Is Media Bias Really Undermining Democratic Capitalism?

October 28, 2020

by Christina Elson

Allegations of “media bias” are as old as the Republic and have been leveled by leaders and ordinary citizens from all sides of the political spectrum, agree expert panelists brought together for a pre-election webinar hosted by LEVICK and the Wake Forest University Center for the Study of Capitalism (CSC). The difference in today’s debate over media bias, our panelists say, is that it reflects the tribalism that now dominates American political life, along with the financial pressures that cloud the business models of media organizations, plus the anything-goes ethos of social and digital media.

Our panelists – Lincoln Project strategist and MSNBC commentator Kurt Bardella; CNN commentator and Emmy Award-winning journalist Alice Stewart; former USA TODAY editor and Nixon biographer Ray Locker; and veteran legal analyst and media commentator Michael Zeldin – all agree that the public’s lack of trust in the both digital/print news and broadcast media threatens not only democratic institutions but business institutions, too.

My cohost Richard Levick pointed out that the Middle East has long been regarded as unreceptive to democracy because of the religious and cultural tensions that exist between rival sects. Has the U.S. in recent years devolved into similar tribalism, with each tribe glued to their own preferred media channels and viewing other outlets with disdain?, he asked.

Sadly yes, answered Zeldin. Too many viewers look to the national news for confirmation of already deeply held beliefs and not a recitation of that day’s news, which remains the province of local news. They tune into their favorite national networks (MSNBC and Fox come to mind) to hear barbed opinion, not fact-based reflections on newsworthy developments. Instead, Stewart added, their content tends to be visceral reactions – one after the other from a passel of commentators – to a brief soundbite, meant to disgust or outrage audience members, not enlighten them. Those moments are repeated dozens of times a day, on program after program. It’s media bias to be sure, Locker notes, but it’s a media bias to which viewers clearly respond. If we demand that Twitter place warnings on groundless salvos, should we demand that news programs clearly label what is an opinion piece and what is based on vetted sources and facts?

I volunteered that almost all media organizations, like it or not, have a financial bottom line and are struggling with the complicated dynamics of running an increasingly digital business based on ad revenue and subscriptions. Advertisers know who buys their products and what flavor of news they consume. Media executives know which stories will play with their constituents, how long they’ll hold their interest, and which topics to avoid. As Locker acknowledged, these business considerations play a role in determinations of how news gets created and reported.

Does the current media landscape drive home the simple fact that, no matter what side of the aisle the public is on, the short-termism that we accuse businesses of exhibiting is really a reflection of U.S. consumers’ insatiable demands for instant gratification?

Climate change is the biggest story in the world, Bardella noted, yet surveys show that the public gets bored reading about it, so stories about the effects of global warming tend to get shelved or buried. The same holds true with “process” stories, explanations of where certain issues stand in the legislative or regulatory process, which were a staple of print journalism a generation ago but have fallen out of favor because they don’t attract eyeballs, Locker said. The media outrage around separating families of illegal immigrants at the border burned intensely for a few weeks – only to be replaced by the next polarizing topic.

The no-holds-barred world of social and digital media has also tainted the debate over the proper role of conventional media. As social media has gotten more popular and ubiquitous, the ugly recriminations, conspiracies, and prejudice that we might expect to hear from a crazy uncle in an embarrassing Facebook post have crept into the mouths of media people in positions of trust and authority.

Are the tactics used by social media responsible for shifting mainstream media to put more emphasis on the near term and opinion over fact? Stewart and Zeldin both argued that Big Tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook need to accept much greater responsibility for the incendiary content they carry. The companies say they’re mere “platforms” when it’s to their advantage, then claim they’re “publications” when they want to assert First Amendment protections, Zeldin said. They’re raking in huge profits while the bottom line of conventional media suffers.

There is growing bipartisan support to take a hard look at the practices of Twitter, Facebook, et al. Whether efforts at regulation amount to an ultimate solution to our media woes is doubtful.

The business models governing both digital/print news and broadcast are “broken,” says Locker. Bardella and Zeldin called for the American viewing public to become more sophisticated, more discerning. I agree that, ideally, viewers should demand a more objective presentation of the news. But even if they don’t, is it too hard to encourage trusted leaders to urge the public to embrace empathy and broad-mindedness?

Most of us know full well that when we look at news programs we are ingesting, primarily, opinion. Checking multiple “biased” sources is a basic way to understand and appreciate the opinions of others.

What is the responsibility of business in engaging as a media advertiser? Zeldin pointed out that corporations used to fear getting wrapped up in an Exxon-Valdez-type crisis. Now a company worries that it will be caught in the crossfire of a political culture war by advertising on the “wrong” program.

Companies know digital media/print news and broadcast are great places to sell products and services. But they don’t want their brand tarnished by association with something or someone that’s suddenly gone rogue or radioactive. The reality is that every time corporate leadership spends dollars on media that flourishes on presenting polarizing opinions over fact, it is, essentially, making a statement about the company’s values.

All democracies support some form of capitalism and a free press. Democracy requires an educated citizenry that is, at least from time to time, willing to forego tribalism for consensus and always willing to question what they hear from media, business, and elected leaders. Capitalism has a hard time functioning in any other environment.

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Christina Elson is the Executive Director of the Wake Forest University Center for the Study of Capitalism.