After four years of news reporting that seemed more animated than ever, the change in the U.S. presidency carried one hope: a change of tone that would make it a bit easier to go through the our day-to-day lives. Sure, the pandemic still rages, but is politics not something now that has gotten much more palatable?
Think again. In fairness, the craziness that is American news predated Trump; in fact, he was able to plug in to an existing culture of media dysfunction.
What I mean by dysfunction consists of several elements:
The amplification of conflict by restyling news as a courtroom. Typically, there are advocates for two sides, and two sides only, and both have to be depicted as somehow equally believable, no matter which alleged position is more true than the other, or not true at all.
The opinion bias in ANY news source – in whatever news medium – is hurting the news. Some are worse than others, but all have some bias. It is good if you know the bias and you can discern any possible distortion due to your being educated about these issues, but how do you know? And why should we accept this? Can’t we have a clear and neutral agreement on what is news, and can’t we have balanced commentary sections that are true to the issues, not true to the division?
News-only channels are a problem in themselves. The over-hyped news cycle in its relentlessness is contributing to an already out-of-control entertainmentification of news. Additionally, for any 24-hour-news channel, there is frighteningly little news actually being reported. It’s a big planet. But the provinciality of all-day news channels is puzzling. The problem becomes even more confusing when comparing, for instance, CNN International with CNN USA. The former seems to be an actual news station, the latter – allegedly suited to its domestic American audience – is fishing in much shallower waters. The increasing partisan focus has also hurt the channel. We already have FOX News and MSNBC for those on either side of the political aisle, why pick up bad habits when you obviously could be able to run a serious news station instead. Dumbing it down for your audience is not a good idea. You’ll always lose to the station that is already doing a more efficient job in that respect.
Within commentary, there needs to be critical distance to the issue. We need complex, competent people sharing their genuine analysis (not just opinion) on matters of importance with us. The denigration of experts as somehow being too much of an expert is a saddening phenomenon.
Partisan politics invade not just commentary but also the selection of news. The problem goes beyond one channel. One or two (or three, or four? who knows) may be more over-the-top partisan than others, but it is certainly a matter of degree. At this point, every single American News Channel – with the possible exception of PBS – deserves at least some scorn by an audience with a legitimate demand to be given that which is true and balanced in analysis. Is it any wonder that – given this failure – the feeling about news in the country seems to go in the direction of “a pox on both your houses”?
Money in news channels is a further bad idea. Corporate ties seem to influence what gets reported and how. If you look at which corporations own which channel or which paper, and then if you look what these corporations also do abroad, any reporting about some foreign country in which the parent company of the news corporation may be heavily investing, will always have to be suspect to reporting bias.
There are alternatives. This post has focused on the American market, but the difference to other news markets can be striking. The British, French, German, Canadian, and Australian markets, for instance, have a strong presence of public broadcasting. Privatization may create opportunities for more diverse content, but when it comes to the news, its effect has not been a benign one. The profit motive is not easily compatible with the search for truth.
There is much more to say on the subject, but let’s leave it here for now, to be revisited later.
I. Introduction, because this is a Longer Text and it Needs Headings
There appears to be a sense among many people that there is a problem with “the media.” Trust in media seems low, and there is a societal division with regards to which media is seen as reliable, which as misleading or fake. These divisions appear along most frequently along partisan lines. If it wasn’t such a serious problem, it would be quite humorous to see how different media (and their supporters) criticize their competitors as being unreliable, yet they themselves believe steadfastly in their own reliability (and so do their supporters).
Indeed, we seem to have moved away from a consumer attitude towards media, and instead to a supporter attitude. The media you consume defines you more than ever before, it seems.
As to the criticism, specifically news media engender a suite of response archetypes:
I trust everything media sources supporting view A are saying, and distrust everything from view B. I read to reinforce the views I already have, whether consciously or not. A media outlet that has proven trustworthy in the past will be given the benefit of the doubt; but if a media outlet (and their corporate or ideological sponsors) are suspect for a variety of reasons, I steer away from it.
I am generally skeptical of everything I read, see and hear. I try to verify everything I read, even of news sources that I am more skeptical about.
I do not believe anything from establishment media – whatever their alleged ideological background – and am relying instead on alternative forms of information.
These are, of course, stereotypes. Nobody falls into any category neatly, and may change their views over time, depending on life circumstances, mood, or social circles. In general, position 1 may be the most common. Position 2 is probably aspirational, and position 3 the biggest source of social division right now. Even if you’re in opposing ideological camps, if you are still in position 1, you inhabit the same universe as everyone else. Media is essentially self-referential, and hardly an hour may come by in which those holding view A will not somehow reflect about and position themselves towards view B, and vice versa. Opposites do not just attract, they require each other like opposing parties in a game – and just like in a game, you hope both are playing fair, but you suspect they won’t always (except your team is always right…).
But let us contextualize this critique a bit more. What do we mean by “media”?
II. A Brief Excursion into Media Critique
A medium is that through which information is channeled, through which the world becomes represented through us. We have no direct means of accessing the world; even our sensory organs mediate existence to us, and our brain interprets it. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes our reality as seeing merely shadows of reality represented on the wall of a cave, but as never being able to see reality itself directly (Republic 7.514a). Through education, specifically philosophy, he hopes we can unshackle ourselves from that scenario and see the real world, and see the ideas and the divine on our own without needing to rely on representations of them – viz. without the need for media.
Plato gives a second example (Phaedrus 274e-275b) when discussing the consequences of writing, and comes to a depressing conclusion:
“You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
Furthermore, once the speaker is replaced by an author that is no longer available for conversation, texts replace conversation. This eliminates the human element from the equation, and creates distance, and opens up the possibility of a distortion from truth, from nuance, from interpretation and dialogic engagement. Culture – as transmitted through media – cedes to be a community-centered activity; it becomes an industry.
Theodor Adorno (yes, we are making a more than 2200-year jump) pointed out the dangers of such a culture industry, informed by his experiences with the Nazi propaganda machine, but worried about the possible rise of a machinery of entertainment, disinformation and commodification of truth in the West.
Both Marshal McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) and Neil Postman (“Amusing ourselves to death”) pointed to the properties inherent in technology itself to shape the any message mediated through it. We cannot ignore that the purpose of television is always entertainment. As Postman notes, in our obsession to be afraid of the Orwellian scenario of constant state supervision, we have given in to Huxley’s scenario of voluntary abdication of truth in pursuit of entertainment.
Gloomily, Michel Foucault, echoing Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, kept reminding us that any form of speech, any discourse, is imbued with a form of power. There is no neutral information, no neutral discourse, no escape. All we can do is become aware of the power of discourse, and to keep this power dimension in mind always.
Finally though, there can be a source of constructive optimism also if we follow Jürgen Habermas’ relentless exhortation to create a new and functioning public sphere, after the old one (the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Renaissance and Enlightenment era salons of thinkers and dreamers, the old style newspaper landscape) is hopelessly lost. But if we aim for deliberative democracy, aim for the recognition of humanity of each other, and create an ideal space for discourse, we may just find a solution and do not have to abandon all hope in this post-Dantean infernal chaos.
What are we supposed to learn from this?
There is no neutral medium, and no media product – whether news, web sites, television, film, books, etc. – should be consumed uncritically. While some media products may manipulate to a high degree, there is no media that is not in some way manipulative or biased, whether through active commission of lies, or through omission of unwelcome truths.
III. Today’s Culture Industry: News Media and Corporate Ownership
While the critique of media pertains to non-news items also, most criticism is reserved for news media, but this is a short-sighted approach. If we follow the money, we will see that old-style media critique is still relevant.
By considering corporate ownerships and relations, we may gain some insight into possible influences on news reporting that may compromise the neutrality of some, if not all news outlets. That does not mean that all news and commentary originating from them may be tainted or unreliable, but it may point us as the audience towards being a bit more skeptical overall about what is reported and how, and what is left out. Money talks, and if corporations and governments are involved, there might be a specific bias. Ties to non-democratic countries that fight against complete freedom of the press (like China, Russia and Qatar) certainly will limit perspectives. Also, in cases where a company owns several news sources, you may find yourself in the same universe of similar news re-confirming themselves. Big media conglomerates also demonstrate that there are clear corporate ties between news, entertainment, and technology companies.
Current corporate ties for major news sources are as follows (see also: Wikipedia, TitleMax):
CNN: AT&T, Warner, HBO, Turner Broadcasting (upcoming theme parks in Zhuhai and Beijing, China, non-democratic)
FOX NEWS: NewsCorp – which means New York Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times (UK), The Sun (UK); the non-news division of FOX belongs to Disney now
MSNBC + NBC News: Comcast, Hulu, Universal, Telemundo (upcoming theme park in Beijing, China, non-democratic)
ABC News: Disney (operates theme park in Hong Kong, China, non-democratic)
CBS News: National Amusements, Viacom, Paramount, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon (upcoming theme park in Chongqing, China, non-democratic)
PBS News: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, donor- and subscriber model, solidly trying to be neutral
LinkedIn: operates a censored Chinese branch
Washington Post: Amazon
Russia Today: controlled by Russian government (non-democratic)
Global Times: controlled by Chinese government (non-democratic)
Deutsche Welle: controlled by German government
France24: controlled by French government
BBC: independent from UK government
Al Jazeera: controlled by Qatari government (non-democratic)
Breitbart, Parler: Mercer Family Foundation
Guardian, Boston Globe, New York Times, The Hill, Politico: currently independent
This list is certainly incomplete, and is just supposed to illustrate the complexity of the problem.
We certainly know that ideology of the news channel or paper certainly plays a role (what I described as “side A” and “side B” above).
I am split on what the consequence of that is. Do viewers already gravitate to a specific view, and then consume news conforming their bias? Or is their own bias created by a one-sided diet of news? I suspect this is a chicken-and-egg problem.
One more consistently raised but very valid criticism is the increased blending of news and commentary. You could add also the undue influence that any editorial stance – even if it may be contained to a commentary section – may exert over the entire enterprise.
Is news supposed to help people make up their own mind, or is it telling them what to think? Can it even make them do that – at which point would they risk them switching the channel, or buying a different paper?
V. The Decline of News Journalism
The real story here, of course, is the decline, if not outright destruction of real journalism. I am talking about newspapers – not because I am old-fashioned, but because that’s where most of real journalism actually still happens.
Television news is first entertainment, then commentary, then news – of course that is a polemical opinion, but especially in the American context it rings true. (In the German context, it depends on the channel – the society-supported subscriber-based channels ARD and ZDF do have functioning news rooms, and are focusing on news. Private channels like SAT1, RTL and PRO7 are more entertainment. Similar probably in the UK with regards to the BBC vs. independent television news).
I may have watched to much Superman and have been influenced by its Daily Planet, but aren’t newspaper newsrooms still more important than we all think? Where does your news come from? Who is typically cited on TV? News agencies (Reuters, DPA, etc.) and Newspapers, I presume.
More and more big newspapers are streamlined, news rooms made smaller, commentary enslaved by Twitter and Facebook, content syndicated, and small newspapers are disappearing or managed in bulk. This destroys the very fabric of our society. Who reports any more on local corruption and malfeasance? Certainly it is still happening, despite there not being any stories in the local newspaper – if you still have one.
If Media are still to be the fourth estate, they need to still exist in all parts of the country, and report on anything possible, and monitor and critique every single aspect of society, culture and politics.
VI. Balanced Skepticism
Returning to the sentiment with which I began: Are we in a position now where we seriously cannot trust the media at all anymore? No. But we all need to do our work, conceptually, and financially by supporting the news sources we do consume and trust.
Can we trust the media? As long as the media still mainly trusts us to make up our own mind, I would say yes, and would welcome the diversity of voices that can be heard on all sides of any debate.
In the end, there is only one truth. There are facts and non-facts. Something is either true or false. Beyond those distinctions though, there are grey areas of opinion, commentary, selection bias, spin, framing, etc. We need to be aware of the limitations of each news source, and we need to do our work as citizens to look beyond just one source of news. This is the only scientific and democratic attitude that can prevent us from being lodged in too deep our own filter bubbles.
Thus, if a news item only occurs within a specific news ecosystem and is ignored or not reported everywhere else, this should raise concern. If there is a definitive slant in opinion and commentary all the time, and it may affect what is reported in the assumedly neutral news as well. That does not mean there has to be bias, but we should assume there can be. An overall skeptical attitude is always a good thing.
That being said, we can indeed be skeptical of everything, but we also must put this in perspective, and our skepticism should be balanced. Reality is murky, and just as we cannot trust everything automatically, we also cannot distrust everything automatically. We need to follow the saying that “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” as suggested by Carl Sagan. I have come to believe that it pays to listen to Carl Sagan most of the time.