PUBLIC SERVANTS

Posted in Rants on August 27th, 2013 by Ed

Excuse me for going into Professor Mode today; I've covered this in every class I've ever taught, and I'll continue to do so until They won't let me in a classroom anymore.

This is the best thing The Onion has ever done. That seems like a tenuous claim given the thousands of different gags and stories they've done over the past two decades, but "Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus' VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning" cloaks in humor a lesson that I think everyone in America – and increasingly the rest of the world – needs to get through their head.

People like to talk about media bias. Everyone thinks the media is biased, despite being unable to agree on a direction (liberals think it's too conservative, conservatives think it's all liberal claptrap). This sort of partisan political bias is a distracting sideshow from the much more prevalent and influential "commercial" bias. Commercial bias is the idea that the news is chosen, framed, and otherwise manipulated not to grind a partisan ax but to accommodate the reality that the media is a business. Like any other business, the media need to make money. They get money by getting people to read, listen, and watch. This translates to the rates they can charge their advertisers. That's why the news looks like it does today.

Even Fox News, perhaps the champions of pure political bias, is motivated by profit more than ideology. Rupert Murdoch identified a market niche and filled it with a product tailored to certain viewers. It has succeeded. Does Fox News employ people who are politically biased? Certainly. But they work there because it brings in ratings. If hardcore communism was twice as popular in the U.S. as the Fox brand of conservatism, there's a good chance that Murdoch would fill his media outlets with a product reflecting that reality.

You are, as the Onion piece states, just a pair of eyeballs. It's useful to remember that if something is "free", you're what's being sold. TV and internet news sites cost nothing to watch, and the companies that produce it have nothing to sell but your attention. This reality has far more of an influence on the news we see than anyone's political agenda. When Glenn Beck's ratings were high, Fox paid him handsomely. When they tanked, he was fired. It's just a business that operates no differently than a non-news TV network.

The internet is hailed as the most important advance in media/communication since television. In terms of news content, though, the advent of cable TV (and 24-hour news networks with the debut of CNN) was more consequential. Simply put, before CNN and cable there simply wasn't much news on TV. Each network ran a half hour of local and a half hour of national into the 1980s. More importantly, the three major networks (which were essentially all that was on TV for most Americans) ran news in the same time slot. Check out this network TV schedule from 1962. Look at how little news there is – 30 minutes total – and it's all at 7 PM. The news, in short, competed with other news.

Today the news has vastly more time to fill and it competes 24 hours per day not just with a handful of other news networks but also with 600 other channels of entertainment. It competes with football and sitcoms and shows about cute animals and reality shows and everything else on TV. Almost all of that stuff is more interesting to American viewers than news, so there is only one way for the news – being as ratings-driven as any other network on TV – to compete: it becomes entertainment.

That is why celebrities, sports, graphic crime stories, and new Apple products are headline news these days. They are simply trying to show you things that you will find interesting enough to watch. When I was a child, there was still a sense that journalists were public watchdogs with some sort of responsibility to The News and The Truth. Of course the media have never lived up to this lofty ideal, but the pretense was maintained. But the reality is that while the media perform a public service – admittedly we would be ignorant of most things happening outside of our lives without them – they decidedly are not public servants. They are part of a ratings- and profit-driven enterprise dedicated to prying you away from everything else on TV and holding your attention long enough to show you some commercials.

Cynical? Yes. Reality can be pretty harsh. The news you see on TV is a product like any other, focus-grouped and reworked to be pleasing to its intended audience. Journalists may understand their job to include a professional obligation to tell the truth and report important stories, but the environment in which they work is structured in a way that guarantees that most of the airtime is going to be devoted to sports, Hollywood, barely-disguised advertising, and the occasional twerk.