Partisanship, Segmentation and the Mass Media
Is the current media environment a problem for proper political discourse?
While I do not necessarily share Ted Koppel’s romantic view of a bygone era when “the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening,” he makes a series of worthwhile points in a WaPo column entitled Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news.
In regards to the bygone era of the electronic hearth, Koppel makes a legitimate point about the shared experience of it all. When we all received our basic news from the same three sources, that certainly helped create a broader shared social experience that no longer exists. Of course, by the same token, the notion that access to a very limited amount of news per day via that delivery method was sufficient in terms of being informed is problematic. During most of my childhood (the 70s and the 80s), there was the local evening news probably at 5:30 pm, following by the national news at 6:00 pm and the late local news at 10 pm. The creation of Nightline during the Iran hostage crisis was a major innovation and added an additional 30 minutes of national/international news to the mix. A more easily shared experience, yes, but hardly superior in terms of information delivery and availability to the current era.
Koppel further describes the pre-cable era as one where the anchors “offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know.” There will be a dispute over whether said anchors were, in fact, attempting to be unbiased. Fair enough insofar as editorial decisions and other factors influence how news is presented. And yes, on some topics it was pretty clear what the given anchor’s views on a given subject were (the most famous such example would be Cronkite’s view on the Viet Nam war, perhaps).* At a minimum one has to understand that a great deal of the current critique of the mainstream (if not “lamestream”) media has its origins, in large measure, in perceptions that the media, in general, was skewed to the liberal side of the ledger—especially in regards to the Big Three anchors. If one wanted to understand why so many conservatives watch Fox News and only Fox News: they believe that Fox News created a balance to the media universe.** Ultimately, I do think that it is fair to say that the general approach to the news in that era was one more oriented to straight reporting rather than incessant commentary (indeed, even shows that purport to be straight news, like Countdown or Fox and Friends clearly have a POV).
This is not to say, by the way, that such approaches no longer exist, but it is to say that they hardly dominate what constitutes news pprogrammingat the moment. Certainly ,it seems that the dominant approach is more opinion-based than fact based.
Regardless of all of that, the following strikes me as on target in regards to the current era:
First is that lack of serious global coverage of the news:
The parent companies of all three networks would ultimately find a common way of dealing with the risk and expense inherent in operating news bureaus around the world: They would eliminate them. Peter Jennings and I, who joined ABC News within a year of each other in the early 1960s, were profoundly influenced by our years as foreign correspondents. When we became the anchors and managing editors of our respective programs, we tried to make sure foreign news remained a major ingredient. It was a struggle.
Peter called me one afternoon in the mid-’90s to ask whether we at “Nightline” had been receiving the same inquiries that he and his producers were getting at “World News Tonight.” We had, indeed, been getting calls from company bean-counters wanting to know how many times our program had used a given overseas bureau in the preceding year. This data in hand, the accountants constructed the simplest of equations: Divide the cost of running a bureau by the number of television segments it produced. The cost, inevitably, was deemed too high to justify leaving the bureau as it was. Trims led to cuts and, in most cases, to elimination.
The networks say they still maintain bureaus around the world, but whereas in the 1960s I was one of 20 to 30 correspondents working out of fully staffed offices in more than a dozen major capitals, for the most part, a “bureau” now is just a local fixer who speaks English and can facilitate the work of a visiting producer or a correspondent in from London.
There is no doubt whatsoever about the poor quality of international coverage. I know we live a country of continental scope, but we also live in a world where what happens elsewhere can have a substantial impact on our daily lives. As Koppel notes “The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been.” If you have any doubt about the poor quality of US news coverage of the world, watch one edition of the BBC World News or listen to the BBC World Service and you will see/hear a lot going on the world that one would never know about if all one consumes is US TV news sources.
Consider: Egypt and Colombia both are in the top five of US foreign aid recipients. Setting aside the fact that most Americans do not know this, how much do they even know about these countries? Israel is a major ally (and also one of those top five recipients) and a constant source of political discussion in the US. However, how much do we really know, as a public, about Israeli politics? We know about the latest drug cartel violence in Mexico, but really know precious little about Mexico itself. What did we know going into the Iraq war, about the sects of Islam, even after having been involved in Iraq militarily for a decade? A list of such deficiencies goes on and on and on.
But, of course, while some of the responsibility for the lack of such discussion can be laid at the feet of the news providers, the fact of the matter remains is that they give the viewers largely what they want. They don’t want a discussion of complex issues of the world write large, but instead prefer to watch endless*** recounts of the crime/dramatic tale du jour . The public certainly prefers opinion programming.
That leads to the second issue that Koppel correctly notes: opinion programming is profitable and has undesirable results:
While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted observation that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.
That latter point is the crux of the problem: the presentation of opinion as fact simply clouds the public debate and makes serious public discourse all the more difficult. As Koppel goes on to note:
when our accountants, bankers and lawyers, our doctors and our politicians tell us only what we want to hear, despite hard evidence to the contrary, we are headed for disaster. We need only look at our housing industry, our credit card debt, the cost of two wars subsidized by borrowed money, and the rising deficit to understand the dangers of entitlement run rampant. We celebrate truth as a virtue, but only in the abstract. What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts – along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.
Of course, part of politics is disputing over meaning, so basically what we are seeing is the dominance of media by politics, rather than what I would argue would be healthier, which is news and mass media being outside of politics and informing political discourse, rather than the other way around.
The funny thing is that even if we assume that the pre-cable era was one in which we came as close as was possible to an era of relatively unbiased news delivered in a way that we consumed in a relatively communal fashion, it may have been the historical exception, rather than the rule. We know that the newspapers of the early Republic were notoriously partisan**** and certainly William Randolph Hearst knew a thing or two about how to use sensationalism to make mass media a profitable enterprise.
For me and my assessment of the situation, the thing that troubles me the most is that most people appear to get their new from commentary sources, not from actual reporting and analysis. Just as one cannot just read the op/ed page and truly understand the news likewise if one is primarily watching opinion-based programming on so-called “news” networks, that is likewise problematic. And, further, as Koppel notes, the lack of serious reporting from abroad is ill serving the American public.
*On a lesser note, I recall criticism in conservative circles at the time that Sam Donaldson, when he was ABC’s White House Correspondent, seemed to be especially hard on President Reagan. And while, retrospectively, there is little doubt as to Donaldson’s partisan predilections, I think it is fair to say that his dealings with Reagan were less about bias than they were about Donaldson’s personality (although others with long memories may dispute this assessment).
**I know that many scoff at Fox’s slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide” but they both appeal to a deep perception and belief on the part of many Americans that a) the Big Three + CNN reported the news from a biased, pro-liberal POV and that they attempted to tell people what to think. Setting aside one’s assessment of such perspectives, one has to acknowledge that such positions existed if one wishes to understand the rise and significance of Fox News.
***On the rare occasion that I find myself in a situation of lengthy exposure to cable news (regardless of the channel in question) I am constantly astounded by the degree to which some true crime story or other dramatic tale can be flogged to death, hour after hour.
****For example, see Eric Burns’ book Infamous Scribblers.