FLORIDA, June 3, 2013 — Whether the station in question is a network affiliate or a cable channel, most people would probably expect some sort of bias to be present. Is this actually the case?
Today, anyone can favor a news outlet on the basis of his or her political stances. In the long run, won’t this allow media bias to run even more rampant? On both sides of the political spectrum, new media outlets have emerged to seriously challenge established sources. Does this have anything to do with bias or might other factors be at work?
Speaking of media bias, what is its most detrimental aspect? Over the last several decades, conglomerates have purchased many formerly independent news outlets. What impact has this had on our country’s mass media?
Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press, which is perhaps our nation’s foremost organization devoted to media accountability and journalistic integrity. In this first part of our discussion, he answers the questions listed above.
Joseph F. Cotto: Whether the station in question is a network affiliate or a cable channel, most people would probably expect some sort of bias to be present. Do you believe that this is actually the case?
Craig Aaron: I don’t really believe there is such a thing as objective journalism. Everyone brings some kind of bias to the job. But there is fact-based journalism; there is truth-seeking journalism; there is in-depth and investigative journalism. And what we need is more of that kind of journalism as opposed to he-said, she-said journalism or televised shouting matches pretending to constitute journalism.
It’s also why we benefit from many competing sources of journalism: Citizens need a range of information and opinions about what’s happening in their communities if we’re going to have a functioning democracy.
Cotto: Today, anyone can favor a news outlet on the basis of his or her political stances. In the long run, won’t this allow media bias to run even more rampant?
Aaron: Well, certainly if you only read outlets you agree with 100 percent of the time you are probably not getting the full picture. But I don’t really worry about right-wing or left-wing media if they are honest about what they are. What I worry about is media pushing an agenda while pretending they’re doing something else. And usually that agenda is one that advances the interests of the biggest corporations and those in power. And what I really worry about is replacing reporters with pundits.
We need more people doing interviews and digging through records and trying to hold the powerful accountable — especially at the local level.
Cotto: On both sides of the political spectrum, new media outlets have emerged to seriously challenge established sources. From your perspective, does this have anything to do with bias, or might other factors be at work?
Aaron: I think there are many factors at work. The Internet has enabled anyone with something important or interesting to say to find an audience without going through the traditional gatekeepers — that’s a great thing generally, though not always. The best established sources sometimes do more fact-checking or are more skeptical of spin. The Internet can encourage transparency and a two-way conversation as opposed to the more traditional, top-down broadcast model.
I think another factor is that the established media gutted its newsrooms and pushed out veteran reporters — that sent their audiences elsewhere.
Cotto: What would you say is the most detrimental aspect of media bias?
Aaron: Denial. We should stop pretending that media bias doesn’t exist. We should start pursuing content-neutral policies that will diversify ownership of the media and create opportunities for new voices to get out there. Forget the Fairness Doctrine. I think we need to talk about incentives for local ownership, a major reinvestment in public and noncommercial media and — maybe most importantly — Net Neutrality so that anybody on the Internet with a better idea or a new business model can compete with the establishment on an even playing field.
Do those things and media bias won’t matter as much.
Cotto: Over the last several decades, conglomerates have purchased many formerly independent news outlets. What impact has this had on our country’s mass media?
Aaron: The impact has been disastrous. Runaway media consolidation has been bad for journalism. It has been bad for local communities. It has been bad for business, too. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Foreign and statehouse bureaus have been shuttered. So many important local stories have gone uncovered.
This crisis in journalism can be tied to the disruption of the traditional advertising market and the larger problems with the economy. But the biggest factor was runaway media consolidation — which concentrated so much media power is so few hands.
And these companies got so big, took on so much debt, that they started to topple under the weight. Look at Tribune Co.: Bad management of a newspaper in Chicago wasn’t just a problem for Chicago. Because of consolidation, it also damaged operations in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando, etc. And in TV, everyone thinks their local newscast is the worst in the country.
But the problem is that they’re all the same — in some markets literally so, because one company is doing the news for two or three stations. And then there’s radio, which doesn’t even do news anymore with a few exceptions; and whether it’s music or talk, unique local voices have been replaced by the same cookie-cutter content from coast-to-coast.
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