On the Media and the Free Press

As you are no doubt aware, some pretty significant happenings have taken place in the United States this week that have trained the eyes of the global media on a singular story. I am, of course, referring to the Grand Jury decision in the case of the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. However, I don’t want to add to the noise surrounding the issues of the decision or the case—I will say, though, that I find the Grand Jury decision not to indict Officer Wilson to be an egregious and disgusting miscarriage of justice—I want to focus on something else entirely. There have been comments from members of the public, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, and from some members of the press that the “main stream media” has done a disservice to the public in its portrayal of the story and its presentation of the facts. A guest on the Diane Rehm show pointed out Tuesday morning that it took two full days for CNN to pick up the story. And this is far from the first instance that the public, government officials, or reporters themselves have decried the “main stream media” for its treatment of news stories, portrayal of events, or the presentation of facts (and opinions!).

My question is why?

We, the collective we, complain a lot about the media and often not in a productive, call-the-FCC sort of way. The media doesn’t look at both sides of the argument. The media colours this political party in X or Y light. The media has become a mouth piece for X politician. The media won’t cover this story because of that reason. The media is owned by X or Y corporation. The media doesn’t report actual news anymore. The media this. The media that.


First, I want to define that, personally, when I hear “the main stream media” what I think about are the three primary broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. (Most often “main stream media” will also include CNN, MSNBC, and FOX NEWS, who all love to use the term in a way to indicate everyone but themselves.) And that’s an important distinction because they’re the only ones actually required to report the news by the FCC. (Technically, the requirement is to operate in the public interest.) Cable networks like CNN, MSNBC, and FOX NEWS are not required to report the news to the public because they are not licensing public radio space and thus have no obligation to “operate [their] station in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity.'” FOX NEWS is famous, perhaps infamous is a better word, for their bias. But when you read the term “main stream media” here, in this essay, I am referring to both the broadcast media and the cable media while everything else—websites, online video, and podcasts—falls into “new media.” I am intentionally leaving out radio, newspapers, and wire services like The AP and Reuters for this discussion because I feel that the majority of complaints refer mostly to the theatre of television news reporting.

It’s very important to make that distinction for a few reasons, the most significant of which is the FCC requirement that broadcast licensees operate in the public interest. But also because radio has a much more targeted audience these days, newspapers are suffering drastic losses in subscriptions, and hardly anyone in the United States goes directly to the wire services for news. It’s also, unfortunately, a trivial distinction because the FCC hardly, if ever, denies license renewals and does a poor job of certifying that licensees have fulfilled their public interest obligations—something made even easier by Reagan area deregulation efforts conceived under the then-chairman of the FCC, Mark S. Fowler—meaning that once you have your broadcast license it’s very easy to keep it regardless of what you put on the air.

Mark Fowler, FCC Chairman 1981–1987

Prior to the 1980s, the FCC maintained programming guidelines, commercial limits, ascertainment, and programming logging requirements. Fowler, under the Reagan administration, applied what the Carter era FCC chairman, Charles Ferris, did for radio deregulation to television. This “market forces” approach to self regulation has failed us just as miserably as Reagan’s famous “trickle-down” economic policies have. Fowler suggested that the public interest would be best defined by the “public’s interest,” essentially tying the decision as to what should be broadcast to whatever made the station money. This has lead to things like casting calls for American Idol being used to fulfill public interest requirements—which, I think we can all agree, is a flagrant mischaracterization of the sort of community involvement and public interest principles that the FCC’s original regulations intended to promote.

I am suggesting that we use Fowler’s very own ideas and assertions of market control to return dignity to television journalism, that the public interest be determined by “the public’s interest” in objective reporting of the news. Turn off ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, CNBC, and all the others until they get the message that news isn’t entertainment and if they want us back they’ll have to stop dumbing it down. The market, often lauded as the solution to all the world’s ills, is run by demand and in television demand is measured in viewership numbers and ratings. Marry those statistics with public outcry for less fluff and more objective news content and I think a pretty clear message will resolve: We aren’t stupid and we want the news. It’s not enough to simply talk about it or to pat anchors and reporters on the back when they acknowledge bad reporting, that’s the equivalent of telling Congressmen to stop giving themselves raises—that’s right, Congress controls the purse strings, even for themselves. We have to be loud and confrontational about how disappointed we are.

Edward R. Murrow

Nightly television news broadcasts, in the age of Murrow and Cronkite, were hour long programming blocks that presented hard journalism and rarely carried fluffy feel good stories that weren’t of genuine significance. And what I mean by that is that you never saw Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite waste precious air time presenting a video of a squirrel water skiing. Since the 1980s these programmes have been reduced, time and again, and now run in 30 minute blocks. If you keep track of the commercials, you’ll find that you only get an average of 20 to 23 minutes of genuine content from these shows anymore. From 60 minutes to 20. That’s a huge gap. And because the blocks are so truncated now, you certainly don’t have time to go into any in-depth journalism on a topic, so most of what is reported are summaries and overviews of a handful of stories—many of which are polluted with false balance or aren’t of any significance to the national public interest.

See, what happened once regulations were softened is that the broadcast media began to compete with the cable media for commercial advertising and Nielson Ratings, so less and less time was afforded to the news division and more and more entertainment and advertising content was scheduled. And that brings me to the idea I really want to discuss: if we’re so fed up with the sad state of affairs in broadcast journalism, why aren’t we demanding our broadcast news be returned to some of the principles of its golden era? Let’s tell the main stream media to do away with the false balance and the puff pieces! The majority has willingly swallowed the spoon-fed programming that’s been put on our air, but why not push back and demand that the 30 minute nightly news be returned to a 60 minute or 90 minute format? If what we’re consistently upset about is that we feel our media, our press has failed us, why aren’t we demanding good journalism be returned to the stage?

Cable news is a different beast altogether. Most of what you see on cable news is what’s called “opinion programming,” which is industry speak for the standard talking head, commentary shows we are all familiar with—think of the Wolf Blitzer, Bill O’Reilly, and Keith Olbermann types. These, too, are dominated by feel good fluff and pop culture gossip stories with a fair amount of righteous indignation and partisan hackery thrown in to make it seem relevant. They’ve made a mockery out of journalism and no one is calling them on it—with the exception of comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and John Oliver et al. Cable news is not in the news business, it’s in the entertainment business and has tailored its programming to niche markets and demographics so its viewership goes up and there are more opportunities to sell things (commercials). That doesn’t mean that there aren’t good journalists on cable news, but just like their counterparts in broadcast they are trapped by the corporate interests of profit margins and ratings.

turduckenCompare what we call news today with what we called news during the Vietnam War, the Korean War, or WWII. These examples are all horrific and awful trials of the human race and surely we don’t want to focus on war and conflict all the time. How about Watergate, McCarthyism, or the Iran-Contra Affair? Again, not exactly cheery content, but it’s all news. These issues and events mattered and the nation was informed because journalists and reporters had an outlet with which to reach the public. Where was that calibre of journalism during the Deep Water Horizon disaster? Why doesn’t that sort of critical eye get turned on domestic issues like environmental protection, overpopulation of the prison system, women’s rights, Native American sovereignty, mental healthcare access, or congressional obstructionism? Why did we devote a full day of media coverage to Balloon Boy in 2010, but the morning after the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson set off mass demonstrations nation-wide and riots in St. Louis ABC was airing a piece about turduckens? How did we allow the media, as a whole, to stop reporting the protests in Ferguson, the invasion of Ukraine, or the democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong after a week? And what does that say about us as a society that we, after a set number of days, write national and international events out of the public conscious regardless of status or resolution? Imagine if we, as a nation, had reacted this way to WWII.

I don’t want to sound like I’m advocating for the news to be a dreary, sad, and upsetting place. There are plenty of good good-news news stories in the world and it would be a shame and a tragedy to lose them. What I want to see disappear is the need to be first on the scene, the ambulance-chasing, and pop-culture idol worship that has turned the news into a talk show. I demand the death of sensationalism! Our news programming should be held sacred. It isn’t entertainment, as Jon Stewart put it “it’s not a fucking game!” Sometimes there isn’t a happy story to end a broadcast with, but that’s what the entertainment shows are for!

Aaron Sorkin has made much the same argument with the first, and to a lesser degree in the second and—so far—third, season of The Newsroom on HBO. The show starts off with a main character who is famous for his impartiality and tears down the track in a process that converts him into a relentless newsman backed up by an entire newsroom full of people who are all devoted to finding and presenting the truth in journalism. It’s an idealistic show whose writers have the superpower of hindsight when putting together episodes from the actual news of the immediate and recent past. But it’s got the principle of the thing on lockdown; its “heart is in the right place” so to speak. And, if you believe people like Dan Rather, it has the “news industry” dead to rights on what has crippled and sullied the sanctity of news operations.

Woodward and Bernstein

That’s the sort of thing I want to see in the real world. When our press is holding public officials, corporations, and government accountable, we are a stronger electorate and an overall better society. And a stronger electorate means a better government—which is another thing we, the collective we, are constantly complaining about. But it’s our fault. If we as a nation stopped electing imbeciles to national office, we wouldn’t have a House committee on Science, Space, and Technology that flat out tells scientists they don’t believe them because it’s not convenient or doesn’t fit their personal narrative. We need more scientists, teachers, and engineers in Congress, not lawyers or businessmen. And before anyone argues that we need lawyers writing the laws so that they’re effective and enforceable, let me point out to you that that is what congressional staffers and clerks are for.

Polls suggest that our nation is more polarized and divided than ever, and it’s very easy to see that on many issues that’s the truth. The problem is that we’ve found our way down a long and winding path into an echo chamber—left and right—that reinforces and rewards partisanship in a deregulated landscape that utilizes the public’s resources. The broadcast media has become flat, radio and cable news are niche, website audiences are as partisan as Mac VS PC even when the reporting is objective, and Congress and the general population have fallen into well defined roles of “conservative” and “liberal,” red and blue purely out of laziness.

We need to force journalism to the forefront once more and insist that the press be unbiased and objective. Sometimes there aren’t two sides to an issue. Sometimes there are many, many more. We ought to have less talking-head-opinion programming and more in-depth reporting. If we cannot rely on stations to act in the public interest—without profit motives—on their own, it seems to me, that we can no longer allow stations to regulate themselves and that we need to have the FCC step back into its role as the public’s watchdog over the networks. If that means that the 24-hour news network business model isn’t sustainable, then so be it! Broadcast and cable have, by far, the largest audiences of any media outlet and as such they play an essential role in the national conversation and national awareness. They have a responsibility to objectively and accurately report the news, which we have too long allowed them to ignore and subvert.

Much like the saying that “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” I feel like if we keep buying into the nonsense-reporting, echo chamber of partisan he-said-she-said and feel-good-fluff “news,” we can’t really complain about it. If, however, we want to return the fourth estate to our pantheon of sacred institutions and see journalism rise again, we are responsible for making that happen.

“Goodnight, and good luck.” – Murrow