By Patrick Metzger
All news is now business news. People think they’re only looking at commerce when they interact with the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times or Business Insider. But business is about money. And pop stars, fashion executives, offshore drilling, and football teams all have one thing in common: big money. That is what puts these subjects in the news.
In a way this makes sense. It costs money to make the news, so news sources need to give air time to the stories that will earn them the most profit. So they capitalize on people’s interest, which is driven by the cycle of pop culture, which is driven by money.
However, it’s important to remember that it didn’t used to be this way. The news was once considered a public good. The distinction between factual reporting and entertainment in television news was largely maintained until the 1960’s. Journalists made it their business to report facts without being bought and sold. There were government regulations in place that required a minimum amount of non-entertainment programming. There were limitations on how much advertising could be displayed in an hour. The “Fairness Doctrine” ensured that networks to which the FCC granted licenses as “public trustees” must maintain a balance of perspectives.
These regulations were abolished between 1985 and 1987, and the news has been a degenerating sideshow ever since.
These days, genuine factual reporting is a scarce thing indeed. A recent analysis by Politifact found that statements made by pundits, hosts, and paid contributors on the three major television news networks were “mostly false” or worse 60% of the time on Fox News, 44% of the time on MSNBC/NBC, and 21% of the time on CNN. There are variations on this data from different studies. Pew found that 85% of MSNBC’s programming was commentary or opinion rather than factual reporting, with Fox at 59% and CNN at 46%. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that 72% of Fox News’ climate science-related segments in 2013 contained misleading statements (with CNN at 30% and MSNBC at 8%).
No matter which study you focus on, it’s clear that that the probability of a viewer actually getting evidence-based information from the news is essentially up to a coin toss.
While television is not the only medium for news, it is still the most popular. In a 2014 survey by the American Press Institute, 87% of Americans had watched TV as a source of news in the past week. And as for the fastest-growing media source, I will not attempt here to estimate the amount of time that the average citizen spends absorbing facts while on the Internet. Let’s just say I’m not optimistic on that account. From the filter bubbles of search algorithms that keep us shielded from outside perspectives to the fact that news accounts for 15% of time spent in mobile apps while social media accounts for 29%, it would seem that entertainment and opinions are winning over facts in that domain as well.
At the root of all of this is money. In 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of media in the United States. Thanks in large part to the Telecomunications Act of 1996 and adjustments in the early 2000’s of the FCC’s regulations on media ownership, by 2012, that same 90% of all media was controlled by just 6 companies. The consolidation only continues to this day.
Those who fight to keep the news honest, to maintain it as a public good that informs citizens—these true journalists have an uphill battle when it comes to being profitable. And the ones that aren’t profitable often collapse under the weight of gargantuan media conglomerates. As James Joyner puts it, “[W]e have a service that is vital to our society and no viable way of paying for it.”
It is possible to call nearly any television programming news, when in actuality, most content is either an advertisement or overt propaganda from the moneyed rulers of our oligarchy.
The news influences our political biases, our social affiliations, our perceptions of race & class in America, our purchasing behavior, our goals for a happy life. We should not accept a world in which a wealthy few get to decide this country’s narrative.
Be discerning with what you choose to believe.
I’ll end with two quotes.
“Those who tell the stories hold the power in society. Today television tells most of the stories to most of the people, most of the time.” -George Gerbner
And from the film Network (1976):
“Right now there is…an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome God-damned force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”