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which captured the popular interest so fully. There’s one side of “the issues” no mainstream paper ever gives attention to, and that’s whatever side the American government isn’t on. Reporting on drones today, and obviously on the Iraq War, prove this point’s continuing relevance.

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