Tuesday, June 20, 2006

the mainstream media

An illumination representing the "three orders" of medieval society -- the clergy, the knights, and the peasants. It has nothing to do with this post. Sorry.

I have been thinking about a post on Paula's blog from about a week ago on the plight of Christians in Kosovo. Paula rightly lamented that the media was not covering the situation, and she placed the blame on mainstream media biases.

The question of media bias is an important one and it is a hot issue here in blogdom. I just did a search on blogger for "mainstream media" and was informed there were more than 180,000 hits. What is curious is that people on the left see msm as hopelessly biased towards a right-wing agenda, and those on the right see the all-powerful "liberal media." There are media-watching sites from both the left and the right of our acrimoniously divided country. So who is right?

My personal opinion is that when there is an ideological bias, it tends to be towards a center-right side. Of course from my own left-wing perspective, the country has gone so far to the right in the past twenty-five years, "center-right" is actually quite conservative, especially on economic issues (taxes, welfare, public spending, government regulation). There are many reasons for this. One has been described by Noam Chomsky and makes a fair amount of sense: media outlets are large corporations that profit from the economic status quo as much as any oil or pharmaceutical company. Writers answer to editors who answer to publishers who answer to stockholders and advertisers. It's a money thing. Another is that journalists themselves do not, despite what many conservatives think, tend to be that liberal. Journalism is still dominated by educated white guys. One study showed that the majority of journalists are like the majority of educated white guys: a bit liberal on social issues, but moderate or conservative on others, especially economic ones.

I think there is another, perhaps more important reason, that the media tends to frustrate those of us who know something about a given issue and see how badly it is reported, and that is that journalism is on the whole simplistic. I suggested in my comment to Paula's post that I believe the reason the plight of Kosovar Christians is not reported is just because it doesn't fit into a simple narrative that assigns white hats and black hats to broadly defined groups. Complexity does not work in a twenty-second news spot. If my impression is correct and the media bias tends towards the right, I think it is because the Republican party and its apologists have been able to create a very simple black and white narrative that works well with how news is presented. You are with us or against us. America brings democracy to other countries. Government is bad. Taxes are bad. The private sector is always superior to the public sector. And so on.

I still would not put all the blame on the media. Media companies answer the market. No one is forced to turn on Fox, they do so because they want a simple story that makes them feel good about themselves. The problem is that we are a culture that has become infantile in many ways -- no attention span, eager for instant gratification. We are a nation of two-year-olds. Isn't it absurd that political parties spend hundreds of millions of dollars to air twenty-second spots of their candidates standing in front of a flag, and that something that banal can decide an election? Until we as a culture decide to stop being willfully stupid, there's no reason for the media to reward us with real news.


crystal said...

It does seem in part like a supply and demand thing. And we pay attention to what we like, and what we like is partly formed by what we pay attention to ... a circular situation that feeds on itself. I think it's at least partly our responcibility to seek out complete information.

Jeff said...


I think you are right in pointing out that these media outlets are run by corporations, and corporations are going to do what is safe for them. If they don't play it safe, they stand to lose money. Another huge part of the problem is that young people are not taught critical thinking skills anymore. They are taught to be technicians. A liberal arts education has been scorned and ridiculed for at least the last 25 years. I remember it well, because I went to a business school that didn't even have a course in ethics at the time. It was a place where the average student loathed a liberal arts class like the plague.

The media painted Milosevic and the Serbs as the bad guys in the mid-nineties war, which they certainly were, but it would have confused people in thia white-hat/black-hat scenario that had been painted if they showed the Serbs as victims in Kosovo. After all, this war was supposed to be over, there were American peacekeepers there, and we'd moved on to the Chandra Levy stories of the day. Not nefarious, not a conspiracy, just a matter of benign neglect. It seems that not many people have an attention span for news anymore. Compare the length of the articles in Time magazine to ones written 30 years ago.

Jeff said...

By the way, Liam, how did your poetry reading go?

Paula said...

Liam I made a link to this post.:-).

Brian Cubbage said...

I just linked to it too, Liam. How did you know that I was working on a post on this very same topic?

I think that the most striking point you raise has to do with the need for a simple narrative to capture the complexities of social reality-- what the media critics call the "master narrative." I don't know, though, whether an economic supply-and-demand model, though, explains that phenomenon completely. Some of it has to be explained, I think, by the nature of the media used to convey information. Not to get all McLuhan-y, but television has a way of shaping stories that differs from print media, and television media exert greater influence in the world these days than print media. And it's too early to tell how the Internet will shape the way we look at news; some of the charges of "bias" might even stem from a burgeoning change in the way we process and consume information. It's too early to know for sure.

Liam said...

Crystal -- my thoughts exactly.

Jeff -- I think that the media is part of a general shift in the idea of how we get information to people that involves education as well. From teaching, I see that even many Ivy-League students don't all know how to think critically or write coherently.

The reading was very nice, thanks. Small, but good. The other three readers were very good poets and each of us had a different style that I think complimented each other. They were also very gracious, which is wonderful, because there can be a lot of egomaniacs in the NYC poetry scene.

Paula -- thanks for the plug.

Brian -- thank you as well. Your post was very good. I think the type of media is important as well. What is strange is all these 24-hour news channels that, even given lots of time to present an issue, still return to the superficial narrative.