Bias in the News: Some comments about structural conditions

Is the content of the news unbiased and objective? Can we assume that news outlets report objectively on world events and domestic issues?

If this were the case, we could expect to hear a full spectrum of opinion, reflecting, minimally, the spectrum of opinion within the domestic US public.

Based on even a cursory survey, this is certainly not the case. To take an obvious example, while there were has always been a significant portion of the public opposition the bellicose US foreign policy of the recent decade, almost none of it gets presented in the news. On objective news outlet would be consistently hosting debates between pro- and anti-war commentators; and it would consistently present perspectives both for and against state foreign policy. When is the last time anyone heard a news outlet discuss whether or not the US has committed war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen, where substantial and credible cases for such crimes (of killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure) have been made elsewhere?

Simply by observing the news casually, we can determine that there is not a commitment to objectivity, but instead a strong bias in favor of state policy (for foreign affairs) and party positions (for domestic affairs). Anything outside the scope of these parameters seems to be beyond the pale of the press.
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But should we expect anything different? After all, the news outlets themselves are organized as corporations, beholden to profit revenue to remain solvent, and owned by private individuals. The structural conditions alone of the media should lead us to some basic expectations regarding content output. Below, I list the most important ones that I see, and how they influence or determine content. The remedy to these problems lies in restructuring the news, so that it is a) not a corporation; b) protected from punishment by the powerful; and c) sufficiently funded to do serious investigative journalism.

Content filters

These are the factors that explain how content gets controlled in a “soft,” or indirect manner, so that instead of an objective description of things, you get a highly indoctrinated version, but without having any government censor

 Ownership and editorial control

Owners of the press have control over its content, even if they sometimes claim that they give the firm full editorial independence. There is no evidence or guarantee of this, so it remains merely a claim, and often is demonstrably false.

There are plenty of anecdotes from former top editors of major papers giving examples of demands or hard requests being made on them by the owner, requests which were often passed along to the staff as if from the editor himself, meaning that the owner’s role got whitewashed. Rupert Murdoch, for example, has passed memos regarding content to the chief editors of his papers, according to the editors themselves. A truly objective news source would have total editorial autonomy from ownership, and would present information and news analysis without influence whatsoever from the opinions of any ownership.

 System promotional and professionalization filters

Because of the entire social promotion and professionalization system, the candidates for professional jobs are already highly preselected to reproduce doctrine, since the promotion system is strongly preferential to those who internalize and reproduce business-friendly assumptions.

This means that the pool of journalism graduates have already internalized mainstream “professional” (i.e., business-friendly) assumptions and turned off their willingness to question the most basic assumptions (is the State good; should there ever be war; should the poor have as much control over policy as the rich; should corporations even exist; etc.). Those with different viewpoints or assumptions usually don’t even make into the candidate pool, let alone get hired. A true concern for objectivity however would not assess the opinions of the workers, but their competence as researchers, analysts, and presenters of news content.

 Corporate structure

The institutional structure of a corporation is hierarchical and tyrannical–what the boss says, goes, and on all the way down the line, since everyone’s livelihood and continued success in the firm depends on the will of the guy above him/her. So everybody becomes a boss-pleaser, and the ultimate boss is the owner. This goes even for journalists with integrity, since if they want to keep their job, they have to consider what management thinks.

Such a system virtually guarantees that press content will be substantially subservient to the needs of the managing staff and the ownership, occasional exceptions notwithstanding.

Such an organization, however, is inimical to news reporting and analysis, since it eliminates the autonomy of individuals within the process to determine news content based on their own analysis. Instead, it makes them subordinate to the opinions of more powerful people above them, people exceedingly likely to belong to the political and economic elite, and to share this elite’s perspectives.

 Sanctions, flak, and punishment from power sources

Because the press firm is fully dependent on advertising for revenue (if advertisers go elsewhere, the firm ceases to exist), advertisers are in a strong position to influence content.

If the CEO of some firm advertising with a given press outlet doesn’t like the content, he can make a phone call and threaten to pull his advertising contract if the content is not revised. This kind of thing has been documented many times.

This means that news producers are highly motivated to produce news content that will not elicit such punishment–in other words, to stay away from serious investigation or criticism of powerful corporations, parties, lobby groups, political fundraising, business consortiums and trade interests, revolving door situations, business-friendly foreign trade deals or economic policies, etc.

This system makes corporations virtually immune from serious, investigative press scrutiny, since that would be biting the hand that feeds them. When corporations are caught egregiously red-handed, it makes the news. But when the story is hidden and takes some investigation, it is usually guaranteed to stay hidden.

Why go for the tough, potentially punishing stories when you can spend your time on Britney Spears and Madonna or the 50 lb. cat, or you follow the trial of some sensational violent crime or you use feel-good stories about our troops giving out candy in Afghanistan or Iraq?

So what happens when you want to do a piece on Monsanto’s criminal practices depriving Indian farmers of crop seed, or Shell Oil’s egregious actions in Nigeria to use hired thugs there to repress local activism or Walmart’s atrocious labor practices–to name only some of the most well-known, egregious cases?

If you stand to take a hit by funding investigations and running, to lose revenue and important “friends” (recall that big figures often sit on the boards of these corporations, as when Hilary Clinton sat on the board of Walmart)–then you simply don’t run those stories. You run the stories that maximize audience share and minimize potential for punishment from advertisers or organized political interest.

Since the rich and politically connected are by far the most organized, that means their world is always unsafe, while the world of the poor and middle classes is always safe–so you just do your investigating there. Investigate welfare fraud all day long, no problem, but investigating corporate fraud might get into hot water–so it’s best avoided.

Profit structure

Since the press is structured as a profit-making firm, usually with stockholders and an executive board, then the press content reflects the demand to make profit.

This translates into a demand to create successful advertising outcomes–which means selling viewers (and their wallets) to advertisers.

The advertisers are actually purchasing the media’s viewership. If I’m an advertiser, say, Tide or Chevron or American Airlines, I will run ads in places most suited to my interests. That means the programs with the largest viewership of potential purchasers of my product. I couldn’t care less about the content or integrity of the program itself–I just want to maximize viewer awareness of my product.

Such a system encourages media producers, including news producers, to focus on maximizing viewership, rather than producing quality content. For the news programs and paper copy, the very term “quality content,” within such a corporate atmosphere, shifts away from “most solid, honest analysis of highly important things” to mean “items that the largest number of consumers will appreciate.”

This structure strongly encourages a system that maximizes viewers, minimizes content-related interference (ie, offending anybody powerful and connected), and places the board’s and stockholder’s demand for constant revenue increase in a position to limit the scope of press content. News media comes to serve the same function as sitcoms or cartoons from the corporation’s eyes–its just another means to maximize advertiser revenue. Therefore, it will follow consumer demand, and use lowest-common denominator calculations to determine content. And it will fund production–which in the case of news means investigation and quality analysis–based on profitability calculations alone. Since it is expensive and unprofitable to seriously investigate the powerful and connected, that just won’t get done. Far more profitable to investigate low-level stuff, focus on the car crash or the police chase or the teacher who married his student.

In other words, you have an advertising scheme masquerading as news. The news is just another product being sold because there is consumer demand for it. So the news producers analyze what consumer demand for news consists of: the weather, reporting the gist of what’s going on in Washington and the world, and interest stories. So the news corporation devotes money to producing this content, just like it devotes money to producing sitcoms–as a means of audience draw. There is no motivation, besides public perception, to prioritize the public interest.

Great Fear factor

The Great Fear factor is another serious constraint to news content. Large, centralized, free democratic societies such as America are not as easily controlled by the elites as, say, totalitarian states such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. In a free, democratic society, you have to control people by scaring them into consent. This is especially easy in a society that is insular and uninformed about the outside world.

The citizens of the United States have always been especially vulnerable to this tactic, whether it is the Red Scare, the threat of invasion by Nicaragua or Grenada, or the Great Terrorist Network out to kill us all. The elite-controlled state uses these tactics as justification for their actions, which are actually following business interests. So we invade Nicaragua or Guatemala or Vietnam to preserve business interests, but in public the matter is announced as an attempt to save us from all things evil.

The result of the Great Fear factor is that people tend to identify with the state (so what America does is always good, no matter what it does) and to avoid criticizing the state (our country is the best, their countries are the worst). To announce an iota of skepticism often means being labelled “unAmerican.” Moreover, it makes the world easy to describe in terms of good and evil, according to the needs of the business-controlled state. So the countries that violate the interests of US business, such as Venezuela or Cuba or Iran, are instantly the Great Evil Ones in the world; those who concede to US business interests, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are friendlies, no matter how atrociously criminal their regimes are.

 

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One Response to Bias in the News: Some comments about structural conditions

  1. andreakente says:

    Thanks for writing this up! It’s so useful to have all the arguments for why the press is biased laid out concisely.

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