This week Al Gore said the obvious. “The media is kind of weird
these days on politics,” he told The New York Observer, “and there
are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking,
part and parcel of the Republican Party.”
The reaction from most journalists in the “liberal media” was
embarrassed silence. I don’t quite understand why, but there are
some things that you’re not supposed to say, precisely because
they’re so clearly true.
The political agenda of Fox News, to take the most important
example, is hardly obscure. Roger Ailes, the network’s chairman, has
been advising the Bush administration. Fox’s Brit Hume even claimed
credit for the midterm election. “It was because of our coverage
that it happened,” he told Don Imus. “People watch us and take their
electoral cues from us. No one should doubt the influence of Fox
News in these matters.” (This remark may have been tongue in cheek,
but imagine the reaction if the Democrats had won and Dan Rather,
even jokingly, had later claimed credit.)
But my purpose in today’s column is not to bash Fox. I want to
address a broader question: Will the economic interests of the media
undermine objective news coverage?
For most of the last 50 years, public policy took it for granted
that media bias was a potential problem. There were, after all, only
three national networks, a limited number of radio licenses and only
one or two newspapers in many cities. How could those who controlled
major news outlets be deterred from misusing their position?
The answer was a combination of regulation and informal
guidelines. The “fairness doctrine” forced broadcast media to give
comparable representation to opposing points of view. Restrictions
on ownership maintained a diversity of voices. And there was a
general expectation that major news outlets would stay above the
fray, distinguishing clearly between opinion and news reporting. The
system didn’t always work, but it did set some limits.
Over the past 15 years, however, much of that system has been
dismantled. The fairness doctrine was abolished in 1987.
Restrictions on ownership have been steadily loosened, and it seems
likely that next year the Federal Communications Commission will
abolish many of the restrictions that remain — quite possibly even
allowing major networks to buy each other. And the informal rule
against blatantly partisan reporting has also gone away — at least
as long as you are partisan in the right direction.
The F.C.C. says that the old rules are no longer necessary
because the marketplace has changed. According to the official line,
new media — first cable television, then the Internet — have given
the public access to a diversity of news sources, eliminating the
need for public guidelines.
But is this really true? Cable television has greatly expanded
the range of available entertainment, but has had far less
broadening effect on news coverage. There are now five major sources
of TV news, rather than three, but this increase is arguably more
than offset by other trends. For one thing, the influence of print
news has continued its long decline; for another, all five sources
of TV news are now divisions of large conglomerates — you get your
news from AOLTimeWarnerGeneralElectricDisneyWestinghouseNewsCorp.
And the Internet is a fine thing for policy wonks and news
junkies — anyone can now read Canadian and British newspapers, or
download policy analyses from think tanks. But most people have
neither the time nor the inclination. Realistically, the Net does
little to reduce the influence of the big five sources.
In short, we have a situation rife with conflicts of interest.
The handful of organizations that supply most people with their news
have major commercial interests that inevitably tempt them to slant
their coverage, and more generally to be deferential to the ruling
party. There have already been some peculiar examples of news not
reported. For example, last month’s 100,000-strong Washington
antiwar demonstration — an important event, whatever your views on
the issue — was almost ignored by some key media outlets.
For the time being, blatant media bias is still limited by old
rules and old norms of behavior. But soon the rules will be
abolished, and the norms are eroding before our eyes.
Do the conflicts of interest of our highly concentrated media
constitute a threat to democracy? I’ve reported; you decide.
Copyright The New York Times Company