Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Demise of Media Power

In recent years outcry has been growing against the biased mainstream media. This generally encompasses newspapers, broadcast television, and cable news channels, who have been shown to favor a political candidate in their reporting over his opponent, or to spin coverage of wars and international relations. We should not be surprised at how easy it is to sway an audience. The tone of an article, inclusion or omission of certain facts, the way questions are asked to acquire facts, and even the use or frequency of positive or negative buzz words all contribute to manipulating an audience. And we must admit that it is impossible to prevent bias from appearing in our media. Some gross abuses may be avoidable; news coverage should not be fabricating stories, and ought to check that they have reliable sources. What bothers most people is the apparent monopoly in the media by one side of American culture, namely, the more liberal side.

This is not a new phenomenon. During the Revolutionary War underground printing presses published pamphlets, propaganda for the masses who were otherwise uninformed about the masses of people discontented with British oppression. Media has been used in such ways, then, for centuries. 100 years ago the newspaper moguls such large and influential cities as New York and Chicago, far from being true competitors, met in the legendary smoke-filled rooms to agree on policies to support, on news to cover, that would best protect their power and influence. For my purposes today I cannot describe how these men gained their power. Yet they had it, and motive to keep their power.

But how could their power be threatened? One threat that goes deeper than we may at first imagine is the possibility of real competition. Suppose an enterprising young reporter had started his own printers, and published his own version of the news. More than likely he would have started small. Such a man could have made certain news available that was not to be found in any other papers. And so he could gain an audience. There is obvious economic pressure on the established media to maintain their audience. The nature of free markets dictates that larger corporations can afford to have lower prices. They have the advantage of an incumbent, brand recognition and loyalty already strong among their patrons. With more reporters, they can cover more territory, and produce more writing. And, of course, they have the ear of the people, and can tell them what they will about their opponent’s or the facts the other news sources report.

This competitive atmosphere is a familiar fixture in the market. And media giants have the advantage in every respect. Why would they be worried? Power. The more this different voice gains the respect of the people, the more power is taken from the others. The new voice creates few new readers, garnering the majority of its business by persuading the subscribers to the other papers to transfer their interest and attention. There are only so many news consumers to go around. And if readership falls below a certain level, the influence of that paper is strikingly less. In a democratic society, the majority rules. If one news source ceases to control the majority, they are in danger of losing everything.

Risk goes beyond that simple math. The more media is divided, and choice is required of the consumer, the less power is wielded by the media as a whole. Think of a large room. If one strong voice is projecting its speech in an otherwise silent room, the people will hear him. They are more likely to believe him. Many voices in chorus produce the same effect. If the whole room erupts in conversation, not only will you scarcely be able to hear the person right next to you; you will not be able to hear the one large voice, either. You will have to make a choice. Who do you wish to hear? The friend next to you, or the intelligent man across the aisle? The woman discussing a topic of interest, or the man with the microphone? Are you going to heed the voice on the stage or the voice by the door? How do you know if these people are even telling the truth? Suddenly no one has power to manipulate you, and once more you are an individual with private responsibility.

Today we have just such a room full of voices. The traditional media is losing large portions of its audience. Technology has made it possible for thousands of people to broadcast their thoughts and information. Newspapers proliferate. Old radio companies moved into television and cable. Conservative talk radio now has a strong following of people dissatisfied or bored with the traditional “mainstream” media. News magazines are published weekly. Millions have access to the internet, with free host services for blogs that can be searched and linked.

Acquiring information on which to report is a much broader road today. Rather than waiting for the communication carried by a single ship, months delayed, as was nearly the case during the Revolutionary War, we now have satellites and long distance telephones, cell phones, email, airmail, etc. If I were to witness a robbery, a friend in another state could know of it in minutes. Google and similar search engines have made it possible to search for the information you wish to share, eliminating part of the need to filter the competing voices on the overwhelmingly large and loud media stage.

Many are taking advantage of this new world of information. Some who have escaped the education system able to think for themselves have been creating these competing voices and sustaining them for decades until we reached this point. They investigate sources and find them reliable or not. Combining information offered by various outlets, an individual can draw his own conclusions and just as easily share them with others. Nevertheless, the majority of people remain addicted to the single voice. Unpracticed in discernment and logic, many people embark on an increasingly difficult course of clinging to the familiar one voice. It won’t last long. Market forces are at work. A house divided against itself will fall.

I’m not saying that radio will cease to exist, or that TV will go out of business, or even that the blog and web news fads will blow over. The influence is what is crashing in on itself. There is a possibility that it won’t. More on that in a moment. If it does, however, there seem to be two choices: either the people who don’t want to choose will wake up and think for themselves anyway, or a new power will come in and control them. Humanity craves leadership. It has found leadership without media in the past, and can persevere in its quest once again in a world where media is weak.

Recall those newspaper editors in that room, drinking and smoking cigars. They don’t want to lose their power. They don’t want the media empire to fall. These men know that strong competition, especially when faced on more than one front, reduces their power and eventually destroys it for all of them. What do they do?

The only chance of survival for the entrenched media is to fight back so hard that opposition is silenced. In this global technological age, I’m not sure that is possible. China is finding censorship a difficult problem to conquer. News businesses may strong arm their competition out of existence through economic competition, or they could if the internet weren’t essentially free. They can resort to sabotage, eliminating their foes with violence and vandalism and threats. Some of these new voices might be enticed into joining the club, the chorus. Or they can utilize their still-strong voices to change the laws. Laws are changed by wealthy special-interest groups all the time, and markets are controlled by big business using little laws to regulate small business into insignificance. So with media.

Do not doubt it: the powerful in the media have already begun to work. Using the government, members of which they helped to their election (and can slander out of power just as easily), they have begun to censor the freedom of speech.

- Broadcast TV, beginning this January, will be a thing of the past in January. Everything will be published in High Definition, and the government will take control of the airwaves for their own uses.
- Cable and Satellite TV, though offering many stations, are ultimately controlled by a select few established companies.
- In the 70’s and 80’s there was a law in effect endearingly called the “Fairness Doctrine,” requiring that radio stations offer all sides of an issue in their programming. This is both impossible and economically suicidal, as there is not an equal audience for all opinions. If reinstated, which the upcoming administration has considered, talk radio would be gone. (It is the nature of laws that they are not always evenly enforced. Though there may be a law against protesting on public property, the police and district attorneys decide who will be held accountable for violations. Therefore though the “fairness doctrine” may apply to all radio stations or even other media, enforcement can be targeted at specific stations or genres.)

I don’t know of any plans to censor the printed press or the internet, but watch for it. You will either see increased censorship or the demise of media as a superpower.

Doesn’t the Constitution guarantee free speech? Of course! But how is the government to be held accountable for trespass of the Constitution? How will you even know they have done so if no one tells you? Does the government own the airwaves? Broadcast equipment? Your TV or radio? In principle, they don’t. In practice, they absolutely do. And if you’re like me, you’re starting to think you’ve heard of other countries where there was one national media, publishing at the will of the government. Independent media entrepreneurs are not the only ones in history who have noticed that a single voice signifies singular power.

To God be all glory.

1 comment:

Lisa of Longbourn said...

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To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn