As I read and listen and see what passes for news lately, from the Lewis “Scooter” Libby trial to the Attorney General Alberto Gonzales flap to the ginned-up acrimony between Senators Clinton and Obama, I get more than a little fed up with the griping and complaining among political commentators over bias in the media. Not because there is no bias in the media, but because that bias is not driven by political ideology, but by profit motive.
During the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, the prevailing cry from liberal quarters was that the media leaned right. The American public was fed a steady diet of headlines focused on Clinton’s personal foibles involving women like Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and Gennifer Flowers. The highly public scrutiny of the Clinton White House, including events such as the Whitewater real estate deal, Vince Foster’s suicide, missing FBI files, and the president’s peccadilloes prompted then First Lady Hillary Clinton to famously claim that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband.
In November of 2000, George Walker Bush won the presidency over Vice President Albert Arnold Gore Jr. in a controversial election that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. News coverage of that affair and the political firestorm it touched off dominated the news for obvious reasons, but there were other items that caught the attention of the media, such as the president’s frequent verbal gaffes, Attorney General John David Ashcroft’s decision to cover the bared breasts of statues in Justice Department buildings, and Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney’s association with federal contractor Halliburton Energy Services.
The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and our own military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq put the national focus on more serious issues for a while, but before long the emphasis was again on the miscues of the president and his administration. The simultaneous growing popularity of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, with George Bush as frequent foil, resulted in cries of an unfair liberal media bias.
Cry me a river, why don’t you. Both sides of our vaunted two-party system are more than adept at creating bogeymen around which to rally the support of the faithful, and the ever-lurking “media” is a favorite target. The media controls what we read, what we hear, and what we watch, and the ubiquitous but unspecific “they” are abusing that privilege by brainwashing us. How? Depends on the perspective of the accuser, but it’s always by unfairly espousing an opposing political point of view.
Both sides are wrong. The media is neither liberal nor conservative. The media is, however, desperate for attention, and it’s not political ideology that dictates what we’re offered in the guise of news on any particular day, but what will sell advertising. The media is not guilty of political bias; what it is guilty of is entertainment bias.
The saga of Anna Nicole Smith’s death and ongoing paternity issues of daughter Dannie Lynn Hope is a case in point of the irresistible draw of a salacious headline. Even more telling is ownership of the major news outlets. The Walt Disney Company owns ABC Television. CBS Corporation was owned and then spun out of entertainment conglomerate Viacom Inc., which owns a host of cable television properties such as Comedy Central, BET, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Spike, and more, and maintains a close relationship with the Tiffany Network. General Electric (I’m a stockholder) may be better known as a manufacturer of jet engines and light bulbs, but its NBC Universal business unit is an entertainment powerhouse. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp’s Fox Entertainment, including Fox Broadcasting and Fox News, came into the world of television and news from Hollywood, their origins with movie studio 20th Century Fox.
The news units of these networks operate as part of a larger corporate strategy, and cross promotion of other properties is evident practically every day. How else do you explain how American Idol, Survivor, 24, The Apprentice, and other television shows can lead and take up significant minutes of the evening news broadcasts? When American soldiers are fighting and dying abroad, when American workers are seeing more and more jobs shipped offshore, when so much of importance to Americans is happening at home and around the globe, how else can you explain the presence of Simon, Randy, and Paula on a supposedly serious news broadcast?
I guess it was to be expected. The advent of cable television, satellite television and radio, and the variety of content available over the Internet meant that the networks and print media found themselves competing for the public’s attention with hundreds of other broadcast channels and millions of pages of online content.
That means that a savvy editor, with a sense of what will draw viewers and readers, will naturally gravitate toward events that have a salacious or dramatic element. Discourses related to the complexities of Asian diplomacy and the delicate balance of competing socio-political influences in Japan, China, North and South Korea, and Indonesia is only remotely salable when the focus of attention is either imminent nuclear holocaust – or Kim Jong Il’s bouffant.
The brands we’ve traditionally relied on to provide us with news are pieces of public companies, and responsible to stockholders to turn a profit quarter to quarter. The New York Times is no longer a newspaper whose motto is “All the News that’s Fit to Print,” it’s the New York Times Company, a $3.3 billion public corporation whose motto is “21st Century News, Information, Entertainment.”
Conservative pundits can whine that President Bush is the victim of liberal media bias, but as soon as the Democrats took control of Congress, Nancy Pelosi found herself the butt of jokes as she sat blinking behind the president during his state-of-the-union address. And whoever wins the presidency in 2008, Republican or Democrat, can expect to be treated with equal irreverence.