Thursday, October 17, 2013


By Ronald Fox

In my essay on economic inequality and the cheating culture, I admonished our governmental regulatory system for aiding and abetting the growing prevalence of institutional corruption and individual cheating in America. I would be remiss if I did not also include the changing face of political journalism in my indictment. Political journalism in the United States has suffered a serious decline in the last three decades. This is primarily the result of greater concentrated media ownership in the hands of large corporations, who have adopted market-driven, business models mandating, among other things, the downsizing of news divisions, which they no longer consider profitable. A number of once great newspapers and news magazines have even ended daily publication. The result has been less coverage of political issues and elections and a narrower defining of newsworthiness to the priorities of the owning corporation‘s bottom line. These priorities no longer include watching out for, and going after, institutional corruption and wrong-doing.

Corporate media has become full-fledged members of the power structure. Rather than speaking to power, as was the press tradition for most American history, today it largely echoes the priorities and policies of the economic elite. Free-market theories and prescriptions are the corporate media’s guiding light, which in practice leads them to take a generally conservative, pro-business slant on economic and fiscal issues. They use their financial and communication power to consolidate the power of the economy in the service of the economic elite. This makes off-limits and unquestioned those areas that people in power agree should be left alone. As business conglomerates, with vast arrays of diverse holdings, the media giants tend to avoid presenting any bad news about topics near and dear to their own financial hearts (they certainly wouldn’t want to bite the hand that feeds them).

Without market incentives and reduced news divisions, the time-honored, muckraking tradition of journalists uncovering and reporting on corruption to the American public, which has been such an important part of our journalistic history, has been alarmingly diminished. Oh sure, scandals are occasionally reported, but usually they’re portrayed as products of individual “bad apples,” rather than structural manifestations of modern capitalism. The Progressive Era belief that journalism should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” remains only a fading memory of a glorious past.

John Nichols and Robert McChesney in their 2010 book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, document that less than half as much time and money is devoted to news journalism today than was the case twenty-five years ago. It has become even less than this since their book was published. The growing financial dependence of commercial media on paid political ads, which now amounts to 25-30% of total revenues, has accelerated the trend away from straight news coverage. There is simply less time and space to fit in news time.

Media moguls point to changing market realities, especially the explosion of the Internet and various social media, as the cause of the destruction of the traditional news business model, but a more accurate explanation is that increasingly concentrated news media corporations eviscerated and trivialized the product for decades, ultimately making the news it presented less interesting, informative, and relevant to the political lives of most Americans. When’s the last time you saw a critical investigative report on such public concerns as poverty, how money has corrupted our politics, corporate campaign abuses, details of what is buried in legislation, what regulatory agencies are doing, inequalities in the justice system, or the propriety of corporate capitalism, appear on any of the main networks? How about a political documentary of any sort? Whereas there used to be a bevy of enterprising journalists sniffing out abuses of power, today they have virtually vanished, or, like Bob Woodward, have become mostly stenographers to power.

The point to stress here is that the independent watchdog function of the press, deemed so important to our Founding Fathers as necessary for a healthy democracy, is, as the Federal Communication Commission said in a 2011 report, “at risk.” In an era of ever-increasing institutional corruption, misconduct, cheating, and abuses of money power, the collapse of the watchdog function of journalism has become part of the problem. How many important stories of violations of the public trust have been missed, neglected or hedged? Who knows? Who would know?

At the same time, the decline of news coverage of elections and politics has opened the floodgates for the proliferation of expensive, paid political advertising, affordable to only the wealthy few. Such advertising revenue has become the lifeblood of broadcast media, and has intruded into the Internet as well. This not only saturates the American public in a sea of partisan propaganda, most of it negative, deceptive, and blatantly bereft of facts, but also plays into the hands of money power by tilting the playing field of political communication to the wealthy few, a theme I will turn to in a later posting.

Like lax governmental regulation, the collapse of watchdog journalism has removed an important restraint against institutional corruption and other abuses of power. The replacement of factual, hard-hitting news reporting with paid propaganda has spawned a less-informed, often ill-informed, public increasingly entrenched in narrow partisan beliefs, and hence less inclined to engage in civil and fruitful political conversation. This reinforces the deeply polarized, poisoned, partisan divide that is causing government dysfunction and eroding our democratic culture. Indeed, our founders were right, without a vigilant press, democracy cannot flourish. We are living the proof.

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