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.

27 thoughts on “PUBLIC SERVANTS”

  • ConcernedCitizen says:

    My mother, who majored in journalism, is the chief editor of a magazine that covers the pet food industry. I'm seriously proud of her, and glad she doesn't work for CNN.

  • If I'm not mistaken the Beck boycott had a little something to do with him getting the ax. In effect it made his program impervious to ratings with advertisers refusing to support him regardless.

  • As a DC native I can't wait for the WaPo to die off. It'll probably be another decade, but good riddance forever.

    "But oh, where will you get your news without us?"

    The Guardian, BBC World, and freakin' Al Jazeera are light-years ahead of said paper when it comes to daily political coverage of US politics not to mention, well, sports, world news, entertainment, and, um, every-fucking-thing else.

  • middle seaman says:

    Living in DC as well and haven't read the right wing rag called WaPo for years. However, BBC, Guardian and the Kuwaity channel aren't any better. They just distort differently.

    Rating is similar to sex; no point in raising the issue, it's obvious. The problem, I see, with the media is shallowness, lack of skills, long verbose articles and class bias. At least major media organs output products by individuals who belong to a better class of people. That's what they believe. That results in tons of garbage.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Yes, to what Ed and the commenters before me, wrote.

    Now, my take.
    But before that, let me tell you about my pet peeve:
    FSM only knows why, but in NY City, where the majority of people are nowhere near wealthy, the NY Times continues to run its almost daily 'Oh woe is us – we're no longer living our lives of champagne wishes and caviar dreams, on $400,000 a year' articles.

    Oh, you poor, poor dears.
    You mean that you're no longer able to eat out 3 or 4 times a week at the top restaurants, have a luxury condo AND a beach house, buy a new luxury car or two every other year, have a maid, be a member of a private golf club, AND send Chad and Tiffany to a private school?
    Why, whatever will you do?
    Yes, you poor, poor dears – your $400,000 a year income, is now the new minimum wage!


    Try living on the salary a teacher, cop, firefighter, or sanitation worker, earns.
    Try living on the salaries (plural) of fast-food or retail workers! No one can live in NYC on what they earn from one fast-food or retail job – even if they work full-time. At least, not unless they live with their relatives, or have more roommates than "Friends" (that totally BS show).
    Ok, I got THAT off my chest!

    I no longer watch TV news – unless something major's happened, or happening.
    I've stopped buying newspapers – back in the day, I used to buy and read 4 dailies – the NY Times, Post, Daily News, and Newsday. And the WaPo on Sundays.

    Now, I get my news from the internet. Mostly left-leaning blogs.
    Does this make me any different than your average FUX Noise viewer, who tunes to that network to reinforce their world views?
    But I'm smart enough to be aware that I'm not getting 100% unadulterated information.

    I just prefer that the information I get has some compassion and empathy for other people, and isn't of the 'kick-down/kiss-up' variety like the viewers/listeners/readers of FUX Noise, Rush, the NY Post, and WaPo and WSJ Op-ed pages, swallow every day, like it was the most delicious treat on the planet, and beg for more.

    And despite the fact that I'm not the brightest bulb on the old Broadway, I'm smart enough to check stories, and not swallow every single thing I read on my favorite sites on the internet.

    I verify information – unlike most of today's "journalists."

    Too often, instead of our news having "All the news that's fit to print," we get, "All the news that's print to fit."

    And if I ever had any doubts about that, it became crystal-clear to me that the news on all mediums is biased, in the run-up to the idiotic Iraq war and occupation.
    Total BS!
    TOTAL BS!!!
    BS that cost thousands of fellow American's their lives or limbs or minds, trillions of dollars, and FSM knows how many Afghan's and Iraqi's, dead, wounded, or displaced.

    All because Americans, or at least the majority of the SCOTUS, would rather have a beer with the sociopathic puppet of a sociopathic maniac.

    A puppet with daddy issues, determined to prove that his pecker was longer and harder than his daddies.

    Sorry, W, you punk, but your daddy served in WWII, while you ran away from a National Guard unit, based in the good old USA, during the Vietnam War.

    A punk who could thank other punks in the MSM, and those "punked," for the war he and his puppeteer desperately wanted.

    Ok, end of long-assed word-turd.

  • In 20/20 hindsight I think 24 hour cable news was a bad idea. There just isn't 24 hours worth of news most days so they have to fill the space with opinion shows or endless detail about the Natalie Holloway case.

  • Confused by all the fires and tornadoes and sinkholes we've seen lately? Don't understand why there's so much gun violence? Puzzled why so many people around the world seem to hate the U.S., the greatest country in the world and defender of freedom? Chase those blues away—what you need is a NEW CAR! You deserve a break today. Surely a trip to the Olive Garden tonight will make you feel better. Afterwards, watch our happy sitcoms!

    Reminds me all the trouble I had a few years ago trying to find a BBC documentary I'd heard about, almost as if people wanted to prevent me from seeing it. The birth and flourishing of Edward Bernays' "public relations," focus groups, etc.: psychological manipulation in the hands of government and commerce. If you haven't seen it you might find it historically fascinating. Ed should be showing it to his classes on those days when he has laryngitis.

  • @Major Kong: What about background articles on news stories, you know, the underpinnings of events? Many Cable TV hours could be devoted to basic information, how congress is supposed to work and why it's not, what proof there is of evolution, xenophobia as a psychological reality, etc. Too much like public education? I know, I know. Doesn't sell cars.

  • In Australia, we have our ABC – totally taxpayer funded and ad free. Whilst it's not perfect, I'm happy to pay my 8c a day to keep it going. The current affairs shows (4 Corners, Foreign Correspondent, 7:30 Report, Q&A) are great and have been providing us with high quality journalism for 20+ years. There's even a weekly science show.

    Whenever the conservatives are in government, there's always talk of cutting funding or trying to sell it off, which really shows its value.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    I don't understand why there isn't more nonprofit journalism in the U.S. It's clearly (as Ed says) a public service. For-profit journalism has demonstrated that it can barely survive, so clearly, if we want somebody to provide the public good that is journalism, it needs to be subsidized. That's pretty typical of public goods/goods with positive externalities.

    We have PBS, but why not a nonprofit newspaper?

    Or does this already exist, and I just don't know about it?

  • Weird side note:

    Although we didn't know each other very well, I went to journalism school with Meredith Artley, the "author" of the piece that Ed linked.

    It's a profoundly odd experience to see the face of someone you know staring back at you from the front page of the Onion.

  • @grumpy: What, are you naive? More viewers for nonprofit journalism, the reasoning goes, means fewer viewers for commercial TV. And we all know PBS is leftist, if not an outright commie plot. Stamp it out! Kill it!

    As to nonprofit journalism, there have been a few tries, usually short-lived. I remember I.F. Stone's weekly (I subscribed), but those efforts usually have to pass the hat with mind-numbing regularity or expire when their One Donor gives out. The Internets is the best thing to happen to nonprofit high-mindedness but, as with GinandTacos, you have to know where to look. Found Ed by accident, recommended by another smart website.

    Speaking of free, here's a free link to view the film I mentioned. The last part is as much fun as Pop Art 'cause it reviews the manufactured public passion for tail fins and hulo hoops, all the way up to the marketing of Bill Clinton, if memory serves. Them old commercials is fun.

  • Xecky Gilchrist says:

    Simply put, before CNN and cable there simply wasn't much news on TV.

    And now, there's much less. (See Major Kong et al. above.)

  • Ditto everything above. And let's look upstream, away from the broadcaster, news consumer thing, to the impact on "news makers." You are Miley Cyrus (or part of her management team): what do you need to do to get the attention you want, need, crave. Sorry, a ballad or love song won't ever get any attention: not news. What do you have to do?
    You know what – Never mind: had a whole train of thought about soundscan and Garth Brooks, movie releases, arbitron, DJIA, etc., but screw all that. This is freakin' depressing.
    The commerce of News reporting surely has an impact on consumers and the news organizations. But it also has an impact on the behavior of people trying to get into the news and creates some pretty strange creatures. What a mess.
    Pays to be careful with our eyeballs.

  • Almost Every Human Being Ever: "Does it affect me directly and immediately? No? Then I don't care."

    *You* try selling the importance of economic policy to such an audience.

  • grumpygradstudent says: "I don't understand why there isn't more nonprofit journalism in the U.S. "

    That's easy to say, but who's going to pay for it?

  • "Of course the media have never lived up to this lofty ideal, but the pretense was maintained."

    To be fair, it's not just that the pretense was maintained, but it bore out the old saw about how if you shoot for the stars you won't get there but you'll get higher than you would if you shoot for – I dunno, the roof? I don't remember how that ended.

    grumpy: is the only one I know of right now. I don't know how well they're doing.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    It would be funded like other nonprofits are funded…through grants, donations, and fees for service (subscriptions, ads, etc). Basically the same model as current journalism, but with the benefit of being able to solicit tax deductible donations and grants.

  • Bitch magazine (and Bitch Media in its entirety) is non-profit. It has donors as well as subscribers.

    The online media business model has trickled down beautifully even to niche and activist websites. Jezebel, xoJane, and the big American feminist sites are currently in the middle of a row about representation and access to bully pulpits that has partly been precipitated by said editors giving a platform to a truly reprehensible controversialist called Hugo Schwyzer. The word 'clickbait' is being thrown around a lot, amid a messy discussion about how values are being subverted by the need to turn a buck.

    (For those who haven't been following this godawful story, a clutch of very prominent white feminists stands accused of ignoring some choice bits of Mr Schwyzer's history (including the fact that he tried to murder a previous partner, and that he had sex with a whole passel of the female students in his – I shit you not – Women's Studies class) in their rush to publish his thoughts on how facials (the non-Elizabeth Arden kind) are feminist.)

    More interesting, if less lurid, has been a project of Valenti Martin Media (owned by two Feministing editors) to take charge of the strategy(!) of online feminism. Their hubristic, and resolutely non-internationalist, strategy paper #femfuture, was about funding quality online writing. Everything about it was poorly executed, but mitigating the race to the bottom is definitely worth some discussion.

  • I could not agree more with this post, and I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who found that Onion piece absolutely brilliant. My own reaction was slightly less considered and nuanced, but expressed the same general reaction. I shared it on Facebook with the comment:

    LOL. This is awesome. Never incur the wrath of the fake-journalism set, by being conspicuously worse with your actual journalism.

    Because that really was the Onion team's subtext with this piece, as I read it. "You guys are so pathetic, that even we have more journalistic integrity than you AND WE WRITE FAKE NEWS!" And you know what? Regardless of whether or not that really was the intended subtext, it's completely true!

    The Onion has always managed to impress with its satire, and the Commentary pieces "from" real-world figures are some of their driest and most inspired work. They're not necessarily negative, either. The surreal absurdity of Warren Buffet's impulse-shopping confessions is just as entertaining as, say, the pitch-perfect brillance of Wayne LaPierre's Commentary, "I Won" after the background-checks legislation was defeated. That piece, like yesterday's, served to cast its "source" in exactly the right light so that all the worst aspects of their position are made plain.

    Satire often has that power, somewhat paradoxically: through humor, you can get away with telling truths that others can't or won't. It's something the Daily Show and Colbert Report, (among others) absolutely depend on, and The Onion's been at it even longer than they have. When they hit the mark (which they do a surprising amount of the time) the stuff they write can be truly brilliant, and the "fake news" often provides some of the most honest journalism we have left.

  • Amazing how well Chayevsky covered this in Network – before CNN was a notion in Ted Turner's fertile brain.

  • Hey, if they didn't run articles like that I wouldn't know who Mylie Cyrus is or was or whatever. I still don't know what VMA stands for. Is it the Virtual Music Awards? They should spell it out properly at least somewhere. How else can someone keep up with popular culture.

  • Thanks for every other fantastic article. The place else could anybody get that kind of info in such an ideal way of writing? I've a presentation subsequent week, and I'm on the search for such info.

Comments are closed.