One doesn’t need a doctorate in communications studies to surmise that the American news media has its fair share of problems. With websites and blogs presenting easily digestible info bites set to a reader’s political leanings, sales for standard print journalism have drastically fallen and print media are facing extensive cost-cutting measures. Having long endured a calculated attack of “liberal bias,” many media outlets have responded by becoming hyper-polarized and exploiting political bias. Journalistic credibility has been wrought with question marks the media largely served as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration during the buildup to the war in Iraq.

Sarah Royce

Taking into account all the current issues with our country’s news media, perhaps nothing is more frightening than the state of American television news. Longstanding as the favorite source information for the majority of Americans, televised media simply does whatever it can to keep its viewers tuned in and entertained. Generally, these tactics focus on special-interest stories and sensationalism as a means of instant gratification, while long-running coverage of international issues or investigative journalism gets thrown by the wayside. In between news and extensive commercial breaks, the average network will probably churn out a dozen blowhard pundits representing party-line interests who talk around each other in circles for an hour at a time.

While one could offer a multitude of reasons behind the sorry state of our news, the most obvious and direct one pertains to its single-minded corporate interests. Over the past 20 years, ownership of the country’s major media outlets has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few major conglomerates, expanding and increasing profits. This media takeover is the direct result of federal policies that have loosened restrictions and allowed for a gradual centralization of power within the industry.

With most time now devoted to marketing techniques and cost-saving measures, the idea of public interest has progressively become more of a painful nuisance than a clear goal of our news media. We can’t really blame the owners of these companies for approaching the industry with this mindset; the pursuit of such a lofty ideal as general welfare of the people isn’t likely to thrive within the business world.

Undoubtedly, the corporate trend is not only taking place among televised media, as the major companies that own these stations are also in control of a large portion of print and radio outlets. But while functioning as American’s chief source for information and remaining highly susceptible to changes within the marketplace, the impact that corporate consolidation has had on television news has been more powerful and harmful than in any other area.

With the increasing dominance of major media outlets, efforts to serve or represent groups that are not necessarily consumers of products advertised or large contributors to profits – low-income minorities, for example – are increasingly viewed as an inconvenience. Areas of coverage that do not generate instant entertainment – social inequity, for example – are tossed aside in favor of sensationalist stories that generate interest among viewers who bring the most revenue to a company.

What’s even more dangerous than the coverage, however, has been the television news media’s increasingly pliant and subservient relationship to the presidency. During the Clinton years, we saw the emergence of aggressive spin, a political device in which presidential spokesmen and advisors distorted or approached the news in a particular way as to twist it to their liking. Now mastered and one-upped in the Bush presidency, the tactics of spin and deceit the current administration employs – from attacking unfavorable news stories to placing fake journalists in ads supporting its Medicare program – denote a consistent lack of respect for a free, independent media. More than any other outlet, network and cable news have functioned as parrots to the rhetoric of the administration – mimicking its words to the public without a scant attempt at critical analysis.

OK, so through this whole critique, we must cede a certain point: Television news is a business – one that ultimately is interested in profiting and expanding. And yet why do we get a persistent feeling that this business must function differently from some of our other major industries? Perhaps it’s the notion that an informed citizenry, educated across social and racial divides, is essential for a country aiming to be representative of the people. Or maybe it’s just that distant, faint voice in our heads telling us that a state without an independent, aggressive media – willing to make serving the public interest a central objective – does not deserve the title of democracy.

Bielak can be reached at anbielak@umich.edu.

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