Do you think the media, in general, is too conservative, too liberal, or actually pretty impartial?
(a) Too conservative
(b) Too liberal
The former question—found at the questionnaire-based dating site I frequent, okcupid.com—invites a popular red herring into the argument of media bias. Political influence is not the important issue. The structure of big media is sculpted by capitalist bureaucracy, and the resulting bias is therefore forged by corporate and elitist interests, not political ideology. Impartiality to oligarchical groups and institutions is nearly impossible under these socioeconomic conditions. How can any business cater primarily to the public when their bottom line is influenced more by advertisers and wealthy shareholders than by their consumers?
To the extent that political alignment does affect the media and its consumers, it seems the liberals have an advantage. In a survey released earlier this week from The Pew Research Center, the results found that Americans who watch Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and who also visit newspaper websites, are the most knowledgeable of current events. At the other end of the political spectrum, regular viewers of Fox News ranked second to last. “Told that Shia was one group of Muslims struggling in Iraq, only 32% of the total sample [of Fox News viewers] could name ‘Sunni’ as the other key group.” (Editor & Publisher, 2007)
But the overall trends revealed by the Pew survey seem to indicate that public awareness of even the most elementary matters in local and global affairs (and across the political spectrum) is not a major press concern. Is our society truly dumb, or is it being dumbed down by our common avenues of information?
Some claim that the news media are simply telling the public what it wants to hear. After all, televised news is subject to the same network concern over ratings as other programs. In short, more customers equals more money no matter the nature of the business. But I wonder how news agencies “know” what the public wants. Unless they’re conducting polls and surveys on a moment to moment basis, there’s no way they can predict exactly which stories are going gain the most favor, especially considering that the stories themselves are unpredictable.
Furthermore, the world is a busy place with megatons of news being created every minute. Surely a significant percentage of it would fall into the categories of public interest. In order to restrict content to fit time slots and page space, the press needs some sort of additional criteria to determine which stories to investigate and which to overlook. Certainly that selective agenda comes down from the top. And who’s at the top? The rich and powerful, of course.