I was talking with a friend of mine that is a McCain supporter and he was saying to me that he felt that the media's treatment of McCain was poor and that it treated Obama much better. It reminded me of laments I had been hearing from conservatives since my political consciousness formed which was around the time that Bill Clinton was elected.
During Bill Clinton's time in office, I distinctly remember my Republican compatriots (I switched sides in May 2006) calling CNN names like the "Clinton News Network" and the "Communist News Network" and saying that the media had a major liberal bias. That is being said more today, during this election, than probably at any other time that I can think of. After much thought, I have come to a conclusion: the media does not have a liberal bias. In fact, it has no political bias at all. All news sources except PBS are operating under non-political conditions and their political coverage is driven with a different goal in mind.
My friend asked me if I believed that news organizations have a duty to be fair and to tell the truth and I responded that yes, indeed, news organizations do have those duties. The problem is that there are not many news organizations in America today. There are businesses that deliver news. This is an supremely important distinction.
Businesses own every major news outlet in America except the Public Broadcasting Service which is supported by donations from everyday citizens and some government assistance. Microsoft and General Electric co-own MSNBC, CNN is owned by Time-Warner, Fox News is owned by News Corporation. NBC is owned by General Electric. Disney owns ABC. Westinghouse owns CBS. Clear Channel dominates the radio station industry and its only serious competitor is CBS, which owns some radio stations of its own. That's it... there are some independent operators but no large group of Americans looks to them for news like they do to these paragons.
The reason it is a supremely important distinction that businesses are the ones providing news to the public is because, unlike news organizations, a business' number one goal is to make a profit. There is nothing wrong with this because that is what businesses are supposed to do: make money. They make money by selling advertising space to other businesses which their viewers imbibe in between receiving information from their news outlet of choice. This interconnects the information (i.e. news) that people receive and use to make decisions to nearly every Fortune 500 company since all the Fortune 500 have need to advertise their goods or services to the public.
This is where the argument that news outlets are liberal jumps the rails. The fact that all our major news outlets but one are owned by businesses and must make a profit to continue employing people creates two major issues. The first major issue is that the media outlet will put on the air what gets the most ratings because that increases their profits by increasing what each ad slot is worth. The most accessible example of this is the advent of 24/7 cable news channels. CNN came in first into a market whose viability was questionable and then it proved that not only was the market for 24/7 cable news viable, it was lucrative. CNN went on the air in 1980 and after its coverage of the first Persian Gulf War, the wheels began to turn to produce competitors for CNN. Now that the CNN coverage of Desert Storm had proven to be a smashing economic success, MSNBC and Fox News waded into the pool with CNN in 1996 after a few years of planning by their founders. The two took very different routes to become legitimate competitors of CNN.
Fox News became CNN's strongest competitor, coming to beat it in certain time slots. Many consumers viewing the news were looking for something more conservative than CNN and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. was savvy enough to give it to them. They came online with more conservative television personalities like Tony Snow and Bill O'Reilly, the latter who is still at the helm of his show. Conservatives flocked to Fox News, declaring it the antidote to the leftist CNN and making News Corp. a great deal of money in the process. MSNBC took a different approach that would lead it down a different road. Because of Microsoft's teaming up with General Electric to create the channel, the Internet played a large part in the nascent news channel's growth. In the interest of objectivity, and also to underline MSNBC's more Internet-based strategy, Newsvine is a subsidiary of MSNBC. The role of the Internet in MSNBC's evolution pushed it left of CNN as well as market demands. Once Fox had satisfied conservative viewers by moving to the right of CNN, there was a void to the left of CNN and it was both the developing blogosphere of the Internet (along with the creation and strong growth of MoveOn.org during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998) and the existence of that void that made MSNBC into what it is now: the left-of-center cable news network with shows hosted by outspoken liberals like Keith Olbermann. MSNBC would stay CNN's smallest competitor ratingswise, but its Internet component gives it an advantage that neither CNN nor Fox News wields. The Internet side of things is also a weak point for CNN and Fox because MSNBC has always had Microsoft, whose knowledge of the Internet surpasses every company but Apple, to guide it while CNN and Fox News have never had guides, period.
That said, sensationalism gets ratings. The format of conservatives bringing ratings had already been demonstrated clearly by Rush Limbaugh's popularity on AM radio in the early 1990's. His popularity rose so high in conservative circles that the freshmen Republican House members after the 1994 election jokingly called themselves the "Dittohead Caucus" (so named because Limbaugh's listeners call themselves Dittoheads) and Newt Gingrich named Rush an honorary member of the United States Congress. It was but a small leap for News Corp. to conclude that they could create the same success in a more popular medium. MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News cater to their viewers' political prejudices because it reassures the viewers and the viewers will come back for more reassurance. This adds up to steady streams of advertising dollars. This, as we reviewed earlier in the article, is precisely what businesses are supposed to do: make a profit. It creates a problem when every bit of news is sensationalized to wring every bit of ratings it can out of the viewers: it presses buttons on the viewers emotions and can lead them to form polarized political attitudes and sometimes be the prelude to indecent behavior.
The second issue is more serious and that issue is that there is a conflict of interest when the news that these businesses are supposed to disseminate is contrary to their own or advertisers' best interests. As an example, let's say I own a cable news network and you, the reader, have bought 80% of my advertising spots. If one of my reporters comes to me with a story that says your company is selling a product that could have a negative effect on the American public's long-term health, what are my options? Run the story and put out of work the people paid with your advertising money (while allowing my less-discerning competitors to be viewed as trustworthy with negative information meaning I get no more advertising from other businesses wishing to avoid commercial ruination) or shelve the story and allow the public to take the hit? If I'm a businessman, I do the latter because I'm responsible to my employees and shareholders to make a profit. Businesses own all but one major media outlet in America. It is simple logic to deduce what things may have come to their attention and been shelved.
While this piece raises more questions than it answers, my conclusion is the following: the majority of Americans believe incorrectly that businesses who distribute news are news organizations. The reality is that all Americans who do not get their news and information from PBS are receiving it from a business whose #1 priority is not to be fair and inform the public, but to make a profit and are convinced otherwise. Until people understand whom they are receiving the news from, they will never understand how or why it is being delivered the way it is. The simple answer is there is a liberal bias in the media; the simple answer is beyond wrong.