Stop Blaming the Media!
by G. William Domhoff
Like everyone else, progressives have a strong tendency to blame the media for their failures. As horrible as the media can be, they are not the problem. Blaming the media becomes an excuse for not considering the possibility that much of the leftist program is unappealing to most people -- third parties, calls for a planned non-market economy, the use of violent tactics by some groups, and a tendency to rely on charismatic leaders. None of these has any appeal to average Americans, and it is not the media that created this negative reaction.
When activists complain about the nature of media coverage, they are actually demanding that the media abandon an independent journalistic stance and champion their cause by reporting what they want reported. This is in effect what people from the left and right constantly do: attack the media with the hope that they will bend in their direction, then blame the media if their program fails.
Today the main culprit is said to be television, with its misleading or distracting images, and non-stop advertising, but the complaint goes back to the days when there were only newspapers. It leads to endless dissection of every media story to find any mistakes and distortions, but progressives rarely consider the possibility that the media distortions are not the reason why they often lose. Blaming the media reinforces tendencies toward conspiratorial thinking. It crowds out creative thinking about how to make use of the media as part of strategic nonviolent campaigns.
To take a fairly recent instance, Ralph Nader's book on his 2000 presidential campaign blames the media for most of his failures. He tells of the many times that inept reporters asked if he was worried about throwing the election to Bush and the Republicans. He thinks that's an irrelevant question -- that only the issues and programs matter. The person with the best platform should win, with no thought of the underlying electoral coalitions that support the Democratic and Republican parties. But the reporters' questions actually reflected the central power issue in the campaign, the potential for the Green Party to ensure victory for the Republicans.
Nader's book spends a long chapter criticizing the Commission on Presidential Debates because it excluded him from the presidential debates. He clearly believes that the media exposure from appearing in the debates would have improved his vote total considerably. Everything he says about the commission and its complicity with corporations and the media is true. But it is a trivial revelation when it comes to what Nader claims is his major focus, building a strong anti-corporate, progressive social movement in the United States with the help of the electoral system. It wasn't exclusion from the debates that kept his vote totals low, but the rules of the electoral system.
The general leftist view of the media begins with the fact that ownership and control of the media are highly concentrated, and growing more so all the time. It also stresses that the media are based on advertising dollars, which makes them sensitive to the concerns of big corporate advertisers. The media are also said to be biased because they rely on easy sources of information like government officials, corporate leaders, and experts. Constant criticism of the media by their advertisers and other corporate leaders keep them in line, as do shouts of "collectivism" and anti-Americanism when they print something the powers that be do not like. Finally, the media are said to play a big role in setting the agenda in terms of what issues people think are important enough for the government to address.
There is a little something to be said for each part of this overall analysis, but taken as a whole it greatly overstates the case. It also ignores the many openings that are available to left activists when they learn how to use the media for their own purposes. In addition, it overlooks the way in which the media can be bypassed on some occasions.
Take the issue of media concentration. Concentration of ownership does not automatically mean that the range of opinions available through the media are narrowed. To so assume is to ignore the more basic question of how the news is produced by journalists and editors. For example, a study by a journalism professor of large newspaper chains suggests concentration may have less negative effects than progressives fear. Based on a content analysis of several editions of each newspaper, he first of all found that large newspapers and newspaper chains are more likely than small local newspapers to publish editorials and letters that deal with local issues or are critical of mainstream groups and institutions. Further, he found that a wider range of opinions appears in the chain newspapers, including critical ones. Finally, using survey responses from 409 journalists at 223 newspapers, he found that their reporters and editors report high levels of autonomy .
The concern about media concentration does not address the small circulations suffered by the many left wing magazines not owned by the major media. They often have had substantial funding from millionaire liberals and leftists, certainly enough to make themselves and their viewpoints known to millions of potential readers through mass mailings, but few people subscribe. In 2002, when Time and Newsweek had circulations of 4.2 and 3.3 million, their closest equivalents on the left, Mother Jones, The Nation, and The Progressive, had circulations of 148,000, 97,000 and 36,000, respectively. The sad truth of the matter is that very few people are interested in what these magazines have to say, which means that the liberal and progressive programs offered so far are not very attractive or convincing for most people.
Although the big media are first and foremost concerned with making a profit, which of course gives them much commonality with other businesses, there are nonetheless differences on some issues between media executives and corporate leaders that can be exploited. For example, leaders in the mass media tend to be more moderate on foreign policy and domestic issues than corporate executives. On questions concerning the environment, which are very sensitive to corporate leaders, the media pros hold the same views as people from liberal organizations. To counter what they see as a liberal bias, corporations therefore run their own large advocacy statements in major newspapers.
Supporting the critique by leftists, there is experimental evidence from laboratory studies suggesting that television may have a role in setting the policy agenda. For example, when researchers place a story first on the evening news, or repeat it several times during the course of a week, people are more likely to think of those issues as more important. However, there is also real-world evidence that the news is often not watched even though the television is on, and that people don't remember much of what they do see. The declining audiences for news programs lead to more and more emphasis on human interest stories. Face it, the news is increasingly a form of entertainment, just another unreal video. Several other studies suggest that most people actually retain more politically relevant information from what they read in newspapers and magazines. In addition, people seem to screen out information that does not fit with their preconceptions, and they rely on people they know in developing their opinions.
Furthermore, studies of media content find it is not all to corporate liking. For example, there is a great emphasis on bad news and sensationalism, with a special emphasis on crime and disasters, which corporate leaders criticize because it paints a negative picture of American society. They may have a point: studies demonstrate that people are influenced by negative news. The more crime news people watch, the more likely they are to overestimate the actual amount of crime, overestimate African-American involvement in violent crime, favor more money for crime prevention, and favor the death penalty. These findings are also of interest because they suggest that the media's focus on any violence that occurs at protest demonstrations is not peculiar to the activities of leftists.
Sometimes the emphasis on violence can even be of benefit to progressive activists, as shown when the media picked up on the violence of the vigilantes, Ku Klux Klan, and police in opposing the Civil Rights Movement. Some media analysts believe that the media helped to convince people outside the South that segregation had to end, thereby becoming the movement's ally. Nor could corporate leaders and government officials trying to compete with the Soviet Union in the Third World tolerate the rest of the world seeing these anti-democratic actions against people of color. Since trying to suppress freedom of the press was not an option, the rich and powerful had to condemn the violence in the South.
There is also evidence that people sometimes ignore overt attempts by the media to influence them. This is best seen in several well-known instances. For example, most newspapers were against the re-election of Roosevelt in 1936, but he won by a landslide. The media were against the re-election of Harry Truman in 1948, but he squeezed by in an upset victory. Led by the Washington pundits who appear on all the television opinion shows, the media were eager for the impeachment of Clinton in 1998, with over 140 newspapers calling for his resignation, but a strong majority of the American public shocked the experts by opposing impeachment despite a highly negative opinion of his personal behavior. People decided on their own that there is a difference between job performance and personal morality. One polling expert even thinks that the media campaign against the president may have backfired by increasing public resentment toward the media. Pundits are horrible, and almost always wrong, but maybe they aren't influencing many people.
Despite the generally conservative biases of newspaper owners, there are studies showing that the journalists who actually produce the news are by and large independent professionals who make use of the freedom of the press that was won for them by courageous journalists of the past, often in battles with the federal government. This independence is first of all seen in the many stories on corporate and government wrongdoing developed in the long tradition of investigative journalism, which always has been strongly resisted by corporate and political leaders alike. Thanks to their large resources, the major newspapers do as many critical studies of corporate malfeasance and government favoritism to big business as activists and scholars. Their stories provide much of the grist for the left mill, as can be seen in the footnotes in any indictment of the American power structure.
Moreover, thanks to the willingness of journalists to report on the events of the day, the media are a key element in the success formula of the small bands of lawyers and experts who function as reformers on specific issues. These reformers develop information on the issue of concern to them, find a way to present that information at just the right moment in one or another governmental setting, such as Congressional hearings, and then count on press releases, press conferences, and staged events to encourage the media to spread their story. In short, their formula for success is information plus good timing plus use of the media. There is ample evidence that this formula is an effective one, showing once again that a few focused activists can have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers or resources if they know how to use the media.
Contrary to their complaints, progressives have a great many contacts and friends in the media. It even can be argued that one key to activist successes down through the decades has been the media coverage their efforts have received, which is often very positive.
For some Left theorists and activists, my commentary on the Left critique of the media will seem incomplete because it only focuses on the news. It does not address the general underlying social and cultural messages said to be embodied in commercials, regular TV programs, movies, and videos, where we are implicitly told time after time that the United States is wonderful, that constant economic growth is necessary, and that we should feel free to buy everything in sight as the best avenue to happiness. According to this line of thinking, we even become walking billboards for consumerism by wearing shirts and caps with corporate logos and slogans.
My view is that a little bit of this goes a long way. For the most part, the commercial and programming aspects of the media primarily express corporate dominance as a way of life in a highly commercialized society, doing little to reinforce it or cause people to accept it. When Grand Theorists of Consciousness claim that cartoons, sit-coms, movies, and videos contribute to "ideological hegemony," I think they end up explaining away Left failures by claiming that people are bamboozled instead of considering the possibility that leftist programs and strategies have so far proven inadequate.
If progressives could bring the role of the media into a more balanced perspective, they could expend less energy attacking and analyzing them, and more effort figuring out how to make creative use of them as part of specific nonviolent campaigns. Since activists seem to be most annoyed with the media for exaggerating leftist violence, maybe that is another reason to eliminate violent and destructive tactics from egalitarian social movements. Within a nonviolence context, the media also might be of more use in insurgent campaigns in Democratic primaries than progressives generally believe because of their attraction to uphill struggles by valiant underdogs.
As the leftist critiques emphasize, the media can magnify the message of the powerful and trivialize and marginalize the claims of the powerless. But the media don't cause some people to be powerful and some people to be powerless. They have many highly professional and insightful journalists who usually do a good job under the difficult circumstances of murky events, unwilling sources, and political pressures from right, left, and center. Blaming the media draws attention away from the failed policies of American leftists. The media are not part of the out-group. They are a third party to the struggle that can be used to good effect on many issues, and should be cultivated.
For Nader's sustained attack on the Commission on Presidential Debates, see his Crashing The Party, New York: St. Martins Press, 2002, pages 58-59, 63, 158-161, 220-239, and 295. For information on media concentration, see Ben H. Bagdikian, The media monopoly. 6th edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. For the classic left statement on the media, see the propaganda model in Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988. For a good critique of the model, see Jeff Goodwin, "What's right (and wrong) about left media criticism? Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model." Sociological Forum, 9, 1994, pages 101-111.
For the study of chain newspapers, see David P. Demers, The menace of the corporate newspaper: Fact or fiction? Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996. For the differences of opinion between media and corporations, see Allen H. Barton, "Fault Lines in American Elite Consensus," Daedalus, 1980; Allen H. Barton, "Background, Attitudes, and Activities of American Elites," Research in Politics and Society, 1985, 1, pages 173-218; and Herbert Gans, "Are U.S. journalists dangerously liberal?" Columbia Journalism Review, November/December, 1985, pages 29-33. For experimental studies of agenda setting based on the viewing of television news in laboratory settings, see Shanto Kyengar and Adam F. Simon, "New Perspectives and Evidence on Political Communication and Campaign Effects," Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 2000, 149-162.
For a summary of studies suggesting that television news probably does not have much impact in the real world, see Robert Erikcson and Kent Tedin, American Public Opinion. Fifth edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1995. For evidence that people screen out media information that does not fit their general frameworks, see William A. Gamson, Talking politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
On the impact of crime news, see L. Heath and K. Gilbert, "Mass Media and Fear of Crime," American Behavioral Scientist, 39, 1996, 379-386. For the claim that the impeachment campaign may have increased resentment towards the media, see William Schneider, "And lo, the momentum shifted," National Journal, Oct 3, 1998, page 2350.
For empirical studies on the crucial issue of how the news is produced, see Herbert J Gans, Deciding what's news: A study of CBS evening news, NBC nightly news, Newsweek, and Time. New York : Pantheon Books, 1979; and Michael Schudson, The power of news. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. These book show that journalists have a fair degree of autonomy as professionals who respect the values and traditions of independent news gathering within which they work.
For evidence on how useful the media have been in the anti-sweatshop movement, see the first two chapters of Randy Shaw, Reclaiming America: Nike, clean air, and the new national activism.Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
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