What the Corporate News Industry Won't Ever Tell Its Audience
We were watching the TV at the airline departure area.
“Is it a terrorist incident?” Wolf Blitzer asked. Nobody knows, was the apparent answer.
“Something’s happened to the news,” a woman around my age at the DC airport, said to Louise and me. “I don’t know what it is, but we used to actually know a lot of detail about a lot of things going on, 30 years ago, and now it seems like all the media does is focus on one or two stories all day long and I feel like I’m uninformed.”
“Like eating junk food?” I said.
“Yeah, exactly. Empty calories. Why doesn’t the news give me the news?”
Louise and I were sitting in front of a TV watching CNN, which was doing hour-long (perhaps day-long?) coverage of a possible terrorist incident in London (turned out it was a traffic accident). Louise shook her head. “Now you’ve got him started,” she said.
The woman, an employee of the airline, looked interested.
“Used to be,” I said, “that radio and TV stations had to deliver actual news in order to retain their over-the-air broadcast license. It was called ‘the fairness doctrine,’ and Reagan stopped enforcing it in ’87 and the Obama administration’s FCC removed it altogether. Then the media consolidated like crazy, in part because Reagan had stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and no president since Jimmy Carter broke up AT&T has been willing to put it back into effect, and in part because of the media deregulation that Clinton signed in 1996.”
“So?” she asked. “Why does that mean that all we get now is nonstop hype and opinion-drivel?”
“It used to be that the metric news organizations used to determine if they were ‘doing their job’ was how well the American public was informed. That was actually a serious metric, pre-1987, because your station’s license depended on it. The public could – and did – complain that they weren’t being well-informed, and stations jumped when those FCC complaints came in. But now, the only metric the ‘news’ business uses is how many viewers they have and, thus, how profitable they are for advertisers.”
“But why does that mean all we get are the disasters and the dramas of Donald Trump and other crap like that?” She’d expanded her universe of media complaints.
I remembered a lesson that Bob Brakeman, the news director at WITL-AM/FM in Lansing, Michigan, where I used to work in the 1970s as a beat reporter and studio news presenter, taught me.
“When you’re choosing what goes into your newscast, remember that there are three buckets of news,” Bob, one of the best news guys I ever worked for, said (as best I can remember). “First, there are the facts: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Second is drama: who is hurt or hurting, who is angry, who is happy, who is trying to do what to whom. And the third is sports: who is winning and who is losing.”
“Got that,” I said. “So how do I determine what goes into a story?”
“The facts are the most important,” Bob said. “The drama and sports, unless they’re at the core of the story itself, just add to the interest appeal of the story. The drama could be interviewing a family who just lost their home to a tornado, or the sports could be who’s expected to win or lose an election. But both should always be subordinate to the facts.”
I explained this to our new friend in her airline uniform. “Okay,” she said. “What happened to the facts?”
“Advertising,” I said. “I remember driving down the autobahn in Germany in 1987 listening to American Forces Radio when the reporter announced that, because of Reagan’s change in the Fairness Doctrine, CBS had moved their news division under the supervision of their entertainment division, and the other networks were expected to soon follow. So, now, networks don’t give a damn at all about ‘the facts’ or ‘what Americans need to know’ to be informed and active citizens. They only care about what’s going to get the most eyeballs. And that will always first be drama and sports.”
“This is why we have Trump,” Louise added. “As a reality TV-show star, he’s an expert at delivering what Bob called ‘drama’ and ‘sports’ to the TV news networks. Who’s in, who’s out; who’s ahead, who’s behind. The media loved it, and gave him $2 billion in free TV time, while making billions themselves in advertising because he increased their ratings. Les Moonves, the head of CBS, actually bragged about how much money they were making by hyper-covering Trump in a stockholder phone call.”
“The average American has no meaningful understanding of what’s happening anywhere else in the world,” I said, “nor do they realize what’s being done right now in front of us by the EPA, Interior, and other government agencies that are taking apart over 70 years of work to clean up our world and build a middle class.”
“I’ve noticed this on NPR,” the airline woman said. “I used to love listening to their in-depth reporting, and particularly their investigative reporting. But now I’m hearing more and more spin from think-tanks, and less and less about the details of legislation and news.”
“In 1996, NPR busted Archer Daniels Midland for a huge fraud,” I said. “But the Republicans have now cut their funding so badly that today, with only 7 percent of their budget coming from the government, that they no longer take on corporate malfeasance, but instead beg for corporate money with great enthusiasm. They even publish lists of who’s paying, some would say, to influence their broadcasting.”
“Same as corporate news?”
“Pretty much. Seen or heard ads for oil and natural gas companies? Defense contractors? You want to buy an oil well or a F-35? Unlikely. But they want that money delivered to the networks, so they won’t do any sort of investigative reporting on the fossil fuel or defense industries. Or pharma. Everybody’s metric nowadays is clicks or viewers that can be delivered to advertisers for money. Nobody much cares about whether the American people are informed enough to make an intelligent vote.”
“So, where do we get real news?” our new friend asked.
“My answer a few weeks ago would have been to look on the internet, but Google and Facebook have so locked down what news sources are allowed to get through their search/sort algorithms that it’s hard to get anything that’s not ‘corporate-friendly news.’”
“I thought the internet was neutral,” she said.
“The internet isn’t neutral any more," I said, “because of these corporate behemoths. And it’s going to get a lot worse when Ajit Pai and his FCC decide that your internet service provider – the company that brings internet into your home – can decide to block or slow down sites they don’t agree with…and all of today’s successful ISPs are large, politically active, 'conservative' corporations.”
I added: “When the only metric is profit, everything can be explained by profit. And profit doesn’t give a damn about morality or democracy or you or me or even the future of our nation or world. It’s essentially a sociopathic business model, which works out really well for sociopathic politicians and the sociopathic polluters who own them – and the media they lavish billions onto.”
“What do we do?” she said.
“End Reaganism,” I said. “Start enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, break up the big media, put back into place local media ownership rules, and have Congress say explicitly that the Net Neutrality that’s the law in every other civilized country on earth should also be the law here.”
“And how do we do that?” she aske.
“Get politically active. Only people power can defeat the oligarchy that’s seized our nation.”
She shook her head skeptically. “I’ve gotta get back to work.”
We left to board our flight.