Saturday, December 31, 2016

Media, Corporations and Democracy

Robert Reich has posted another excellent video, this one entitled "Trump and the Media." In it he outlines how Trump is using power, the law and public opinion to undermine the media and consolidate his own power. Many of my friends and colleagues have responded to this thoughtful analysis with a big "So what?!" They point out that the media has always been biased, that it's never been truly independent, that it's all owned by a couple of corporations and none of them can be trusted. So what's the big deal?

This is fallacious reasoning for three reasons.  First, no matter how bad the media gets, it doesn't make it any more or less important for our communities, our society and our Republic. And second, just because they are biased, not independent and privately owned, does not mean that they MUST be undeserving of our trust. And finally, by generalizing and giving up, we may actually be making matters worse for the few remaining journalists, editors and publishers out there who are still fulfilling their public mission. Cynicism about the media is not the same as skepticism.

First, watch the video.  Reich is masterful.  The man is not just intelligent and articulate but consistently demonstrates integrity and courage.  It's very well done.  Chilling, in fact.

To summarize he outlines the four techniques Trump is using very effectively to undermine independent media and consolidate his own power:
  1. Berate the media
  2. Limit media access
  3. Threaten the media
  4. Bypass the media
Note his use of evidence to support these claims.  This is not biased criticism.   It IS critical, however.

Now why should we care about this?  Well, we SHOULD care because we rely on the media to know what's actually happening in our world, to know what our representative leaders are doing about it and to hold them accountable. This is a fact:  we rely on them -- we need them to perform these vital functions -- whether or not they deserve our trust and whether or not they are fulfilling these needs. And that is why some of us DO care about what Trump is doing to the media.  Without them, we'll know less about what's actually happening, less about what he's actually doing and less about the effect he's having.  In other words he'll have even more power and even less accountability.

Notice how carefully I used the relative terms 'more' and 'less' knowledge.  Perfect knowledge is obviously not possible.  Perfect transparency is neither workable nor desirable.  But more or less knowledge can make a difference.  Consider how many people voted for Trump, for example, who will be surprised by his Cabinet appointments, his policies or the effects of his Administration when, in fact, the consequences of his electoral success have been predicted and published repeatedly. If we pay attention we'll soon see...

But what about the fact of media consolidation and commercialization?  How is media independence even possible when 6 massive, public corporations own and control 90% of the media in our country? Is "independence" the same thing as unbiased?

Let's be careful here:  media independence just means "independent of government" and it certainly does not mean unbiased.  The Fourth Estate is no more capable of discerning Truth than Congress, the Executive or our courts.  (Or individual voters, for that matter).  Of course publishers have an editorial POV.  But it's been the independence of these institutions, not their lack of bias, that has facilitated a public conversation "independent of Government" that has come to define us.  Consider how The Atlantic, for example, played a fundamental role in the abolition of slavery and the Union victory in our own Civil War.  The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Harpers have had a huge impact on everything from Viet Nam to the Cold War, but also on music, art and literature.  The National Review has played a formidable role in the Conservative Movements over the past 5 decades.  All of these institutions are "biased".  But that does not mean they aren't based on responsible, legitimate journalism and, dare I say it, evidence? Historically, that conversation has had a huge impact on public opinion, our government and our history.

Does it matter that these publishers are for-profit, money-making enterprises?  Of course not.  When they rely on advertising more than subscription revenue, it has arguably created a huge commercial bias. Contrary to the claims of "liberal bias" in the conservative press, media conglomerates actually have a conservative bias because they avoid REAL controversy (which might displease their sponsors invested in the status-quo) while they seek advertising dollars and attention with BOGUS controversy (which delights them).  Consider the climate change "debate" on the major networks, for example. But then again, commercial advertising need not bias investigative reporting in every case;  it actually differs from publisher to publisher, depending on their boards, missions and subscribers.  Historically, publishing has generated substantial cash and also produced high-quality, useful journalism.  It's also true that for-profit publishers can be very influential, successful enterprises and NOT produce profits. In 2005 Buckley estimated that his National Review had lost $25M over 50 years, for example. Most of the "opinion" media is completely privately held and has been for more than a century; they can do whatever their boards want, including lose money.

What we're forgetting is that corporations make money in different ways, depending on their mission. And in some cases, the mission clearly includes a focus on independent journalism with a civic purpose.  Over the years these institutions have published THOUSANDS of extraordinarily influential stories based on evidence, clear thinking, and a public or civic discourse even though they are a) biased, b) private and c) profitable.  Just take a look at this list of Pulizer Prize winners, for example. How many of these were produced by public or private for-profit companies?

Pay more attention to mission and governance of individual publishers, not just the fact that they sometimes generate profits.

What this video is about, however, is none of this. It's about how Donald Trump is using power and the law AND PUBLIC OPINION to undermine these remaining institutions. Reich's very first point is based on how Trump "berates" the media, how the media dutifully reports on his outrageous, mendacious claims, and the public begins to believe that all media is the same and equally untrustworthy.  It's a serious mistake, a false equivalence, to lump Foreign Affairs or NPR, both not-for-profit organizations, in with the likes of Fox News, for example. It leads to cynicism and apathy, disengagement, and ultimately ignorance.

In fact, we have plenty of news outlets we can still be proud of. When we over-generalize about the media we make it worse. When we support quality, investigative journalism and READ IT, we make it better.

Make it better.


Rich T said...

AMEN! This experiment in self-government will never survive without robust - and diverse - media to challenge that government to fulfill its duty by keeping everyone informed both when it succeeds and especially when it does not. More than that though, to encourage interest and stimulate participation in self-government by educating and elevating citizens, because that is what self-government requires above all else. Votes cast by uninformed citizens are votes that are cast for the wrong reasons. People may not like to bother with keeping up with the dealings of government, but any survey of history would quickly convince them that it is an exceedingly small price to pay.

Hugo Smitter said...

Great post Steve. Having grown up in a third-world country, I've always wanted to understand why my country of origin couldn't be as advanced as, say Switzerland, in spite of having orders of magnitude more wealth in terms of natural resources and an advantageous location. In their 2012 book "Why Nations Fail" (*) authors Acemoglu and Robinson present a compelling study that points to the independence and strengths of institutions as the key success or failure factor for communities, large and small. Debilitating institutions by way of inaction, ignorance or as a strategy to seize hegemonic control of society (e.g. Chavismo in Venezuela) is the key to failure, according to the authors. Five years later, I still think they're on the right track. Undermine the institutions and nations will decline slowly until they hit the dreaded tipping point.


Stephen Quatrano said...

Here is a follow up article from the Times on the same subject.

The media had "better figure things out, fast, because it has found itself at the edge of the cliff. And our still-functioning (fingers crossed) democracy needs it to stay on the right side of the drop."

"Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition."

"The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president."

stefanoq said...

Thank you both, Rich and Hugo. I appreciate your comments.