Freedom and the News
The premise of democracy—that the people will participate in government—is followed by the assumption that the people will have access to news so that they can stay informed about what is happening in government and in society around them. Yet the only place the Framers of our Constitution mentioned this matter was in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”
Having just emerged from the oppressive rule of King George III of Great Britain, this is a right they were acutely aware of. It was the decimation of pamphlets such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) that spurred the people to revolt against this tyranny and led them to claim their freedom. Newspapers were in their infancy around the time the Constitution was written, and clearly the Framers assumed that the press—newspapers—would provide the news the people needed.
Thomas Jefferson made this clear in 1787 when he said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” A free press was necessary because only a press that is free from government control could stand up to government power and spur the people into action—enabling them to hold the government accountable and thereby preserve their freedom.
It is inconceivable that people could govern themselves effectively if they do not have access to accurate and reliable information about what is happening in their government and society. Thus, a press that is free and that provides the people with the information they need is one of the most critical dependencies in a democracy—perhaps the most critical dependency. Today, we rely almost entirely on the commercial news media to provide us with this information—they are our critical dependency. How well is the commercial news media in America today performing this role?
Requirements of the News Media
In order to answer this question we must first ask, what specifically do the people need from the news media in order to adequately hold government accountable? This has been spelled out in various ways by scholars through the years. Here is one take on it.
The news media are the eyes and ears of the public. We depend on the news media to inform us about politics and government so that we know what is happening and can make informed judgments about it.
The news must consist of “hard news”—journalists bearing witness to breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions. Actions by the government must be reported on, including everything from bills being considered in Congress and the state legislature to coverage of the mayor’s press conference and actions taken by the school board. It should also include coverage of things that affect citizen’s lives, such as protests, major construction projects, immigration issues, important actions by businesses, etc. And it should include coverage of news from abroad, such as international conflicts—wars, economic crises and environmental problems.
The news media must also keep watch on non-governmental sources of power, such as businesses and the news media themselves. If people are getting sick from pollution emitted by a nearby factory, it is the job of the news media to investigate and report on it. And if one news source is promulgating lies and propaganda, other news sources should alert the public and report the truth.
In all cases, rather than taking what they find at face value, journalists should ask, “Why?” They must find the reasons behind the story. This means scrutinizing what they have learned, verifying it—ferreting out truth from lies, asking tough and probing questions, and keeping a skeptical eye trained on the government and other sources of power. This should include investigative reporting—boring deeply into subjects to uncover corruption and anti-democratic pressures and tendencies. By doing these things, journalists act as a watchdog on the public’s behalf. They protect the public by exposing any wrongdoing and thereby enable the public to hold government and other sources of power accountable.
In performing this work, journalists must be objective and unbiased, and not influenced by those who stand to gain from having the news presented in a favorable light—or not covered at all. This is made clear in the code of ethics of The Society of Professional Journalists, which begins with the definition of the journalistic mission as, “Seek truth and report it.”
The news media also gives voice to groups within the public, enabling them to be heard. These groups can present their concerns and solutions to problems via the media, thereby creating a forum where the public can debate issues. It is important that the public be presented with a wide range of positions on key issues, and it is for this reason that we need a diverse media that can realistically represent different voices. When particular concerns arise or when solutions presented win public support, the news media should mobilize public pressure for a response from government, much like Thomas Paine did with Common Sense. In this way, the news media serve as a two-way channel of communication between government and the people.
By providing each of these services, the news media engage citizens and draw them into civic life. The news media are, in a very important sense, a political institution—a fourth branch of government that checks and balances the other three and enables citizens to engage with their government.
Reality and the News
Clearly the news media occupy a privileged place in our system of government. This becomes even more apparent when we consider that the vast majority of the public have no first-hand knowledge of politics. Nearly everything we know about our government comes from the news media, meaning the news media almost entirely create our political reality. We tend to think of things we see on the news as a reflection of reality, and our understanding of issues is determined by how they are explained to us by the news media.
Those things that the news media devote a lot of coverage to, we come to consider important. And if for one reason or another the news media decides not to cover an issue or the actions of a politician, it’s as if it doesn’t even exist for us—it never happened. We tend to frequent the same news sources, get to know certain news personalities, and come to identify with them and trust them—they become an authority to us. We are likely to believe what they say even more than what politicians say.
This is an immense power—a power that cannot be overstated. With no first-hand knowledge, we are dependent on the news media and are therefore in a position of powerlessness. They are in a position to control our political reality, and we are subject to their influence.
Politicians are in a similar situation, in that they are forced to rely almost entirely on the news media to communicate with their constituents. The news media are free to cover whatever they choose, and they often see it as their responsibility to summarize, edit, and interpret what politicians say. Nearly everything politicians say and do is filtered through the news media this way. Thus, the news media acts as a lens, giving us a particular view of politicians and of our government.
As James Baker, White House Chief of Staff under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush explained, “there is no political reality apart from news reality.” This means that the ability or inability of politicians to make the news and get their message across determines their stature as perceived by the public and others in government, as well as their ability to govern. Politicians live or die depending on the news coverage they receive.
The news then becomes a screen upon which politicians attempt to project a particular image, and that image becomes more important than reality itself. News becomes a tool with which politicians attempt to shape public opinion, and controlling the images the public receives is central to their political success. Politicians therefore devote much of their time and effort to image control. According to one estimate, between 20 and 50 percent of White House staff members are in some way involved in media relations.
For politicians, the news also serves as a mirror that reflects back the public’s reaction and opinion of their actions. Politicians tend to see the news as a reflection of reality, which in an important sense it is. This has the effect of forcing politicians to focus on the press rather than on the people, and on images rather than on policies that are in the public interest. This phenomenon is described in detail by political scientist Lance Bennett in his book News: The Politics of Illusion.
A Brief History of the Press
To understand the news media, it is useful to review some history. Newspapers have long been considered the most important source of news since they provide the most hard news. Radio and television by their nature don’t lend themselves well to presenting hard news, which requires detailed descriptions and analysis. The number of newspapers in America peaked in 1910 at about 2,200, and most towns of any size had two or more. They tended to be owned by local families who had an interest in the long-term viability of the business, and their owners knew that in order to maintain their audience they must produce good quality news. Revenue was plentiful, coming from retail advertising, classified ads and reader subscriptions, making it possible to fund quality news gathering organizations and still turn a healthy profit.
Over the next few decades, radio and then television stations appeared and proliferated, giving advertisers more choices. This had the effect reducing the number of newspapers in most markets to one, as advertisers gravitated to the paper with the highest circulation. It also fragmented the public’s source of news into many sources.
With the advent of radio and television, Congress, recognizing the need of an informed citizenry, passed a series of laws beginning in the 1920s. These included the creation of the FCC to regulate the industry. Broadcasters were licensed and considered public-trustees, and they were expected to serve a public function rather than a purely private function. This was justified on the basis that broadcast media companies were licensing a publicly owned, scarce natural resource—the electromagnetic spectrum, with a finite bandwidth—for commercial gain. Therefore, some of their programming should be devoted to public service.
Regulations were put in place stipulating that stations must provide “a well-rounded program” and were not to be used as “propaganda stations.” Later, regulations restricted the consolidation of ownership (including newspapers) in an effort to ensure that a diversity of views would be widely available and to prevent the consolidation of power into a few hands. In addition, regulations were enacted to require the provision of news and information, a general balance of programming, equitable treatment of political candidates, and some degree of local control and local program orientation.
As new technologies emerged, including cable television, satellite, and the Internet, the existing regulations became outdated and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed in an attempt to modernize these regulations. But rather than taking a public interest approach, the new regulations were designed only to encourage “a competitive telecommunications marketplace.” Restrictions on ownership consolidation were dramatically loosened or eliminated altogether. The result was a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions culminating in a few huge media conglomerates owned primarily by investors (who tend to be focused on short-term gains). Meanwhile, the government had all but abandoned the enforcement of public interest regulations such as requiring the presentation of issues in a balanced or well-rounded fashion. Some media outlets abandoned news coverage altogether.
These new technologies gave rise to an explosion of new news media outlets. Many people migrated from local newspapers and broadcast television to a profusion of Internet news websites and cable news channels. The news marketplace became cluttered with a torrent of rapidly circulating messages. This further fragmented the news and diffused people’s attention across many sources, making it more difficult for people to get a consistent and coherent understanding of what was happening in politics.
With advertisers having ever more choices, nearly all news sources experienced declining revenue, but newspapers more than other mediums experienced a broad erosion of their market. Younger consumers showed a strong preference for online news. Advertising on newspapers’ websites proved to generate a small fraction of previous revenue. And with the rise of Craigslist, classified ads all but vanished. Corporate pressures to produce a profit increasingly sharpened the focus on delivering the largest possible audience for the lowest possible cost—programming must have wide appeal across the population. Expensive journalists were seen as expendable as news rooms were slashed. A long trend of watering down the news—substituting hard news for much cheaper infotainment, opinion and gossip—accelerated, causing many subscribers to lose interest. Newspapers across the country withered, with many going out of business and many more on the brink.
Today, although the number of news outlets has increased dramatically, most people have gravitated to a few name brands owned by a few large corporations—shrinking the number of sources seen as authoritative. They are the mainstream media. The hard news that is available is coming from a rapidly decreasing number of original sources (newspapers primarily), and is simply repackaged by the rest. Inexpensive talk radio and television airing opinion has become common. The blogosphere, a world where anyone can create “news,” is full of opinion that is often uninformed and biased—sometimes even outright lies. The crisis of journalism and the loss of hard news has become clear. The entire commercial news-media system—an important part of our political system—is disintegrating.
The Unaccountable News
A common assumption about the news business is that, in a free market, competition will lead news companies to produce a better news product in order to attract a larger customer audience. But in our news media system, the vast majority of revenue companies receive comes from advertising, and the audience pays little or nothing for what they consume. The consumer audience therefore is not the customer—they are the product. The content provided is an enticement. News media companies sell an audience to advertisers, or more specifically, they sell the opportunity to influence that audience. According to Advertising Age, in 2010, $131 billion was spent on advertising in the U.S. There is a huge market for influence, and rather than thinking about what the audience wants and needs, the orientation of news media companies must be toward advertisers. The questions news media companies must ask themselves are “what can we do to help advertisers deliver more influence” and “how can we keep our costs down so that our profit margin will be as high as possible?”
While news media companies and journalists generally have the best of intentions and may strive to produce quality news in the public interest, the companies that answer these questions the best will prosper, while those who fail to answer them adequately will disappear. “News,” therefore, is not what citizens “demand,” but what advertisers will pay for—produced in a way that will generate the largest possible profit for investors. It follows that news media companies are not accountable to citizens, but rather to advertisers and company shareholders. Needless to say, the owners and managers of news media companies are not elected by the public either.
It is also important to note that those things that the public needs from the news media in order to maintain a healthy democracy have no market value that can be realized in a cash transaction. Thus, news media companies, even if they try to produce the news that is needed for a healthy democracy, can receive none of the feedback that markets provide telling them whether what they are doing is right or wrong. It is unrealistic to expect a business to produce something that there is no economic market for.
What are the consequences of this?
The Government Mouthpiece
Hard news, and especially investigative reporting, is expensive to produce, while simply reporting what politicians say and do is comparatively cheap and easy. And since news media companies depend on politicians for this news, it is in their interest to not be too adversarial, or else access might become difficult, or even denied. In addition, members of the press tend to be assigned to particular beats, and they work with and get to know their counterparts from other news companies. This creates a clubby environment that encourages conformity, and, as in all human groups, those who are disruptive or challenge the status quo may find themselves excluded. Therefore, it is much easier for each member of the press to go with the flow.
The result, as described by political scientists Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence, and Steven Livingston in their book When the Press Fails, is that “the reigning press standard favors news that consists of simple dramatic narratives told from the standpoint of those in power. When the powerful are challenged by other players deemed able to influence government decisions or election outcomes, the news includes the alternative perspective of the challengers.” The news media then becomes more like a government mouth piece, or even the propaganda arm of the government, than the government watchdog. When the Press Fails gives an excellent account of how this phenomena played out during the Iraq war.
Deference to Non-Governmental Sources of Power
Non-governmental sources of power in our society are most typically businesses, and businesses of course buy the largest share of advertising from news media companies. Therefore, it only makes sense for news media companies to treat customers and potential customers with deference. For a news media company to launch an investigation of a customer or potential customer could be suicidal. Economically, it makes much more sense for them to search for ways to use the news itself as a means of serving their customers by giving them favorable coverage.
The entertainment media have been very successful at serving their advertising customers by incorporating their products into movies and television shows—even creating movies and shows that are centered on the products themselves. It is only natural that news media companies would employ the same strategy. Magazines that cover consumer products have been enormously successful, and borrowing from that format can provide cheap filler for news companies needing to fill a bottomless daily news hole. In this way, news media companies can become much like industry representatives. It may be more accurate to view the news media, along with the entertainment media, as an extension of the national advertising and marketing industries rather than as an independent industry itself. And there is little hope in expecting an industry to be the watchdog of itself.
Many businesses have found that a problem with advertising is that it lacks credibility. Publicity (favorable news coverage), on the other hand, is more subtle and can be highly effective. This has given rise to what has become an enormous public relations industry, as businesses, advocacy organizations, and governments have hired armies of PR people. In 2010 there were four PR people in the U.S. for every working journalist.
The point of PR is to package the message so that it is not recognized as PR—the public is supposed to think it is genuine news. The goal of many PR campaigns is to place stories that advance the image and often the political agenda of the organization in the news. Every day, news media companies are flooded with PR releases, and those that are published are typically only lightly investigated or edited, if at all. News media companies love PR because it lowers the cost of production. It has been estimated that between 35 and 75 percent of what we see as “news” is based on PR—even in our most highly regarded news sources. It is hard to consider PR as anything other than propaganda.