The U.S. media is rapidly being monopolized by a dwindling number of parent corporations, all of whom have conservative economic agendas. The media is also critically dependent upon corporations for advertising. As a result, the news almost completely ignores corporate crime, as well as pro-labor and pro-consumer issues.
Surveys of journalists show that the majority were personally liberal in the 1980s, but today they are centrists, with more conservatives than liberals on economic issues. However, no study has proven that they give their personal bias to the news. On the other hand, the political spectrum of pundits -- who do engage in noisy editorializing -- leans heavily to the right. The most extreme example of this is talk radio, where liberals are almost nonexistent.
The Fairness Doctrine was designed to prevent one-sided bias in the media by requiring broadcasters to air opposing views. It once enjoyed the broad support of both liberals and conservatives. But now that the media have become increasingly owned and controlled by corporations, conservatives defiantly oppose the Fairness Doctrine. This is probably the best proof that the media's bias is conservative, not liberal.
Conservatives often promote the myth that the U.S. media are liberal. This myth serves several purposes: it raises public skepticism about liberal news stories, hides conservative bias when it appears, and goads the media to the right. GOP strategist William Kristol also reveals another reason: "I admit it: the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."
In unguarded moments, however, even far-right figures like Pat Buchanan come clean: "The truth is, I've gotten fairer, more comprehensive coverage of my ideas than I ever imagined I would receive." He further conceded: "I've gotten balanced coverage and broad coverage -- all we could have asked… For heaven sakes, we kid about the liberal media, but every Republican on earth does that."
So what's the real story? The fact is that conservatives have powerful friends in the media: the corporations that own them, and the corporations that pay for their advertising. These giant firms have been increasingly successful in bending the media's message to suit their self-interests, which include a conservative and pro-corporate agenda. Studies show that the media are eerily silent on the issues most important to workers, consumers and other citizens adversely affected by corporate behavior. Conservatives respond to these charges with (old) polls showing that most journalists are personally liberal, but these polls are outdated. New polls show the majority of journalists are centrists. And of those who are not centrists, there are more conservatives than liberals on economic issues.
Democracy is based on the assumption that opposing viewpoints can be heard. If corporations could somehow eliminate or control populist debate, then we will not have a true democracy.
The potential for abuse by corporate owners is obvious. Just one example was General Electric's earlier buyout of NBC News.General Electric is the 10th largest company in the United States. It is a major Defense contractor and an international player on the world market. It is sensitive to the needs of its clients, who come from all sectors of the economy. It is also a fact that GE has suffered many a scandal throughout its history. During the Great Depression, it cut the life of its light bulbs by one-third to drive up profits. It was convicted of an illegal agreement with a German arms company during World War II. It has been convicted of fraud, fixing bids, conspiracy and tax evasion. In all these cases, control of a major media outlet would have given it undue influence, whether in the market or before Congress or the courts.
Furthermore, GE has played an active role in conservative politics. Shortly after the company acquired NBC, a GE executive announced that NBC should start a political action committee to contribute money to strengthen the company's influence in Washington. Failure to cooperate, the executive said, would raise questions about the employees' "dedication to the company." Later the President of NBC News clarified that its news employees would be exempt from contributing, but this hardly removes the larger conflict of interest.
It should not be surprising that these parent companies, like most big businesses and all Defense contractors, are extremely conservative. They have agendas: they desire lower taxes, fewer lawsuits from the public, fewer environmental restraints, better public relations (a euphemism for less public exposure to scandals), higher profits and more effective lobbying power in Washington. Controlling public opinion would give them all these things. Ironically, it would not be necessary for a single winner to emerge from the take-over wars. Shaw maintains that by the year 2000, all U.S. media will be in the hands of six giant corporations. Most business analysts agree with him. One can safely assume that they will all have the same business and political agenda.
That said, let's review the evidence of a media monopoly. Ownership of all forms of media (newspapers, magazines, radio shows, network television, cable, journals, books, movies, videos and cassettes) are quickly being consolidated under a few corporations. In all, the number of dominant corporations who control any form of media has shrunk from 46 in 1981 to exactly half in 1992: 23. At the end of World War II, 80 percent of all newspapers were privately owned. Today, that figure is its exact opposite: 80 percent of all newspapers are owned by corporate chains. From 1960 to today, the number of corporations which own newspapers fell from 27 to 14. (Gannett Company, which publishes USA Today, is the largest, with 87 other daily newspapers.) From 1981 to 1988, the number of corporations who owned magazines fell from 20 to a mere three. Television news is dominated by four major networks, who control up to three-fourths of the audience share.
One of the most obvious signs of this trend is that cities are becoming "one-newspaper towns." One of the persons most responsible for buying out competing newspapers is Rupert Murdoch, who says that his worldwide strategy is acquisition and takeovers. Another is Allen Neuharth, chairman of Gannett Company, who told a group of Wall Street investors that "No Gannett newspaper has any direct competition."
The media generally cannot run stories that offend corporations, because sponsors will threaten to pull their advertising dollars. In 1980, the liberal staff at Mother Jones debated over whether or not to publish a series of articles linking cigarettes to cancer. The editors knew that the tobacco industry would punish them by canceling their lucrative advertising contracts, which the young, struggling magazine desperately needed. Mother Jones stuck to its principles and printed the articles anyway; and, just as expected, the tobacco companies angrily pulled their ads.
And whereas a parent corporation like GE has a particular set of interests that NBC would never report against, advertisers have general interests that reporters would never tilt against either. A publisher never knows who the next advertiser might be; therefore it's good policy not to write offensive things about any corporation, or even corporate culture in general. No news organization could attract advertisers if it persistently attacked the corporate agenda.
Editors play a crucial role in deciding which stories get covered and which ones don't. This is an important tool for shaping and influencing the nation's debate. Due to the abuse of this power, three giant trends have grown within the media as big business continues to monopolize it:
The first is that pro-labor stories are almost completely absent, even though blue-collar workers make up the vast majority of this nation's work force, and indeed the news media's audience. The majority of stories should include the conditions they work under, the challenges they face, the wages they earn and the hazards that maim and kill them. But the media is curiously silent on nearly all these natural topics. In 1989, researcher John Tasini studied ABC, NBC and CBS for a year to see how much coverage was devoted to workers' issues, including the minimum wage, workplace safety and child care. He found it amounted to a dismal 2.3 percent of all coverage. In fact, all three networks carried only 13 minutes of coverage on workplace safety for the entire year!
The worst offender was NBC Nightly News, who devoted a total of 40 seconds to worker safety. This is not surprising, since its parent corporation, GE, has an appalling work safety record. Elsewhere, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 53 percent of the nation's newspaper editors were pro-management, but only 8 percent were pro-labor. The pro-corporate bias of our media is one of the most important reasons for the decline of labor unions in this country.
The second trend is the increasingly conservative selection of experts to be quoted in the news. Think tanks are ideal places to find such "experts." (True academics have a low opinion of think tanks, which are simply propaganda outlets for the giant corporate foundations that pour millions of dollars into them.) Think tanks are highly partisan, and the quality of their work is mediocre at best. Why? They lack the checks and balances which keep academia honest, such as peer review, the scientific conference and independence of funding. Unfortunately, it has been a growing trend in journalism to rely on think tanks more than academia. That's because think tanks have conducted an aggressive campaign to become media friendly, packaging their findings in nice sound-bites and faxed press releases. This is in stark contrast to academics, who have little interest, expertise, funding or organization to conduct mass media relations. And this is not to mention that corporate-owned media organizations are encouraged to gather their facts from corporate-funded think tanks.
So, how many times do journalists quote conservative think tanks over liberal ones? The media watchdog FAIR conducted a Nexus search of major newspapers, radio and TV transcripts for 1995, and came up with the following answer:
Total Number of Think Tank Citations in Major Newspapers, Radio and TV transcripts:
Conservative - 7792
Centrist - 6361
Liberal/Progressive - 1152
Although there are far more conservative think tanks than liberal ones in the first place, reporters could easily balance the facts if they wanted to simply by consulting academics at universities.
The third trend is that when news organizations cover corruption in Washington, it is always politicians who get the blame, and never corporations. This is one reason why Americans hate politics, why voter anger has been rising over the last 20 years, why the people's trust in Congress has reached its lowest point in half a century. But this one-sided anger is illogical. The politicians are getting the money from somewhere. Big business, of course, need not fear being exposed as the ones donating the money and requesting the shady favors in the first place; after all, a watchdog doesn't bite its master. It is interesting to note that when President Clinton became embroiled in a campaign contribution scandal on the eve of his re-election, the corporate media made sure to choose a foreign corporate lobbyist to blame.
To be sure, if Westinghouse were to get caught laundering millions in drug money, CBS News would report the story in a straightforward fashion. But otherwise, the searchlight is directed away from business and onto politicians. Even once liberal news magazines like 60 Minutes, which proudly took on corporate criminals in the 70s, has considerably toned down its approach towards the Fortune 500 today, and concentrates on everyone else.
The claim that the U.S. has a "liberal media" began with a book called The Media Elite, by S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter. Their 1980 survey of journalists revealed that journalists were indeed much more liberal than the rest of America, a point which no one disputed. However, the authors then went on to make a second claim: that these liberal journalists inserted their own personal bias into the news. This second claim has not withstood academic scrutiny.
However, that debate is archaic today, because new studies show that today's journalists are more centrist than anything else. However, those who are not centrists identify themselves more frequently as conservatives on economic issues, and more frequently as liberals on social issues.
And all evidence shows that celebrity journalists identify with the various elites they cover. Recently, ABC weathered a scandal (due to lack of coverage, naturally) in which its journalists were criticized for accepting huge speaking fees before big business groups. It turns out that corporate lobbyists cultivate "friendships" not only with politicians, but TV journalists as well. They were paying Cokie Roberts, David Brinkley and Sam Donaldson between $20,000 and $35,000 per 40-minute speech. David Gergen collected over $700,000 from speaker fees in one 16-month period alone. In general, the speeches have been very friendly to big business, and that is why lobbyists were willing to pay such huge honoraria. In a 1992 speech, for example, David Brinkley described Bill Clinton's tax increase on the rich as a "sick, stupid joke." (This was even before he called Clinton "boring" on the eve of his 1996 reelection.) In July, 1994, ABC finally advised its journalists to stop accepting speaker fees from corporations and lobbying groups. The decision was immediately protested by Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, David Brinkley, Brit Hume and others.
The ironic thing is that Cokie Roberts is a Democrat, as are many of her colleagues. Again, this underscores the fact that inside the Beltway, a "liberal" is often no more than a moderate conservative.
For example, consider the rule of balanced sources. Under normal circumstances, journalists get both sides of the story. This is a basic rule of thumb that every journalist knows, and is taught in every Journalism 101 class. It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative; it is widely considered unethical to present only one side of the story. The only time that this ethic seems to break down is when a conflict of interest arises between journalists and the corporations that pay their paychecks.
But this ethic doesn't stop corporations from "legitimately" biasing the media towards conservatism. All they have to do is hire pundits who are mostly conservatives themselves. Pundits enjoy a unique role in the media, in that they are expected to be biased. In fact, the more outrageous their opinions, the better. Whereas a reporter must stick to the facts and report both sides, pundits are free to interpret them any way they want. What this means is that criticism of reporters for their alleged liberal bias is actually misplaced. It is really the political spectrum of pundits that we should worry about.
Unfortunately, there are far more conservative pundits than progressive ones. Conservatives freely admit to this bias themselves. Here's Adam Myerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review:
"[Pundit] journalism today is very different from what it was 10 to 20 years ago. Today, op-ed pages are dominated by conservatives… We have a tremendous amount of conservative opinion, but this creates a problem for those who are interested in a career in journalism after college… If Bill Buckley were to come out of Yale today, nobody would pay much attention to him. He would not be that unusual… because there are probably hundreds of people with those ideas [and] they have already got syndicated columns."
In fact, no one can deny the extreme right-wing bias of the pundit spectrum after listening to talk radio. Conservatives have captured an entire media arm and devoted it almost exclusively to corporate and conservative propaganda. Liberal talk-show hosts are almost non-existent. Conservatives blame this on the low ratings of liberal talk show hosts, but this is a curious argument, since liberals form the largest political school of thought in America. The fact is that corporate owners simply do not promote liberal talk show hosts. When ABC first hired Rush Limbaugh, they spent millions promoting him, ghost-writing his books and arranging appearances on Nightline, The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour and even Phil Donahue. No liberal talk show host has received anything even remotely resembling this kind of promotion. It's just another way that corporations ensure the conservative slant of the media.
The United States once had a law which attempted to balance viewpoints in radio and television: the Fairness Doctrine. Created by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, this law required broadcasters to cover controversial issues with some opposing views. It required neither the internal balancing of programs, nor for equal time, nor for all opinions to be heard. It merely prevented broadcasters from airing relentless, one-sided propaganda.
An example of the Fairness Doctrine in action was the ABC movie The Day After. This anti-nuclear war movie angered many conservatives like Henry Kissinger, who believe that the willingness to use nuclear weapons is actually a deterrence to war. However, Kissinger got a chance to respond to the movie on national television, for Nightline followed the movie with a group discussion that included Kissinger and other conservative pundits. The reason why ABC was so even-handed, presenting both a liberal and conservative viewpoint on nuclear war, was because the Fairness Doctrine required them to.
Another example was controversial state ballot measures. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to air both viewpoints of any initiative. It is interesting to note that since the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, studies show that the media's treatment of many initiatives has been heavily one-sided.
Why the Fairness Doctrine
Why not just let the market produce what it wants? The market works fine in the case of print media, because almost anyone can afford to print something, even if it's just a flyer. However, this is not the case for radio and television. In the 1920s, the airwaves were unregulated, and became so overcrowded with signals that they jammed each other. The Federal Communication Commission therefore started issueing licenses for broadcasters to use certain radio frequencies. Because the spectrum is so limited, however, there can only be a limited number of broadcasters. Diversity of opinion cannot be achieved by adding more stations, but only by creating it within stations. This is the rationale for the Fairness Doctrine.
Up until the late 1980s, the Fairness Doctrine enjoyed broad popular support, ranging from the left-wing ACLU to the right-wing National Rifle Association and Accuracy In Media. In 1987, Congress considered a bill that would inscribe the Fairness Doctrine in federal law. It passed with overwhelming support in the House (3 to 1) and the Senate (nearly 2 to 1). Even such far-right legislators as Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms voted in favor of it.
Unfortunately, Reagan vetoed the law, and then went a step further: his FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine completely. Reagan had staffed the FCC with corporate media types who were bent on deregulating the media at all costs, and were thus hostile to the Fairness Doctrine. It was the equivalent of letting the fox guard the chicken coop. Shortly afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives were free to take over AM talk radio, without fear of giving equal time to liberals.
Interestingly, media corporations have fought all subsequent attempts by Congress to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine -- a sure sign that they have an incentive to avoid balanced coverage. Rush Limbaugh has gone so far as to slander it the "Hush Rush Law." (In fact, Rush would not be silenced, nor even forced to internally balance his program.) Today, conservatives have done a complete 180 on the Fairness Doctrine:
Their one-time support has turned into angry opposition.
This speaks volumes about the true bias of the media. It also shows conservative media criticism to be highly incoherent. If the media were truly as liberal as they claim, they would jump at the chance to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, for it would give them a voice they didn't have before. The fact that they oppose it so vigorously proves that they know when they have a good thing, and don't want to give it up.
The manipulation of the media by the interests that control it proves the need for major reform. There are a number of good suggestions, but by far the best is expanding public media. This is media supported neither by advertisements nor parent corporations, but by the taxpayers themselves. With only the American people to answer to, public journalists are free to investigate businesses as aggressively as they do government. In fact, journalists in public media should be elected, just as politicians are elected. The media prides itself on being the "Fourth Estate" or "fourth branch of government." We should recognize this fact by making it true.
Of course, the private media would be free to continue operating as before. The creation of a truly public media would be just one more player on the block -- but a player that has no secret agenda and is more responsible to the people.
Europe has a much stronger tradition of public media than the U.S., and it has worked superbly for them. In the U.S., our experiment with public media is limited to National Public Radio and National Public Television -- both underfunded, both under severe attack by the Republican party. With the GOP threatening to cut off its funding, NPR has recently backed off its criticism of corporations. It should also be noted that our "public" media depends rather heavily on corporate donations. This is a mistake. Progressives argue that the U.S. should strengthen its public media, and institute reforms that insulate it from all political and economic influence. And only then will we have a media that truly operates "without fear or favor."