Democracy requires an informed public. No one would argue with this statement. But while there are many sources of information, most Americans get their news from sources owned by relatively few media conglomerates whose driving concern is profits. The three student readings below examine the impact of the bottom line on the news business.
Student Reading 1:
The "deadening blanket"
"Most newspapers, television networks and local television and radio stations now belong to giant, publicly owned corporations far removed from the communities they serve. They face the unrelenting quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street now typical of American capitalism."
—Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert E. Kaiser, The News About the News
These giant corporations are also diverse media businesses. For example, Walt Disney Company's properties include:
- the ABC TV Network and TV stations in major American cities
- a stake in dozens of cable TV channels such as ESPN, A&E, and the History Channel.
- the ABC Radio Network and more than five dozen radio stations around the country magazines and book publishing companies, such as Hyperion
- Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone and other movie studios
- resorts and such theme parks as Disney World
- theatrical productions
- videos, films, and other teaching aids for schools
- hundreds of stores
- a Broadway theater
- the town of Celebration, Florida
All together, Disney, Viacom (CBS TV Network), Time Warner (CNN), News Corporation (Twentieth Century Fox), Bertelsmann (22 TV channels in Europe), and General Electric (NBC TV Network) own the great majority of the media market, including TV networks, cable channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, internet services, book publishing companies, film studios, advertising rights on buses, trains, billboards, theatrical productions, resorts and theme parks, and music labels.
In addition, Gannett owns USA Today, newspapers in most states, and TV stations in 15 states as well as in Washington, D.C. The Tribune Company owns a stake in the WB TV Network, a couple of dozen TV stations, and such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times , Chicago Tribune, and Newsday , as well as the Chicago Cubs baseball team. The Sinclair Broadcast Group has more than five dozen TV stations and access to one quarter of the U.S. TV audience. Clear Channel owns over 1200 radio stations.
Independent radio has just about disappeared since the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That new law was supposed to increase the diversity of radio voices. It produced the opposite effect, since companies are now permitted to buy up as many stations as they can. "When a media giant swallows a station, it typically fires the staff and pipes in music along with something that resembles news via satellite." Local news disappears. (Brent Staples, "The Trouble with Corporate Radio: The Day the Protest Music Died," New York Times, 2/20/03)
American citizens own the public airwaves, not media executives. But radio and TV owners use these airwaves for free. In exchange, their licenses require them to broadcast in the "public interest." They earn huge profits using this public resource. During the 2004 campaign season, for example, broadcasters received nearly $1.5 billion from political advertising.
"What do we get in return for granting TV stations free use of our airwaves?" asked a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). "Unfortunately, when it comes to coverage of issues important to our nation, the answer is less and less."
Coverage of elections is down significantly, reported Michael Copps in the New York Times. "Local coverage has diminished to the point that campaign ads outnumber campaign stories by four to one. What coverage there is focuses inordinately on polls and handicapping the horse race... The FCC is doing nothing to help as the situation deteriorates. It has weakened almost every explicit duty stations once had for serving the public interest, like ensuring that stations cover local issues and offer viewers a diversity of opinion... To make matters worse, the FCC now practically rubber-stamps TV license renewals, usually without auditing station records to determine whether licensees are fulfilling their public interest responsibilities or checking with communities to ensure that stations are meeting local needs ( New York Times, 8/30/04)
Media corporations spend lavishly on political campaign contributions, lobbying, and junkets for legislators. Cable giant Time-Warner made nearly $9 million in such contributions in the 2004 presidential election year. Between 1998 and 2004, General Electric's political contributions were $94 million. (www.publicintegrity.org)
American citizens pride themselves on living in a country where they are free to say and write what they want. But this does not mean that the major media and thus the public at large will pay any attention.
"The corporate concentration of media ownership has put a deadening blanket over the usual cacophony of democracy with dissenting voices screened for acceptability by young and often witless TV producers. Corporate owners have a strong stake in what gets said on their stations. Why piss off the President when you will need his good regard for so many things?." (William Greider, "All the King's Media," The Nation, 11/21/05)
A recent and blatant example of the "deadening blanket" phenomenon was coverage of the events leading to the US invasion of Iraq. Newspapers printed many ominous Bush administration statements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. One sample is Vice President Dick Cheney's 8/26/02 statement that "there is no doubt" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and planned to use them against the US He offered no evidence. Newspapers did not demand any or ask probing questions.
Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the non-partisan Columbia Journalism Review, commented, "One of the most disturbing features of American journalism: its pack mentality. Editors and reporters don't like to diverge too sharply from what everyone else is writing. When a president is popular and a consensus prevails, journalists shrink from challenging him." ("Now They Tell Us," New York Review of Books, 2/26/04)
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. In the past, most newspapers, television, and radio stations did not belong to "giant, publicly owned corporations." What differences does it make that they now do?
3. Does your community still have a local TV station? A local radio station? If so, how much local news do they offer?
4. Media owners are required by their licenses to act in the "public interest." How would you define this term? What are some examples of "public interest" broadcasting, in your opinion?
5. Why do you suppose that media corporations make large political contributions, employ lobbyists, and offer junkets?
6. William Greider wrote that corporate media owners need a president's "good regard" and Michael Massing that journalists "shrink from challenging" a popular president." In each case, do you agree? Why or why not?
7. What connection might there be between media corporation ownership and poor reporting on the events leading to the Iraq war?
Student Reading 2:
Newspapers: pressures for profits and consequences
Michael Massing wrote in the New York Review of Books, "Today, most newspapers are owned by large publicly held corporations, for which profit margins are increasingly more important than investment in better reporting."
Today, large chains own more than 1200 of 1500 dailies. Before 1963, most Americans got their news from newspapers. Since 1963 a majority have gotten it from TV. Writes Massing, "For most big-city papers, circulation is declining, advertising is shrinking, and reporters and editors are being let go." The Los Angeles Times eliminated 60 staff members last summer and 10 percent of its Washington bureau because of declining profits. Other Tribune-owned papers also reduced their Washington bureaus. "The cutbacks have made it harder for reporters at these papers to meet their daily deadlines, much less undertake in-depth reporting," writes Massing. ("The End of News," New York Review of Books, 12/1/05)
Recently, the Louisville,KY, Courier-Journal closed one of the last of its bureaus in the state. "From the heart of coal country, the reporters used the megaphone of the Courier-Journal's front page to tell the world about mining disasters and the strip mining that cut across the roller-coaster terrain here. The strip mining articles won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1967," the New York Times reported (1/30/06) in an obituary for this kind of reporting.
"Newspapers across the country," the article continued, "are retrenching, redeploying their employees and resources while they to ride out what they hope is a temporary slump but one made all the more worrisome as readers and advertisers migrate to the Internet."
Some of that migration is to the websites of newspapers. Among the top on-line global news sites are newyorktimes.com and washingtonpost.com. In September 2005 more than 21 million users visited the Times site. But these and almost all other newspaper sites are free or mostly free. Whether newspapers (and the corporations that own them) can find ways to generate significant income from their websites is unclear.
Barry Bingham Jr., the former publisher whose family sold the Louisville paper to Gannett, said, "I hate to see it happen, but Gannett has profit-margin demands that the Binghams never dreamed of... We made a marginal profit, maybe 5 or 6 percent, and other publishers would laugh at us and say 'you have to be an idiot not to get 20 percent margins... ' It's sad, but this is happening all around the country." Gannett profit margins are about 30 percent.
So newspapers continue to make money. The average profit margin is 20.5 percent, though some papers earn even more than Gannett's 30 percent. But competition from TV, from cable and from the Internet have made such high profits more and more difficult to maintain. "Newspapers are very profitable, but their growth is slow, which means incessant cost-cutting to meet Wall Street's expectations," said John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times. "The cost-cutting leads to weaker journalism-fewer reporters, fewer photographers, fewer editors, fewer pages in the paper." (Massing, 12/1/05)
Gene Roberts, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, said that cutting news budgets to satisfy Wall Street demands for profit margins of 25-30 percent is a form of "systematic suicide."
Seventy percent of older Americans read a newspaper every day, but only twenty percent of young Americans do. The result is "America is facing the greatest exodus of informed citizenship in its history," wrote David Mindich, a journalism teacher in Vermont. He cited 23 students who were asked to name as many members of the Supreme Court as they could. Eighteen could not name one. (Massing, 12/1/05)
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Downie and Kaiser point out that most media conglomerates "are far removed from the communities they serve." How exactly might this fact affect community service?
3. They also state that they "face unrelenting quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street." How might this financial situation affect news reporting?
4. A small group of giant corporations own a vast share of the media market, a major change from years ago when many more companies owned a share. What do you think is the significance of this change? Why?
5. List as many differences as you can between newspapers and TV newscasts? Which do you think are most significant? Why?
6. Of what importance, if any, do you think it is that only 20 percent of young Americans read a newspaper every day?
7. Where do you get your news? How many members of the Supreme Court can you name? What difference, if any, does it make whether you can or can't?
Student Reading 3:
TV News: pressures for profits and consequences
"Television is not only a program service but an advertising medium which operates in a framework of intense competition. The principal value television has to offer an advertiser is audience, and the rating services furnish us and our advertisers with the measurement of the audience generated by our programs. This is a business requirement of broadcasting, essential in solidifying and justifying the advertising expenditures that support our program service." (Author Edward Epstein, quoting an NBC vice president, in his book News from Nowhere )
The business of a television station is to entice as large an audience as possible for advertisers. The larger the audience, the larger the fee the station can charge them. In the earlier days of TV newscasts, the CBS, NBC, and ABC networks with their many local affiliate channels, had no news competition. Today they do from 24/7 cable channels like CNN and Fox, talk radio and Internet news sites and blogs.
In an op-ed article for the New York Times, Ted Koppel, who recently retired from ABC's Nightline program, reflected on the condition of television news today (1/29/06). He concluded that "I cannot help but see that the industry in which I have spent my entire adult life is in decline and in distress."
Koppel sees a number of reasons why this is happening:
1. Bottom line mentality. Years ago CBS took great pride in a news division that included newsmen like Edward R. Murrow and Eric Severeid who sought to educate about the country and the world through their programs. "Now, every division of every network is expected to make a profit."
2. The decision to appeal to certain viewers. No longer do television news programs seek an audience of young and old, the less informed and the well-educated. "The goal... now is to identify those segments of the audience considered most desirable by the advertising community and then to cater to them... Indeed, in television news these days, the programs are being shaped to attract, most particularly, 18-34-year-old viewers. They, in turn, are presumed to be partly brain-dead-though not so insensible as to be unmoved by the blandishments of sponsors."
3. Decline in foreign news. In 1970 CBS had 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 smaller bureaus, and part-time reporters in 44 countries. Today CBS has eight foreign correspondents and three bureaus. Foreign stories cost twice as much to produce as domestic ones. "Simply stated, no audience is perceived to be clamoring for foreign news, the exceptions being wars in their early months that involve American troops, acts of terrorism and, for a couple of week or so, natural disasters of truly epic proportions."
4. Retreat from the ideal of objectivity. "Most particularly on cable news, a calculated subjectivity has...displaced the old-fashioned goal of conveying the news dispassionately... But there are too many important things happening in the world today to allow [the news] to be determined to such a degree by the popular tastes of a relatively narrow and apparently uninterested demographic [18-34-year-old viewers]."
5. Fear of controversy. "Of all the internal problems confronting the press (and the TV news divisions), the reluctance to venture into politically sensitive matters, to report disturbing truths that might unsettle and provoke, remains by far the most troubling."
An example of this last point is the news about the Iraq war. As Michael Massing notes in the New York Review of Books, civilian deaths caused by the insurgents are reported regularly, but not civilian deaths caused by American bombings and other actions. US military personnel are interviewed and quoted about attacks; Iraqi civilian eyewitnesses whose statements contradict them are generally not quoted.
"On November 8," Massing wrote, "I turned on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 to see how the host was doing in his new job. It was Election Day, and I was hoping to find some analysis of the results. Instead, I found Cooper leading a discussion on a new sex survey conducted by Men's Fitness and Shape magazines." (Michael Massing, The Press: The Enemy Within," New York Review of Books, 12/15/05)
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What difference, if any, does "a bottom line mentality" make to TV news producers?
3. Why do you suppose that advertisers on TV are most interested in 18-34-year-old viewers?
4. Why do you suppose that Koppel deplores the decline of foreign news on TV?
5. What evidence can you cite to support or contradict Koppel's view that, especially on cable news, there has been "an abandonment, at least to some degree, of the ideal of objectivity"?
6. How would you explain why civilian deaths caused by American bombings and other actions receive little attention in TV newscasting?
7. How would you explain Cooper's choice of a new sex survey for discussion rather than an election?
1. The reading offers many criticisms of news reporting in the media. Select one of them for a short study through reading a newspaper, listening to a radio news report or viewing a TV newscast. Then report in writing on your findings.
2. Study a particular TV newscast several times. What evidence do you find that the newscast is or is not aiming to appeal to 18-34-year-old viewers? Consider both what is reported and what is advertised. Report in writing on your findings.
1. Investigate the FCC. Exactly what are the most important things this federal agency is supposed to do? How does it do them? How well does it do them?
2. Develop a set of questions for a study of the news reported on a local community radio station over a week's time. All news represents a construction of reality prepared by a relatively few people. What portrait of this community is presented through a station's news reports? What evidence can you cite to support your conclusions?
3. Study a cable or TV network news program over a week's time. How much time is devoted to foreign news as compared to national news? Specifically, what kinds of foreign news items receive attention?
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org