In the hierarchy of the television and newspaper industries, reporters and editors may be the ones who get the job done, but it’s the company owners or publishers who call the shots. Unlike the actual news producers, publishers and owners aren’t always held to the same high standards nor are they typically expected to. However their influence on their staff can be just as detrimental to objectivism as a reporter acting inappropriately on his or her own.
When journalism courses and schools were being established in the 1920s, the key concept behind professional journalism was that it should be conducted with objectivism free from the political and monetary interests of the owners, editors and journalists themselves (McChesney – Corporate p. 13). Essentially it was the job of the reporters to make their news outlet at least “seem” objective even though it was maintained by advertising and a certain sense of commercialism.
The fiscal endeavors of publishers and network owners weren’t paid attention to as much as their political endeavors were, and when both eventually were considered “lifeless” enterprises when they stayed within their objectivist boundaries (McChesney – Corporate p. 14). The next phase in the professional journalism establishment came with the establishing of public relations outlets and public relations as a profession in itself.
When news outlets starting looking for “hooks” and “angles” to use to fill air time on radio with news that was produced with a desired theme or tone to it, it started to walk hand in hand with public relations agents from corporations and political figures to generate news that was essentially meant to entertain as well as enthrall. This would gather and maintain listener-ship and would eventually become the standard on television as well.
This decision to increase and maintain viewers/listeners is always a commodity to shop to companies wanting to sell their product to the radio or TV station’s listeners/viewers. Buying into that market comes with a price and that’s basically how our fiscally-motivated modern media became established to work in the way they do and to be owned by the people they are.
As the 20th Century wore on and corporations began to focus more on electronically-based media, author and media analyst Ben Bagdikian wrote in “The Media Monopoly” that 50 corporations controlled the major television, radio, magazine, newspaper, music and other outlet companies in the United States. In 1992, he reformulated that figure and shrunk it down to 24 (McChesney – Corporate p. 17, 18). Now there’s only a few, those being News Corporation, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and TCI.
To demonstrate just how powerful one of these companies can be and how broad a range it can have, Time Warner owns music companies, radio, TV, the WB on cable, is partners with America Online (AOL Time Warner), has publishing companies, owns theaters and retail stores. They’ve essentially got a finger in every pie, thus bringing their customers/consumers under one umbrella. The same can be said of News Corporation, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch who also happens to own the Fox network and cable’s Fox News channel.
But it cost lots of money to purchase all of these smaller companies in order to bring them under the control of the big one. To purchase a company, there has to be the understanding that there will be a way to make that money back, and not just make it back, but also gain a substantial profit from the purchase. That’s how big business works. This is where advertising comes in by channeling interested advertisers to the appropriate market and charging the appropriate advertising rate.
In order to have a market to advertise to though, there have to be people to direct the advertising toward. While newspaper journalism and magazine writing are certainly still subject to this kind of semi-monopolization as the television and communications companies do.
But because newspapers can be limited in scope by their coverage territory and magazines can be rather niche-oriented, cable and broadcast tend to have the biggest reach and are more desirable to market to advertisers. Thus newspapers tend to have to worry more about political biases of the publishers and editors, rather than overt commercial interest.
When a company like Disney makes a feature and it flops at the box office, it doesn’t matter because it can promote the heck out of it with its other media outlets and still turn a profit from merchandising or even boost ticket sales by planting positive reviews in its television programs and print formats. In this manner, the point isn’t whether or not the film is any good. It’s about how fast one should drive to the movie theater in order to see it.
A report in “Business Week” stated: “The connections between Madison Avenue and Hollywood have grown so elaborate that nothing is off-limits when studios and advertisers sit down to hammer out the marketing campaign.” (McChesney – Corporate p. 28).
The same report also indicated that “networks are happy to cater to advertisers who want a bigger role,” and as cable and satellite channels have grown in number, we begin to see a number of channels being formulated not so much for information as they are to be catered to a certain audience to sell specific types of products to that audience.
Other than not producing bad publicity upon itself, there are other problems to consider when being in charge of a large corporation, or at least when it comes to producing the news generated by said corporation. As an example Seagram, owner of MCA, happens to have 15 percent of Time Warner. TCI also owns large portions of Time Warner. As Murdoch stated, “We can join forces now or we can kill each other and then join forces.” (McChesney – Corporate p. 22).
This provides what those in print journalism would happily refer to as a conflict of interest or “sleeping with the enemy.” Competition between companies would be like competing against oneself, considering how much stock one has in the other. The point behind newspapers competing with each other, other than to be the best has been to get the most readers and use that to market themselves to prospective advertisers. Thus, a solid product is being produced and advertises want to buy into that.
The entire concept of a news entity being on the stock purchasing block or being part of a company up for stock purchase is in itself dangerous to objective journalism in the first place. If a story is about to be written or produced that is negative or could be negative for profits for a stock holder, the story could get the axe based upon the stock holder’s desire to not have their company smeared all over the headlines or be ridiculed on national and sometimes international television.
Other than through conglomerate ownership and the semi-monopolization of media outlets, it’s also through the outside interests of other companies that makes stock shares in media companies one of the greatest biases of all.
But because there’s no true need to “compete” on the corporate media level there’s no need to be the best and produce balanced, unbiased journalism. They can produce whatever they want, call it news and sell it to the highest bidder because people are going to be watching it or are going to be exposed to it at some time or another.
As Walter Cronkite once stated, commercial pressures converted television journalism into “a stew of trivia, soft features and similar tripe.” (McChesney – Corporate p. 24).
According to Robert McChesney, what is the most deplorable of all this is that while the state of journalism is suffering from its own harsh taskmasters, is that the public still generally regards the government as the press’s great foe against objectivism and straight stories. Yet in reality, it is its own worst enemy, having been harnessed by corporate dogma and the bottom line, and having been turned into “journalism for the sake of monetary gains” rather than for the sake of “journalism for free information and public education.” (McChesney – Corporate p. 24, 25).
While McChesney has stated that true journalism is pretty much dead and we’re experiencing the death rattle right now, Bernard Goldberg believes that most of it just comes from journalists either being lazy, only wanting to report what’s hot or perhaps both. Goldberg said that while reporters were scrambling around doing stories on JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson, John Bobbitt or Elian Gonzales, nobody bothered to do the bigger story, which was the growing number of “latch key kids” in America (Goldberg p. 173, 174).
While Goldberg is quick to make it the fault of mothers wanting to leave the home and start self-affirming careers, he does have a point in that numbers of sexual abuse, increase in teen sexual activities, drug abuse, etc. had skyrocketed over a decade, and nobody was paying attention. It wasn’t sexy or bloody. It couldn’t be sold, that is until it all escaladed and two of these so-called “latch key kids” shot up a high school in Colorado.
Then all of a sudden everyone jumped on board that and kept missing the target once again. While child psychologists and experts on teen and youth aggression were saying “It’s the parents,” the major networks were meeting and greeting anyone who would come on and place the blame somewhere else. Blaming heavy metal bands creates more controversy and gets the commercial juices flowing. Perhaps they helped generate CD sales for some of the bands on their corporation’s subsidiary record labels.
In another instance of corporate control over news content and its biases effecting coverage, CBS reporter Larry Doyle covered the reinstitution of the old chain gang in Alabama. When he shot footage of a chain gang and one out of the whole gang was white, his producers in New York balked and wanted to know why he only got one white prisoner. When he responded that there was only one white prisoner and that the majority of those in prison are indeed black, they ran the story anyway because it was close to air time but to “be more careful in the future.”
Goldberg argued that if the story had been on unfair arrests, that their concern would be founded and that perhaps it would’ve made for a better story. But all they wanted was a chain gang, and because most of them were black, Doyle was accused of being a bigot because the state opted to only place one white person on the gang (Goldberg p. 108 – 110). Doyle also did a feature on a man in Florida who had been burned alive by two white men. When he called the man “black,” the producers said to change it to “African American.”
The only problem was the man who’d been burned was from Jamaica and was not even a United States citizen. Doyle stated this crucial fact, but the producers didn’t care. African American seemed safe. They’d apparently rather sound stupid than upset any reactionary advertisers who might pull advertising and accuse CBS of racism for saying “black” instead of “African American” in a news piece. In case, bias toward the dollar has clearly marred the integrity of the piece. Rather than deal in facts, the producers had opted for what sells.
It is the ability to sell “news” as a commodity, and even be able to generate vast empires off of it that has allowed major corporations to arise around the media and all its intricacies. Journalism was originally created for objectivism and fair, balanced news for the benefit of readers, listeners and viewers. But when it became obvious that news was something that could be sold, certain abuses of it took place and it become marketable and therefore profitable.
While the secondary and tertiary layers of the media are able to mostly operate to objective standards, the primary layer that has the most impact and greatest reach has the most power and creates news based upon personal ideologies, whether they’re based on politics, morals and for the love of money.
Bias, as it seems, comes from wanting to cover events and issues that can get the corporations the most money for its effort or lack there of without any regard as to whether it truly is news. It will cover the controversial, the sexy and the gruesome, just so long as none of its investors or subsidiaries is involved and it can make a buck while maintaining the status quo.