What's Wrong With the News?
Independent, aggressive and critical media are essential to an informed democracy. But mainstream media are increasingly cozy with the economic and political powers they should be watchdogging. Mergers in the news industry have accelerated, further limiting the spectrum of viewpoints that have access to mass media. With U.S. media outlets overwhelmingly owned by for-profit conglomerates and supported by corporate advertisers, independent journalism is compromised.
Ultimately, FAIR believes that structural reform is needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting, and promote strong, non-profit alternative sources of information.
Check out these issues for more of FAIR's analysis of the media business:
Issue Area: Corporate Ownership Almost all media that reach a large audience in the United States are owned by for-profit corporations--institutions that by law are obligated to put the profits of their investors ahead of all other considerations. The goal of maximizing profits is often in conflict with the practice of responsible journalism.
Not only are most major media owned by corporations, these companies are becoming larger and fewer in number as the biggest ones absorb their rivals. This concentration of ownership tends to reduce the diversity of media voices and puts great power in the hands of a few companies. As news outlets fall into the hands of large conglomerates with holdings in many industries, conflicts of interest inevitably interfere with newsgathering.
FAIR believes that independent media are essential to a democratic society, and that aggressive antitrust action must be taken to break up monopolistic media conglomerates. At the same time, non-corporate, alternative media outlets need to be promoted by both the government and the non-profit sector.
Issue Area: Advertiser Influence Most of the income of for-profit media outlets comes not from their audiences, but from commercial advertisers who are interested in selling products to that audience. Although people sometimes defend commercial media by arguing that the market gives people what they want, the fact is that the most important transaction in the media marketplace--the only transaction, in the case of broadcast television and radio--does not involve media companies selling content to audiences, but rather media companies selling audiences to sponsors.
This gives corporate sponsors a disproportionate influence over what people get to see or read. Most obviously, they don't want to support media that regularly criticizes their products or discusses corporate wrongdoing. More generally, they would rather support media that puts audiences in a passive, non-critical state of mind-making them easier to sell things to. Advertisers typically find affluent audiences more attractive than poorer ones, and pay a premium for young, white, male consumers-factors that end up skewing the range of content offered to the public.
It is becoming harder and harder to escape from the propagandistic effects of advertising. Many students are now forced to watch commercials in school on Channel One. Even supposedly "noncommercial" outlets like PBS and NPR run ads-euphemistically known as "underwriter announcements." FAIR believes that commercial advertising should be taxed, with the proceeds earmarked to fund truly noncommercial media.
Issue Area: Official Agendas Despite the claims that the press has an adversarial relationship with the government, in truth U.S. media generally follow Washington's official line. This is particularly obvious in wartime and in foreign policy coverage, but even with domestic controversies, the spectrum of debate usually falls in the relatively narrow range between the leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties.
The owners and managers of dominant media outlets generally share the background, worldview and income bracket of political elites. Top news executives and celebrity reporters frequently socialize with government officials. The most powerful media companies routinely make large contributions to both major political parties, while receiving millions of dollars in return in the form of payments for running political ads.
In this incestuous culture, "news" is defined chiefly as the actions and statements of people in power. Reporters, dependent on "access" and leaks provided by official sources, are too often unwilling to risk alienating these sources with truly critical coverage. Nor are corporate media outlets interested in angering the elected and bureaucratic officials who have the power to regulate their businesses.
Issue Area: Telecom Policy The United States' original communications policy is the 1st Amendment. Freedom of the press was guaranteed in the Constitution because an exchange of information and an unfettered debate were considered essential components of a democratic society.
Today, however, government policy is designed less to facilitate a democratic discussion than to protect the investments of media corporations. Regulations tend to promote the formation of huge media conglomerates and discourage new, competing voices.
Issue Area: PR Industry The drive to maximize profits compels corporate news outlets to produce more and more news with fewer and fewer reporters. With less time to do each story, journalists are increasingly pressured to rely on the public relations industry to do much of their work for them: Reporters can rewrite press releases rather than do their own independent research, and TV stations can broadcast promotional videos that are designed to look like news footage. This symbiotic relationship between news outlets and the industries they cover, however, is a bad deal for the public.
Issue Area: Pressure Groups While institutional pressures are enough to keep most journalists from straying from the conventional wisdom, pressure groups stand ready to punish the exceptional reporter who challenges the official agenda.
FAIR believes that grassroots activism around media issues is legitimate and indeed essential. When does an activist group become a pressure group? A pressure group is more concerned with suppressing viewpoints that it disagrees with than ensuring that a wide range of perspectives is available. Since pressure groups are often funded by companies or industries whose interests they promote, these groups often push ideologies that are already well-represented in media debates.
Issue Area: Narrow Range of Debate Given that most media outlets are owned by for-profit corporations and are funded by corporate advertising, it is not surprising that they seldom provide a full range of debate. The right edge of discussion is usually represented by a committed supporter of right-wing causes, someone who calls for significantly changing the status quo in a conservative direction. The left edge, by contrast, is often represented by an establishment-oriented centrist who supports maintaining the status quo; very rarely is a critic of corporate power who identifies with progressive causes and movements with the same passion as their conservative counterparts allowed to take part in mass media debates.
Issue Area: Censorship Since governments almost always have an interest in controlling the free flow of information, official censorship is something that must be constantly guarded against. In our society, however, large corporations are a more common source of censorship than governments: Media outlets killing stories because they undermine corporate interests; advertisers using their financial clout to squelch negative reports; powerful businesses using the threat of expensive lawsuits to discourage legitimate investigations. The most frequent form of censorship is self-censorship: Journalists deciding not to pursue certain stories that they know will be unpopular with the boss.
Issue Area: Sensationalism Profit-driven news organizations are under great pressure to boost ratings by sensationalizing the news: focusing attention on lurid, highly emotional stories, often featuring a bizarre cast of characters and a gripping plot but devoid of significance to most people's lives. From Tonya Harding to O.J. Simpson to Elian Gonzalez, major news outlets have become more and more dependent on these kind of tabloid soap operas to keep profits high.