In an episode of the PBS series Flashpoints, hosts Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill and their guests analyzed and criticized the state of news media in the United States. The assessment was bleak: Media corporations act in their own interests, push political agendas, disregard hard news in favor of tabloid-like stories; and after 9/11, they refused to challenge whatever Bush was selling.
The main debate in the program was about corporations’ effect on the media, and whether these media conglomerates hold the public’s interest in mind and remain unbiased, or if they distort stories and ideas to reflect the position of big business. Given the information and analysis from the broadcast, it seems the media certainly reflect the position of big business.
Flashpoints showed that only a handful of large corporations control the media in the United States, including NBC Universal, Time Warner, Viacom, Disney, and News Corporation. All of these corporations protect their interests while running their media outlets.
The program showed examples of media outlets from each of these corporations downplaying the seriousness and impact of scandals in other large corporations such as Enron and Worldcom. The media corporations may have found it in their interests to trivialize such scandals in order to protect the pervasive idea that giant corporations are a good thing for this country.
News with an agenda
There may also be an obvious “hidden” political agenda in the media available to us. Flashpoints dealt with some of these political concerns that have arisen from corporate control of the media. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly of FOX News, he claimed to be a political independent, but analysts in Flashpoints determined that The O’Reilly Factor and FOX News consistently push a pro-conservative, pro-Republican point of view that they attempt to label as “Fair and Balanced,” a trademark of the channel.
Other news channels were also found to be biased toward the Bush administration. Tom Brokaw of NBC News said in the program that MSNBC may have been “cheerleading” for the Iraq war, and the channel filled in its NBC logo with an image of an American flag, which represented a biased point of view. Brokaw justified these actions by saying “that’s the cable world,” and he insisted broadcast news retained more credibility. He said it is essential for news networks to maintain a position of neutrality, and that the over-use of flag images and flag lapel pins was inappropriate. This sentiment was even echoed by conservative guest Tony Blankley, who said that news channels may have been “trying too hard to prove their patriotism” between 2001 and 2003.
Radio stations in 2003 may have also been excessively patriotic, as demonstrated when the music group Dixie Chicks spoke out against the president and subsequently were removed from airplay on many country radio stations. In a debate segment on the program, Lewis Dickey of Cumulus said the company “responded to the concerns” by removing Dixie Chicks’ music, but guest Jenny Toomey argued the move was “absolutely censorship” because the First Amendment allows for unpopular speech. Since then, Dixie Chicks have regained popularity, but political issues like this remain present in the media.
Channels such as FOX News still promote pro-conservative programming as “Fair and Balanced,” and I think there is still a certain fear within the news media of speaking out too harshly against the Bush administration. The media corporations’ past and present actions outlined here suggest there is a political agenda driving some of their decisions.
Tabloids on TV
Concerns about corporate control of media also extend beyond the political realm. Popular opinion suggests the media trivialize “real” news in order to focus on human interest stories. In a nationwide Flashpoints poll, 82 percent of respondents said the media tend to overdo tabloid stories.
TV critic Ed Bark said on the program that competition does not lead to better news, but instead leads to the lowest common denominator of news. The networks will “take one story and flog it to death,” he said, especially stories that fall into human interest or tabloid categories, such as the Laci Peterson mystery or the Kobe Bryant scandal.
In my experience watching news on TV, specifically on the cable news channels, I have seen tabloid stories discussed for hours on end while world news goes ignored. Because of this, the cable news channels might receive higher ratings, but it undermines their credibility.
Who can you trust?
When combined, all of these concerns have an impact on the public’s trust of the news media. In another poll conducted by Flashpoints, only 34 percent of respondents said they trusted the news, while 46 percent had some doubts, and 19 percent did not trust the news at all.
Numbers like this are a bleak assessment of the corporate-controlled media, but trends suggest the control will not be shifting any time soon. Panelists on the Flashpoints program said that Americans “deserve the television they get” by watching and supporting “news” programs that do not show real news or distort their news with pro-corporate, pro-conservative agendas.
The media do reflect the position of big business, but as viewers, we can choose to support news outlets that attempt to be more neutral, such as network news and PBS instead of cable news, and international news websites instead of corporate-controlled and U.S.-centric websites. The powers of media might not be shifting, and the bias may remain for some time to come, but we can still make individual decisions to learn about world events in a better way.