Cultural and commercial influences on the free press

Just how free is the US’s "free press?" Does the absence of direct government control, by itself, create a "free press?" In a paper I recently presented at a conference organized by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, I sought to make a contribution to this discussion by examining the influences that impact US media.

While there is no direct political influence or control of US media, such as may exist in societies with state-run media, there is, nevertheless, influence that "controls" coverage that can be subtle, but is at all times, pervasive and decisive.

Most US-based news organizations like to claim objectivity as their trademark, from Fox News’ claims to be "fair and balanced" to the New York Times boasting that it covers "All the news that’s fit to print." While critics from both the right and the left argue that these networks and newspapers report the news with either a liberal or conservative slant, in fact, the forces that shape bias in media coverage run deeper and are more complex. Cultural, commercial and political influences have a profound impact on editorial decisions made by media outlets, as well as on the content of the information they dispense.

Major reporters, their editors, TV news presenters and commentators, and the government officials and other newsmakers they cover, form a very small circle in Washington DC and New York.

In addition to sharing the cultural values and understandings common to all Americans, the members of this small group of elites share the same social class, are neighbors, socialize together and even live in worlds connected by a revolving door. While much has been made of the revolving door that exists between government and business, the revolving door that connects media and government should not be overlooked. And much the same is true of the commentators or analysts hired by the networks to interpret the news.

This group, as a whole, therefore, largely shares a similar worldview, the same sense of history, or lack of history, and the same shared narrative of policy and self-imposed limits of available policy options of those government officials they are covering.

This is also true of the guests invited by the media for interviews, and those on whom they rely as "sources." Overwhelming percentages of these guests, commentators and analysts are government officials, former government officials, or former military officers.

A study conducted by FAIR, a media monitoring group in October of 2003, for example, found that over three-fourths of all commentators invited to appear on TV news programs were current or former US government officials, divided about evenly between civilian and military officials, and almost 80% of all these guests were supportive of the Administration’s policies.

News reporters operating in this culture, or near tribal world of Washington elites, share the understood "rules of the road," the shared values, shared meanings of words, and shared narratives. They accept them, and largely operate according to them.

In this world, pack journalism or "group think" becomes a problem.

And in this tribal-like culture, one learns not to challenge the rules of the tribe, because to do so is to risk "losing face" or worse, in this particular profession, "losing access."

If cultural influences are important, equally significant are commercial considerations, which have become increasingly central to decision-making.

There is the myth of the "good old days" of American journalism when small family-owned newspapers courageously battled with government and business establishments for the truth and when major and even minor US cities had three, four or more of these fiercely independent and competitive outlets. Stories of that period have often been based more on fiction than fact, but, in any case, those "good old days" are no longer.

Today, ownership of media has been increasingly consolidated in fewer and fewer corporate hands and cuts across the spectrum–with one corporation owning multiple radio and TV stations and newspapers, or a number of networks, movie studios, major newspapers.

Most US cities now only have one newspaper and large cities have two, and only rarely more than that.

As a result of this consolidation, the sources of information have become fewer and less diverse.
It is inevitable, therefore, that in this new world of media, corporate and commercial interests will trump other considerations. Profits must be made, shareholders demand it; market shares must be protected, government regulators must be appeased and politicians must be courted.

Ratings are critical to revenues, with programs, program line-up and even program content being impacted by the quest for higher ratings. This affects not only entertainment programming, but news as well, leading to such phenomena as "celebrity news anchors," who not only reports the news, but, who by his/her presence, makes an event newsworthy, "target demographic" newsreaders the "dumbing down" of evening news to include more "soft" news, and the need to fill the shrinking news cycle with sensationalism and "hype."

In this brave new world of commercial journalism where "audience share" is the key to survival, and higher ratings equal higher advertising revenue, media, like politicians, follow polls and hesitate to step outside of what is "conventional wisdom."

So it was, in the lead-up to the war with Iraq, the media was shamelessly complicit in echoing the Administration’s drumbeat for war. Special logos were created with dramatic themes, like "Countdown to War." One network even put a clock in the lower corner of the screen ticking down the time until the war’s start.

The media monitoring group FAIR suggested that the media behaved more like "stenographers" than journalists. They reported without question and, at times, even became conduits for "disinformation campaigns."

As a result, the extremely effective public relations effort of the White House was able to utilize a compliant media to build public support for the war. But more on this next week.