Free speech, but whose voice? Media ownership and democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thomas Jefferson famously said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

He considered a vigorous press essential for a nation to have an informed citizenry. So perhaps it should distress us that there are now about 33,000 journalists in America's newsrooms, down from a peak of about 57,000 in 1990. While the number of citizens to be informed has grown, the number of journalists to inform them has fallen by about 42%. So, we're well on our way to government without newspapers.

This is mainly because of disruptions in the news business. There was a time when many cities had multiple newspapers, then there was a time when most towns had a newspaper, some radio stations, and some television stations. The broadcast media depended heavily on the newspaper to ferret out news stories that they could then cover.

Newspapers, during the period when most cities had only one, endeavored to deliver a product that was viewed as impartial by their readers. In practice, this meant that newspapers reflected the politics of the populations they served. You could count on a New York paper being more liberal than one in some small town in Idaho, for example.

National broadcast news for a time consisted of three channels. Again, the incentive was to appear impartial, in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Attacks on the impartiality of the news media were effective in part because of this.

The thing is, it was the limited number of news sources that made an attempt at impartiality necessary. When there were several newspapers in each major city, the incentive was to capture a large share of the audience, by making the paper interesting to a large group, sometimes in opposition to other groups. You might have a blue-collar paper, and one that appealed more to professionals and business people.

But once the industry settled down to a series of local monopolies, the incentive was to appear impartial so as not to tempt anyone to start a competing paper. In the 1950s through the present,, most newspapers attempted impartiality to include as much of their potential audience as possible, and national news networks tried to be as inclusive as possible to avoid alienating parts of their audience.

But one thing about news is, if you tell people what is really happening, you will sometimes end up telling them things they don't want to hear. The mess of the Vietnam War and the big cultural shifts that started happening in the 1960s were replete with stories about things people did not want to have happen, and did not like being told about.

The objective of impartiality became problematic in part because of the forces tearing the country apart. Impartiality consists of telling stories that are full, fair, and accurate. Two of the three standards there are subjective, and I doubt Noam Chomsky and Dick Cheney could even agree on whether a news story was accurate.

Fox News recognized this as an opportunity, rather late in the day, I'd say, when they launched in 1995. CNN had shown that a cable-based news network could be viable, and it occurred to Rupert Murdoch that there was an under-served audience of conservatives who did not like being told that the country was changing in ways they didn't like. He got Roger Ailes, a former Republican Party media consultant who had also been an NBC executive, to run his new network, which was designed to appeal to conservative viewers. The formula has been very successful, but now faces a demographic crisis because the average age of its viewers in 68.

At about the same time, the internet, which had been non-commercial in the late 1980s, became fully commercialized. Soon, the cost of starting a news organization fell, and the cost of distribution fell to almost nothing. However, actually getting paid for news on the internet was practically impossible. Many news organizations started putting their stories on line for free, and news aggregators soon began to skim off what little money there was in internet news.

So most internet "news" sites didn't hire a lot of reporters to get their stories. They became free riders on the reporting done by the declining news industry, and put their own spin on it. In fact, while the newspapers' stock in trade had been accurate reporting and attempted impartiality, the internet news sources' stock in trade is their bias. Appealing to a small part of the potential audience might limit their reach, but it guarantees them at least part of the audience.

This is what happens when you have a lot of voices: More shouting. The economics of the news industry is the key to whether it attempts to be impartial or to give its readers red meat for their existing bias.

What I hear from people still working in the newspaper industry is that the staffs are still shrinking. Positions go dark and stay dark, or a command comes down from on high that the budget must be cut by approximately the salary of a staffer. Newspapers, once cash cows, are being starved for resources. Fewer reporters means less actual news, and more competing outlets means more bias.

What would Jefferson think? Probably that it was a lot like the newspapers of his time, that labeled him the "negro president." The press in his day could be vicious, and often carried their political bias right on the masthead.


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