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September 01, 2006

The consequences of having media monopolies

Understanding the US media is an important part of political education and two of the best analysts are Ben Bagdikian who wrote the classic The Media Monopoly (updated recently to The New Media Monopoly) and Robert McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media and other books.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (published in 1988) remains a powerful read in describing how the media, both wittingly and unwittingly, colludes with powerful interests in creating a public consensus that actually goes against the interests of the people they supposedly represent. If they updated their book, they would undoubtedly use as one of their examples how the media effectively aided the administration to persuade the American public to go along with the disastrous policy of invading Iraq and linking that hapless country to the events of September 11, 2001, even though there was no evidence linking those two events and there was no justifiable case for attacking Iraq at all.

All these authors present sophisticated analyses and it is not my intention to summarize them because I would surely do them an injustice. So what follows is my own informal gleaning of the key messages.

One key point to understand is the one Bagdikian's book title indicates, and that is that there is a major qualitative shift how the media operates when it becomes a monopoly in a market. It is undoubtedly true that in almost all American cities, there is only one major daily newspaper. And this results in a different type of journalism from the early days when many competing newspapers existed in each major market.

Any business needs to produce a product that the consumer wants to buy. So the basic model assumes a product and a target market. In the newspaper business, we tend to think of the news and features in the paper as the product and the newspaper reader as the market that is being targeted. In this model, it makes sense that the newspapers would try and produce the best product so as to attract the most readers and thus make the most money. If one has this model in mind, then it really should not matter if there is only one paper or more than one in any given market. Each newspaper will strive to produce the most useful and desirable paper for its readers.

But that is not the model that best reflects reality. A better model is that we (the readers) are the product and advertisers are the market that is being targeted. In other words, newspapers seek to 'sell' the readers to the advertisers. American papers depend more for their revenue on advertising that on subscriber sales. Subscriber sales figures are important in selling advertising space. The news becomes the lure by which we, the readers, are drawn in.

In this model, just like in the other model, the more readers a newspaper has, the better, especially those in the desirable demographic groups sought by the advertisers. So newspapers broaden their appeal with sports, features, comics, lifestyle and entertainment pages, all in an effort to draw more readers. And in fact, American newspapers are pretty good in this regard when compared to other countries. The 'soft' feature coverage is usually a lot more comprehensive and occupies a greater percentage of the papers in the US than I have seen in any other country I have visited.

The difference between the two models becomes important when it comes to 'hard' news coverage, which is essentially political.

Take a simple situation in a city in which the population is roughly split between two political viewpoints. We can label the splits 'liberal/conservative' or 'Democratic/Republican' or whatever, it does not matter. If you have two newspapers, each can hope to maximize its readership to half the population by tailoring its news emphasis to appeal one side of the spectrum while the other newspaper will do the same for the other, and thus one has the kind of partisan journalism I wrote about earlier that is common in other countries.

But as soon as you are down to just one newspaper in a market, that paper now has the potential to double its readership (and thus be much more attractive to advertisers) by trying to appeal to the entire population. This means that they have to make sure they do not offend anyone. Thus one ends up with monopoly newspapers carefully cultivating this 'neutrality' which essentially means treating all major stories as 'he said/she said.' To aggressively investigate stories that might go against the interests of one political segment might result in antagonizing half the paper's potential readership. But of course newspapers cannot say that they are not publishing their conclusions because of fear that they might lose readers and the corresponding advertising revenue. So they have developed the cloak of 'objectivity' to avoid the charge of 'pushing an agenda' that favors one side or the other.

Those reporters who want to pursue a major story that adversely affects one segment can usually only do so if a major public figure consistently speaks out about it, because then the reporter can report that person's words and not be accused of pushing an agenda.

For example, I feel sure that there must have been reporters who doubted the case being made for invading Iraq. But they were hindered by the fact that the craven leadership of the Democratic Party largely went along with the fictions of the administration about Iraq being a threat to the US. If those leaders had spoken out more strongly, that would have provided cover for those journalists to dig deeper into the facts since there would have been a controversy that required attention. But when political leaders don't vociferously raise an issue, the media finds it hard to do so because they run the risk, in the US at least, of being accused of 'pushing an agenda' being 'partisan' and so forth, and that has come to be seen as a big no-no.

We see the same thing with science reporting on (say) global warming or evolution. The scientific consensus on both these issues is clear. But reporters cannot say so without fear of antagonizing the sizeable segment of the general public who question that consensus. In order to keep them as readers, reporters will do their 'on the one hand, on the other hand' soft-shoe routine.

So the real question that needs to be examined is, that given the economic driving forces of monopoly media in the US, why there was not greater political skepticism that can provide the window for journalists to truly investigate and report. And this illustrates an interesting, but disturbing, parallelism between monopoly journalism and monopolistic political systems.

Next in this series: Monopoly media and monopoly politics.

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Comments

I don't think I understand... if, say, the Washington Post obtains a monopoly in DC, why does it suddenly become *more* afraid of losing readership? Who else are the would-be newspaper readers going to turn to? Is the worry that they'll become disgruntled and order out for the NYT? or flock in droves to negligible and/or wingnut papers like the Washington Times or the City Paper? Is the idea that they'll just go without a paper?

We have "two papers" in Madison. They are the Capital Times (the "liberal" paper; really atrocious writing) and the Wisconsin State Journal (the "conservative" paper, and by "conservative" I mean "moderate Democrat"; writing slightly less atrocious than the Cap Times). They're both owned by the same company, and it's kind of a big joke. It's worse than manufactured consensus -- it's manufactured controversy! Partisan journalism AND it's still a monopoly.

Posted by Erin on September 1, 2006 09:39 AM

What newspapers in monoploy towns want to avoid is people stopping reading papers altogether. In fact, we see this in Cleveland, where Plain Dealer readership has declined even though there is no alternative. As a result, the newspapers have difficulty finding advertisers or raising rates.

The pseudo-controversies you see in Madison is even more disturbibng because it appears to give the impression of debate when actually the debate is on the margins and the unspoken consensus is foisted on people without being aware of it.

Posted by Mano Singham on September 1, 2006 10:18 AM