We seem to be in the midst of some kind of paradigm shift in the way that news is produced, packaged, and consumed. Increasing numbers of news shops are beginning to display their ideologies in their windows. They continue to give lip service to those cherished journalistic ideals of objectivity and impartiality, but the actual news product is shot through with bias.
Mind you, it was ever thus; but now, many news organizations are less reverential about the dogma of objectivity. For this we can thank right-wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black, and Sun Myung Moon, who took over ailing U.S. publications (New York Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and Washington Times) and transformed them into vehicles of ideological cant. This new posture was on grand display during the controversial 2000 presidential election. The mainstream media (with the notable exception of the New York Times and the Washington Post) resolutely ignored charges of vote suppression that were flying fast and furious from Florida’s black community.
This blindness to racial bias is given sanction by the notion of justifiable “race fatigue,” which is perpetrated by right-wing commentators and propagated primarily by Murdoch’s New York Post. Given this country’s history of race relations, it’s not hard to understand why this notion is contagious. Much of the major media is now infested with the right-wing malady of race fatigue. Murdoch’s News Corp. also owns the Fox News Channel, which has distinguished itself from its cable news competitors–and won ratings success–by flaunting a right-wing bias. But higher ratings spawn imitation, so we’re likely to see a further “righting” of cable news shows.
Indeed, television itself, with its one-dimensional messages and sound bite sensibility, tends to reinforce and amplify the message of the right. At least, that’s the argument made by culture critic Jeffrey Scheuer in his excellent new book, The Sound Bite Society: Television And The American Mind. Scheuer argues that daily journalism, especially electronic journalism, has “inclinations toward particularity, immediacy, and simplicity,” which, he argues, also “are defining features of conservatism.”
The growing corporate control of all major media adds another level of difficulty to what already is an uphill battle for those fighting for media democracy. The constellations of forces arrayed against that fight seem daunting, and even the best of the nonprofit progressive media are being tugged by the undertow of the marketplace. As Thomas Frank argues in his eloquent new book, One Market Under God, the logic of the marketplace has ascended to religious heights; there can be no other God before It. Corporate news shops reason that if profit is God’s design, then mere social goals, like a well-informed populace, are costly diversions. But the quest for profit has sapped the budgets of newsrooms across the country, and some Americans are beginning to demand that media be less beholden to corporate interests and become more informative and contextual. Their numbers may be small, but according to many media activist organizations, they are growing.
The primary burden of those seeking media democracy, however, is to increase the diversity of voices in order to contextualize rather than atomize information. Studies about the causal effect of media on violent behavior are at best inconclusive, but studies about media’s influence in the formation of social attitudes and prejudices shows that it is, for the most part, deeply implicated in our socialization process. So, rather then devote so much attention to what may be a thin relation between media and violence, we should be much more attentive to the power of media to help vanquish “the other,” whoever they are. Or, as Chicago activist and author Lowell Thompson instructs, we must use the media to “unsell racism.” The unholy alliance between those who see profit as a God and the right-wing ideologues who are willing to abandon the last pretenses of objectivity in corporate journalism shows that only a truly independent, nonprofit-oriented media can make any real progress in the struggle for a society that respects diversity–and fights racism.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times.