MEDIA ELITES AND JOURNALISTIC BIAS
"I read the news today. Oh boy." (Beatles, Sgt. Peppers album)
It should come as no surprise that most media elites and journalists share similar backgrounds and outlooks. In short, they share the following characteristics: coastal big-city backgrounds; upper-status professional class membership; and a secular, cosmopolitan, liberal outlook. Only celebrities in the entertainment industry hold more liberal beliefs (Lichter and Rothman 1981). Today's typical media worker is an upper-middle-class, white, male college graduate earning 50,000 a year or more, whose parents are college graduates, and they have little sympathy for small-town America, little interest in religious values, are distinctly against nuclear energy and big oil, and manifest a particular kind of narcissism that tends toward a flamboyant and prosaic interpretation of reality (Lichter 1990). Their regional and class prejudices may very well determine their handling of the news. As media scholars Patterson and Abeles (1975) long ago warned: "Decisions about what the public will know rest increasingly on the beliefs of a small elite which determines what they should know." It behooves any serious researcher to examine these outlooks because the question may not be if the media is biased, but how biased? Maybe dangerously biased (Gans 1985). By and large, media elites consist of three distinct groups:
prime-time producers -- the top 150 or so powerful and influential executives responsible for network programming, including their coterie of assistants, writers, directors, and managers
iconic journalists -- the top 250 or so well-known, easily-recognizable journalists, anchors, or newscasters that work for a major, influential news outlet nationally or regionally
filmmakers -- the top 100 or so major Hollywood film producers, directors, and writers associated with the most commercially successful side of the business
The small size of this elite allows them to be an eminently examinable group, as well as being easily identifiable since they are constantly giving each other awards every year. Despite their fame, they may be uncomfortable with being called an elite, preferring instead terms like "successful" or "leading." In any event, let's begin with an examination of their background. Although not too much should be made of this for fear of sounding anti-Semitic, many elites came from Jewish families, but they did not regularly attend religious services. They were secular Jews, and this demographic group rose to power from 1910 to 1945 by dominating the musical theatre industry. In fact, Whitfield (2000) says that during this period, American Broadway became virtually the monopoly of this one ethnic group. They came from out of the secular Jewish ghettos in New York, Newark, Chicago, and Washington DC, and their career paths out of the ghetto involved becoming singers, actors, musicians, composers, writers, playwrights, comedians, publishers, gossip columnists, and other entertainers. Let's name a few. Some notable characters are Jerome Kern, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, the Ziegfeld follies, and Rogers and Hammerstein. During the 1920s and 1930s when Hollywood became world-famous as the center of the film industry, notable figures included Samuel Goldwyn, theatre magnate Marcus Loew, MGM studio boss Louis Mayer, and the Warner Brothers. Contemporary media elites include Michael Eisner of Disney, 3D movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, sci-fi movie producer Steven Spieberg, and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. This is only a partial list of selected notables in a few areas of work. Besides the movie industry, there is significant dominance by this demographic group in radio and television, the newspaper business, the porn industry, and the talent agencies. They are very wealthy, and have good accountants. They are heavy contributors to the Democratic Party and special interest groups that either lobby or advocate for certain policy positions. Some commonly supported policy positions, according to Lichter and Rothman (1981), include the following:
support for abortion
support for affirmative action
support for rejecting the idea that homosexuality is wrong
support for rejecting the idea that adultery is wrong
support for redistribution of income from the haves to the have-nots
support for reforming or restructuring alienating American institutions
support for the idea that people with more talent and ability should be paid more
The above is an undeniably liberal, and progressive, set of priorities. Yet, most media elites are not socialists. They believe in free enterprise. They work within the existing structure of government rather than seek to revolutionize the government. The Media Lobby is one of the strongest lobby groups in American politics, and consists, in part, of the National Association of Broadcasters and the Newspapers Association of America. The media lobby has captured control of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Since the beginning of the FCC in 1934, almost every chairperson and/or commissioner has enjoyed a "revolving door" with the media conglomerates. As McChesney (2004) puts it: "People leave the FCC on Friday and are back lobbying the FCC on Monday." In addition, most media elites and conglomerates are represented by the powerhouse Washington DC law firm Wiley Rein LLP, perhaps the most powerful law firm in America. They never lose, but there are lots of up-and-coming law firms in the world of entertainment law where people are sued at the drop of a hat. Suffice it to say that media dominance is well-buttressed by the legal profession. With law, money, and politics on their side, who can blame them for pushing their agenda?
After World War II, the media elite (and journalism) changed. The dawn of television coincided with the increased influence of East Coast newspapers and magazines. The first decade or so of the television years was little more than a rehash of the same news available in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Sure, there were TV entertainment segments of curious interest, but the serious news business was undergoing change. No longer were journalists coming out of ghettos with their secular Jewish outlook. They were coming out of colleges and universities. By 1960, at least 80% of the Washington press corps had a college degree, some with graduate degrees, and they came from a diverse demographic background. This new crop of college-educated journalists cut their teeth in the business handling three (3) major events which turned them into liberals (if they were not one already), as follows:
the Civil Rights movement -- the media portrayed this in all its drama; e.g., the police brutality, the racism, etc., and even had a hand in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed
the Vietnam war -- the media was united in its opposition to it; e.g., they published the confidential Pentagon Papers and Walter Cronkite openly called for peace negotiations
Watergate -- the media made this the biggest story in decades; e.g., making the names Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein household names and forcing Nixon to resign
The media became big on college campuses. They had fought and won against southern segregationists, Vietnam hawks, and brought down two once-popular presidents. This inspired many bright and idealistic young people to the profession of journalism. The media became increasingly critical of American institutions, developed a peculiar interest in the private lives of politicians, and served as a lightening rod for political activists and social critics. However, the rise of public pride and patriotism during the 1980s caught them off guard. A 1985 poll showed, for the first time, that most of the public thought the media was "too liberal" and "biased." So, as the 1990s dawned, the media responded with "infotainment" by mixing fact and opinion, with "tabloid television" like America's Most Wanted, and with sensationalism and melodrama. They were determined to stay in business and ride out any conservative public sentiment even if they had to air cartoons all night and day. The resulting confusion between news and entertainment (our state of affairs today) was justified in journalism as "holding a mirror up to society." More significantly, it changed the definition of "news."
Traditionally, news has always been about analysis and trends. One still sees some of this, for example, after the President gives a speech, and the focus in on the current event with important long term trends indicated by what is called the "news peg" -- something novel that illustrates a more general trends. Nowadays, the news is backward-looking, analyzing what the president might have said last year and how the current event reveals contraditions. That is not news. News always has to be (and should be) current and forward-looking. Moreover, modern news reporting has too much drama. It relies on a formula of simple morality (good/bad, rich/poor) in order to hold audiences. Heavy news coverage is still given to the bad, but today more in the form of excessive coverage of war, crime, and disaster. This results in a picture or portrait of the world as a much more violent and conflict-ridden place than it actually is. Modern news reporting is also too personalized. The media zero in on the names of the offspring and relatives of celebrities and politicians far too often. In short, the media invade privacy too much nowadays. Questionable "experts" are given voice in today's media. Anchors and hosts have an annoying habit of acting like they are pseudo-intimates. Prejudices are thinly concealed. They love nothing better than catching some candid shot of someone, warts and all. Clearly, there is room for criticism of today's media, but after all, they're in the business to make a profit.
STRUCTURE OF THE MEDIA
The traditional seven (7) parts (also called "channels") of the media are: books, magazines, newspapers, movies, recordings, radio, and television. About fifty thousand books are published every year, and half of this amount are textbooks, and a significant part of the remainder are highly technical works. Only a small number of books are fiction or pure entertainment. Americans, in general, don't read many books. Polls usually show that the average American only reads one book a year. That misses out on 49,999 other books. However, with books, many people claim (lie) that they have read more than one book a year, particularly any on a Top Ten Bestseller list. So-called "opinion leaders" also claim to have read lots of books, and often "hawk" the sales of one in particular. This is what makes a bestseller -- the hawking thru the media of how fantastic some book is. Occasionally but not very often, a bestseller becomes paradigmatic -- changing the public policy agenda and/or starting a social movement. Here are some examples:
Michael Harrington's The Other America -- started the antipoverty program in the 1960s
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring -- started the environmental movement
Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism -- defined the "Me" generation of the 1970s
George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty -- became the "Bible" of the Reagan administration
Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind -- created fear about our declining intellectual standards
Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers -- raised doubts about America's role in the world
One of the common themes in all these books (consistent with the elite media's agenda) is that America is falling short in some respect and in urgent need of reform. People come to believe it must be true, and so do politicians. After all, the books touting these ideas are the best of the bestsellers. It is a two-step flow process where information is spread to the general public by way of elite and opinion leadership.
Magazines -- About ten thousand magazines are published every year, and the most widely-read ones are weeklies. Polls show the average American reads one to two magazines per week. Journalists read many more per week, and that's because journalists are a major audience for certain magazines, called "clearinghouses" which summarize information found in other magazines. Politicians also have their clearinghouses. Such influential magazines, which happen to be influential out of proportion to their circulation, are called "thought leaders." In fact, it is useless to assign any importance to circulation or subscription numbers when it comes to magazines. Yet, most Americans don't know that, and assume they are getting a good deal on a widely-read magazine when they subscribe to a common one.
Newspapers -- About 2000 newspapers are published daily. Polls show that slightly more than 60% of the population reads a newspaper, but there are some possibly significant differences by age, race, gender, and other variables. It is often assumed (usually correctly) that newspaper readership is declining. To offset this trend, newspapers try very hard to be visual, splashy, colorful, and appeal to "viewers" instead of readers. The standard bearer in this regard is USA Today, a popular newspaper which was deliberated designed to be modeled on television and short attention spans. Newspapers can be readily distinguished by their percentage use of graphics. USA Today, for example, is typical of what is called "soft news" or "human interest" and a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal (which restricts pictures to advertisements only) features what is called "hard news." Subscription or circulation figures for newspapers may or may not have much meaning. Most of them are owned by a small number of conglomerates.
Motion Pictures -- About 250 films are made in the U.S. every year and distributed throughout the nation's 12,000 local theaters. The financing of motion pictures is handled by a few conglomerates, and another small group handles distribution. It is generally assumed (correctly) that motion picture theater attendance is declining, and for this reason, the big money is made in post-release DVD production. Occasionally, motion pictures address a serious social issue or controversy, but generally, smart producers avoid any so-called "message movie" for fear of offending customers. Those who do release such movies tend to do so only sparingly, or leave such production to any of a number of growing independent producers. Yet, a number of ultra-liberal movies come out of Hollywood, and here's a few of the biggest award winners:
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) -- a movie so leftist it inspired McCarthyism and fear that all Hollywood was communist
12 Angry Men ((1957) -- about jury deliberation on a case involving racism; treats the criminal justice system like a farce
Coming Home (1978) -- the classic anti-war movie about an unfaithful wife of a Vietnam soldier
The China Syndrome (1979) -- the classic anti-nuclear movie, released 12 days before the Three Mile Island incident
Silkwood (1983) -- an anti-big business and pro-union movie about a female factory worker and whistleblower
On Deadly Ground (1994) - the classic environmental film about the dangers of pollution and greed of big oil companies
Bullworth (1998) -- a Democrat Senator starts smoking marijuana, singing rap music, and pushes for socialized medicine
American Beauty (1999) -- a movie about the joys of teenage sex and the boredom of having a job
The Contender (2000) -- a thriller about a Democrat President and sexual escapades that somehow makes it all seem right
Recordings -- About 700 million tapes and compact discs are made each year, ranging from educational to country music to folk music to rock music to rap music. Some of it is protest-oriented, but the most popular genre is pop, especially pop music of the love lyric variety. Mostly, the recording industry's contribution to public policy or a media agenda is the benefit concert CD or the movie soundtrack CD.
Radio -- About 10,000 radio stations are on the air (both FM and AM). Polls show that listeners tune in to about two or three hours per day, and this is about equally divided between home, office, and vehicle. A wide range of programming exists, but the most popular is Talk Radio, of the kind which allows people to call-in and interact with the host. Talk radio has been credited with having some influence over public policy.
Television -- This popular media (the most popular) is dominated by the Big Four networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. Polls show that the average household watches about seven hours a television per day. Viewers also usually report that it is their most believable source of information. A "network" consists of a commercial broadcasting service (like ABC, CBS, etc.) which either sends its signal to local TV affiliates (the "network feed") or to "headends" (facilities with large C-band antenna) for delivery via cable or satellite transmission to households. Cable/satellite companies handle all the unscrambling, re-modulation, and frequency (channel) assignment. Terrestrial (or "over-the-air") broadcasting dates back to the earliest years of television (1927) up until its relative demise in 2009, and is conducted via radio waves which can be picked up by any ordinary antenna. Some people distinguish such "broadcast" networks from "cable" networks, although most cable/satellite providers provide access to both.
THE BIAS OF THE NEWS MEDIA
It is difficult, if not impossible, to ever "prove" that the media is biased. This is because the issue is so politically partisan. Left wing groups claim the media is nothing more than the mouthpiece of corporate capitalism, reporting only enough news to assure the public that the media is a watchdog but not enough to displease their corporate masters. Right wing groups charge the media with serving up a steady diet of news stories carefully designed to serve the purposes of political liberalism. They also sometimes charge the media with being seditious, as in the classic example of a reporter asking a Pentagon official who is announcing an attack on some foreign enemy "What would be the one piece of information most dangerous for our enemy to know?" Clearly, it seems the media feels it has no patriotic obligations anymore. Perhaps the desire to reach the widest audience possible has changed the media's priorities. Or, perhaps the watchdog function of the press has been taken to new limits.
Journalists like to see themselves as social critics, crusaders for justice, and patrons of the disadvantaged. By necessity, this self-image requires a tendency to accentuate the negative aspects of American society. Also, the most controversial political events attract the attention of Hollywood. Such events are not only quickly transformed into documentaries but into full-length motion pictures as well. Sometimes even movies set in the distant past or even the distant future can be put together so that they are only thinly-veiled version of current events about some political controversy. There is a trend toward political advocacy in entertainment ("advotainment") that parallels the rise of adversarial journalism. It's all about taking on a cause and countering the establishment view of reality.
Sometimes the establishment view deserves to be countered, but at other times, it does not. The question of whether the media is biased or not comes down to how well the portrayal of society is factual or distorted. Where does Hollywood get its reflection of reality? The real world of crime is certainly not reflected accurately, race relations is not reflected accurately, and the list could go on and on. In efforts to portray a distorted picture of reality, producers usually rely on stereotypes. The best example of this is the character Archie Bunker in the 1971-1983 TV show All in the Family, produced by the classic Hollywood "limousine liberal" Norman Lear. Lear intended for the bigoted "Archie" character (played by Carroll O'Connor) to become the most hated man in America, but surprisingly, a wide audience admired him for saying what he believes. Lear had better luck with intended stereotypes in Sanford and Son and the Jeffersons, but his whole objective was to support liberal causes through his television sitcoms. By 1981, Norman Lear decided to go the more direct route and created the ultra-left wing progressive advocacy group called People for the American Way (PFAW). This group is very powerful and influential, especially in promoting Democrat party ideas. Spinoff groups and similar front groups for the media elite include:
Young People For -- identifies young people interested in becoming leaders of social justice, progressive movements
Resource Generation -- a group for rich, wealthy kids to get involved more in liberal, progressive causes
Democracy Alliance -- a strategic guidance group for progressive leaders
Funding Exchange -- a network of social justice-oriented organizations and grantseekers
Callahan (2010) informs us that the more direct approach of using front groups, advocacy groups, and lobby groups is the modern way for media elites to exert their power and influence. Shaping public opinion through entertainment, infotainment, and advotainment is risky business. Better to obtain the same end through sound-bite politics. After all, people tend to think highly of their elected political representatives. A popular politician can shift public opinion better than any anchor, reporter, commentator, or independent expert. This doesn't mean that the media elite will ever give up on using their media products to advance their agenda. It simply means they have stepped up their game and attempted to influence the political elite more directly. Dunn (2011) warns us that such efforts at political influence can have disastrous consequences. Too much power is dangerous.
24-HOUR NEWS CYCLES AND THE CNN EFFECT
All media strive to be current, providing "BREAKING NEWS ALERTS" whenever they can. We live in an age of the 24-hour news cycle, and such a high OPTEMPO has had an empowering effect on media elites and a deleterious effect on public opinion. In media studies, the concept that is most relevant here is the so-called CNN effect. It is worthwhile to examine that concept in detail. CNN was the first media outlet to move toward the 24-hour news cycle (Robinson 2005), and according to the Brookings Institution (2009), the CNN effect began when heartbreaking footage of starving children in Somalia pressured U.S. officials to send troops there, followed by horrifying footage of Somalis dragging the body of a dead American soldier through the streets. The latter event occurred on Oct. 3, 1993, but the CNN effect technically refers to the ability of the media to shape public opinion (thru horrifying images) and simultaneously impact foreign policy decisions.
Livingston (1997) has a good model of how the CNN effect works. It can either speed up or slow down a foreign policy (military) response, as well as initiate one in the first place. Thus, there are three (3) components, as follows:
Accelerant -- occurs when the media shortens decision-making response time; coverage will emphasize the many potential security and/or intelligence risks; and the media itself will claim it is being used as a force multiplier by the bad guys
Impediment -- occurs when the media restrains itself or sanitizes a story, usually on grounds that coverage would be too grizzly or on grounds that revealing too much to the public would jeopardize national security
Agenda setting agency -- occurs when emotional, compelling stories are repeatedly presented to the public, usually about some atrocity or humanitarian crisis
The media attempt to be powerful by
creating concern over a problem and ultimately constructing a social problem
deemed worthy of policymaker decision. In the case of an accelerant, they
try to speed up the process of decision-making. In the case of an
impediment, they try to make it more difficult for policy-makers to achieve
their goals by diligently investigating and
critically analyzing their claims and calling attention to other serious problems. In this way, the media elite think they dominate and control public policy.
Altheide, D. (1976). Creating Reality. Beverly Hills:
Braestrup, P. (1977). Big Story. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Brookings (2009). The CNN Effect: How 24-hour news coverage affects government decisions and public opinion. Washington DC: Brookings Institution.
Callahan, D. (2010). Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America. NY: Wiley.
Codevilla, A. (2010). The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can do About It. NY: Beaufort Books.
de Tocqueville, A. (1840/1948). Democracy in America. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Dunn, J.R. (2011). Death by Liberalism: The Fatal Outcome of Well-Meaning Liberal Policies. NY: Broadside Books.
Epstein, E. (1973). News from Nowhere. NY: Random.
Gans, H. (1985). "Are American Journalists Dangerously Liberal?" Columbia Journalism Review (Nov/Dec): 32-33.
Halberstam, D. (1980). The Powers that Be. NY: Dell.
Hofstetter, R. (1976). Bias in the News. Columbus: Ohio St. Univ. Press.
Lazere, D. (Ed. ) (1987). American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives. Berkeley: Univ. of CA Press.
Lichter, R. & S. Rothman (1981). "Media and Business Elites." Public Opinion, Oct/Nov: 42-46.
Lichter, R., S. Rothman & L. Lichter. (1990). The Media Elite: America's New Powerbrokers. NY: Hastings House.
Livingston, S. (1997). Clarifying the CNN Effect: Research Paper R-18. Cambridge, MA: Harvard JFK School of Government.
McChesney, R. (2004). The Problem of the Media. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers.
Paletz, D. & R. Entman. (1981). Media Power Politics. NY: Free Press.
Parenti, M. (1986). Inventing Reality. NY: St. Martin's.
Patterson, T. & R. Abeles. (June 1975). "Mass Communication and the 1976 Presidential Elections." Items 29:1.
Ranney, A. (1983). Channels of Power. NY: Basic.
Robinson, M. (2011). Media Coverage of Crime and Criminal Justice. Durham: Carolina Univ. Press.
Robinson, P. (2005). "The CNN effect revisited." Critical Studies in Media Communication 22(4): 344-349.
Rothman, S. (1979). "The Mass Media in Post-Industrial America." Pp. 345-88 in S. Lipset (ed.) The Third Century: America as a Post-Industrial Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Shapiro, B. (2011). Primetime Propaganda. Northampton, MA: Broadside Books.
Whitfield, S. (2000). "Musical Theatre." Brandeis Review, Winter/Spring, available online/subscription.
Wikipedia Entry on Broadcasting
Last updated: Oct. 09, 2011
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T. (2011). "Media Elites," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/4230/4230lect01.htm accessed on Oct. 09, 2011.