None of the above

Do you think the media, in general, is too conservative, too liberal, or actually pretty impartial?

(a) Too conservative
(b) Too liberal
(c) Impartial

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.

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2 thoughts on “None of the above

  1. b.
    Did you see the news regarding VA Tech? The media goes way too haywire, in my opinion, showing blood and guts and gore. They are too “liberal” therefore in what they allow to air. A more “conservative” approach would be to explain details without showing so much graphic video or photos which “desensitize” (an overused, but accurate term) the masses.

  2. It’s important to distinguish between “liberal” as a general term, meaning abundant or loose, and as an ideology, meaning progressive or favoring maximum individual freedom. The same semantic awareness should be applied to the word “conservative.” Colloquially speaking, it means low-key or cautious, but politically it denotes an inclination to preserve tradition and to limit or oppose change. Typically when the terms are juxtaposed, and especially when in reference to the media, their political definitions are assumed.

    One should also appreciate the significant difference between representing reality and sensationalizing it. The latter is a technique employed by the entertainment industry in its quest for ratings (and ultimately, dollars). But violence is presently an inescapable fact of reality, and it pervades our media despite political bias or financial motives. If one prefers not to see the graphic truth, I might suggest newspapers or radio programs instead of television broadcasting.

    I seek the extensive reality of violence and injustice in uncommon news sources, books, and documentaries without finding myself at all desensitized. In fact, I’d say my empathy has grown more sensitive as a result. In my view, the problem is that big media’s presentation of violence is widely disproportionate. They hype some events (the Virginia Tech shootings) and ignore or otherwise downplay others (almost 300 were killed yesterday in Iraq with reports of “children being pulled alive from beneath the charred corpses of their relatives” and of furious Iraqi citizens throwing charred body parts at American soldiers). The most violent sites on Earth—Congo, Darfur, Iraq—get little media attention compared to their extent of chaos and bloodshed.

    In those extreme cases, the press doesn’t show enough violence, else there might be more compassion for the victims and consequent progressive action. As it is, too many people in this nation aren’t even aware of the Congo genocide that’s approaching Holocaust scale. Thousands have died this week alone, but they’re conveyed as mere statistics without faces, families, or friends—if the atrocious stories make it to the mainstream news at all. Violence is part of our world, and I think it should be intimately depicted as gruesome and horrifying, because it is.

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