Chapter 8: Television News — Who’s in Control?
A free press is the triumph of humanity over oppression.
-- Thomas Jefferson 1
From the TV's beginning, news was considered one of its greatest strengths. The idea that events occurring hundreds or even thousands of miles away can be brought directly into the home has enormous appeal. When a coast-to-coast hook-up was achieved, millions of viewers were amazed to see the sun setting over the towers of New York City, and, in the next moment, the same sun, high in the sky, shining down on the San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. It was not long before the TV signal was able to leap the ocean. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 was one of the first events seen by a world-wide audience. And what adult can forget Monday, July 20, 1969, at 10:56 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, the moment when Neil Armstrong placed the first human footprint on the moon - "one giant leap for mankind!" -- live, on TV.
We somehow feel that what we can see with our own eyes is true, even when what we are seeing is mediated through the lens of a camera, thousands of transistors, miles of wire, and millions of phosphors projected on the back of a picture tube.
But the raw elements of news -- the disasters, riots, hearings and interviews -- are only rarely allowed to come into our living rooms unedited and unplanned. Instead, "news", particularly on television, is carefully filtered, edited and choreographed to fit a pattern -- a pattern which meets both the need of society to have its basic cultural worldview reinforced, and even more important, the need of the communication industry to reach and hold the largest possible audience. And, as we shall see, that industry is both growing and centralizing very rapidly.
Alexis de Tocqueville, when visiting the United States in 1831, remarked that since the American press has "established no central control over the expression of opinion," therefore "nothing is easier than to set up a newspaper, and a small number of readers suffices to defray the expenses of the editors."2 Today, few things are more difficult than to set up a metropolitan newspaper. In fact, the number daily papers has been decreasing for more than fifty years. In 1900 in the USA there were 2,042 daily papers and 2,034 owners. By 1980 there were 1,730 dailies and 760 owners. In 1900 there was, on average, one newspaper owner for every 38,000 citizens. By 1980 the average newspaper owner provided the news for 300,000 citizens.3 Thus while media concentration increases the diversity of views decreases.
In 1920 there were 700 cities in the United States with at least two competing dailies, whereas in 1983, with the population more than doubled, only 27 cities had more than one daily paper.4 Competing newspapers continue to go out of business. When the Washington Star folded in 1981, Washington, D.C. was left with only one paper, which made it unique among the capitals of major nations: London has eleven dailies, Paris fourteen, Rome eighteen, Tokyo seventeen, and Moscow nine. 5
Diversity of views is being further strangled by the takeover of the remaining dailies by a few large chains. Of the 1,700 daily papers today in the USA, more than 1,200 have been absorbed by chains that control 80 percent of all daily newspaper circulation. In Canada, press concentration is even greater. According to a report by the Royal Commission on Newspapers in 1981, three chains control 90 percent of French-language daily circulation. In seven provinces two-thirds or more of total newspaper circulation is controlled by a single chain. 6 And just two chains, Southam and Thomson, control about 70 percent of all daily English-language newspaper circulation. 7 In addition, newspapers and television stations are being used by a few corporations to form super-media groups. For example, CBS is not only in television and radio, but also in magazines, books and cable TV; Capital Cities, which owns ABC, also is in newspapers and radio. The Gannett newspaper chain shares board of directors members with Allegheny Airlines, Phillips Petroleum, Merrill Lynch, McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, Standard Oil of Ohio, McGraw-Hill, 20th Century Fox, Kellogg, and New York Telephone, among others. 8
The interlocking of business with information industries is bound to affect content. One all-too typical example is given by the relationship that existed between Cleveland's only daily newspaper and its largest bank:
Through a trust, the bank shared control of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. . . for more than half a century. The bank's chairman was also the paper's chairman, and one minority shareholder recalls discovering that the paper "had 7 million in a checking account at the bank drawing no interest. . . After the (bank's) sale (in 1967), the Plain Dealer's columns began criticizing the bank. "How much the bank (had) managed the news I'm not sure," says a former staff member, "but I do know we never printed the story that (the late bank chairman George) Gund was the biggest slumlord in town." 9
The growth of media concentration, especially the news media, continues unabated, and each year "news" become increasingly dominated by the interests of large corporations. Of all the threats to our freedom of information in the U.S. and Canada, the most tangible at present is the threat of economic monopoly. When the variety of sources of news and information dries up to only a few, the result can be that news is treated not so much as information as ideology.
News as Ideology
Today, in spite of its claim of "that's the way it is," TV news is already the expression of an ideology. In the U.S. this ideology tells us that the country, and indeed the whole world is a rather simple place. This ideology sees the world in terms of good and bad, us and them, free and slave, the free West and the communist East, with very little complexity and almost no historical perspective, context or explanations.
In the early 1980s, Bruhn Jensen at the University of Copenhagen conducted an analysis of the news on two U.S. networks, CBS and ABC. He concluded that their news portrays society as divided into three separate spheres of activity: the private sphere, which includes the individual, family and private enterprise; the public sphere, where "politics" and "the economy" operate; and the state sphere, where agencies of the government maintain political, economic, and social stability. 10 The central element in this system is the public sphere, which contains the press, the political parties, and the other political institutions which, together, operate in a democratic fashion to set the terms of cooperation between the private sector, including business, and the state. Thus, according to the news media, the public sphere (the press, public expressions and voting) is the central location of power in our industrialized nations. But this ideology does not allow us to consider that perhaps private business decisions are in fact making some political decisions more or less inevitable, or that the media themselves may be controlled more by economic considerations than by a devotion to democratic principles of free expression.
Such a scenario is unsettling. In North America we always have thought of our press as the basic medium for the free and open discussion of ideas, the extension of the soap-box, the essential element which makes possible the shaping of public opinions and decisions. But our huge "press" today, including the electronic press, is in fact increasingly shaped by the operations of the economic marketplace. As large corporations have come to dominate almost every public expression, replacing the soap box, the town meeting and the penny press with nation-wide and even worldwide newspaper and TV coverage, the economic considerations of business tend to push aside such democratic considerations as the free interchange of information and ideas. The news media today are structured as an integral part of the corporate economy. They are designed, first, to produce profit, and second, to reproduce the status quo -- the prevailing social order. And their news function takes a back seat to both. Profits flow from the ability of a newspaper or television station to attract the largest possible audience, not its ability to provide the most careful and balanced news service. And support for the status quo merely enforces the power of those already in command and reduces the opportunity for change.
Let us see exactly how this happens. Jensen and his researchers studied a full week of the ABC and CBS nightly news broadcasts during the week of September 18 - 24, 1981. They focused on coverage that considered economic activity: there were 49 such stories that week. The researchers were particularly impressed with what was left out of the stories. For example, concerning the rising inflation rate, the CBS story said:
Before March, inflation measured by consumer prices ripped along at a double-digit pace, the annual rate above 10 percent. Then came 4 months below 10 per cent. In July, the inflation rate as measured by consumer prices jumped back up to an annual rate of 15.2 per cent. Today the Labor Department reported the figures for August. Consumer prices up eight-tenths of one per cent, which makes the most current annual inflation rate 10.6 per cent.
Note that CBS describes inflation as "ripping along," "jumping" and "(going) up" -- almost as though it moves by itself. But the causes receive no consideration at all. Why is inflation going up? Why did it "rip along" and then drop? Why is it going up again? And, from the viewpoint of the citizen, what might be done about it?
When inflation is portrayed as something automatic, and when no context or explanations are provided, there is little wonder that average Americans feel that inflation is a self-contained power beyond their reach and understanding, and consequently a force that transcends their ability to do anything constructive about it. The research revealed similarly that many indexes -- the Dow Jones Index, the price of gold, and various others -- are all are portrayed as if they have lives of their own. Thus "the economy" is presented as a force working on its own, beyond comprehension by the average person or action by the average citizen.
In another economic story dealing with a protest conducted against a California utility's nuclear power plant by a local organization, the CBS coverage said:
"It cost thousands for extra National Guardsmen, highway patrol men and sheriff's deputies. Construction was stopped for a few hours when protesters blockaded the main gate. Some nuclear scientists sympathetic to the protester's cause wonder if the demonstration did any good: "I don't expect that the protest will result in the plant not operating. I think that the plant will operate, simply because of the pressure of the investment."
Here is another lesson in the futility of attempts by citizens to deal with economic matters. After listing the negative effects of the protest movement, the report implies that the demonstration will make no difference anyway. Even a supporter questions whether it did "any good." The quotation not only substantiates the futility of the protest but also the inevitability of the plant opening. CBS then concludes its report:
The National Guard was never needed at the front lines. One small group did put on a lunch-time concert for those protecting the plant. (Footage of demonstrators singing) The demonstration is expected to go on, perhaps for weeks. Company officials still insist that once the plant is on line next year and producing cheap power, some who oppose it now may sing another tune.
Note that the public protest is "the front lines," implying a kind of war in which the National Guard represents "our" side -- against the protesters. The National Guard helped the police whose legitimate and designated role was "protecting the plant" against the protesters (rather than seeing that both sides to the dispute have opportunity to be heard). In the closing sentence, the news report places its editorial weight with the company officials as it is assumed that the plant will be "on line next year" and that it will be "producing cheap power." The message is clear: this is a temporary disruption of the social order and when it goes away, the business of business will continue to be the most important value.
While this analysis of network news is selective and fragmentary, it does illustrate a basic problem we face as we search for meaning in our complex world. Mass media news in general, and television news in particular, oversimplify issues to the point of distortion. In addition, they represent an ideological bias that strongly supports the existing economic, social and political powers.
In our consumption of news we depend upon a quality called journalistic "professionalism" to protect us against such distortion and misinformation. But journalists are human beings, after all, and except for a few extraordinary situations such as Watergate and Vietnam, most tend to take the course of least resistance. They are more inclined to accept explanations from official sources, from "experts," from company officials, from well prepared hand-outs created by public relations experts, than to go to the trouble to dig out opposing views that often are represented by small, inefficient, underfinanced and even unpopular groups. Thus what journalists report as "news" tends to coincide with the vision of officials, experts and companies. The journalists' vision tends to express the vision of those in power, which thus becomes their ideology, whether or not they intend it to be, even whether or not they know it to be.
And since the news operations are themselves part of vast conglomerations of business power, the management of these corporations, through their selection of staff, their promulgation of policy "guidelines", and their intricate and subtle system of rewards and punishments, oversee and maintain a news environment that fosters not so much facts and understanding, as profit and the prevailing social order.
TV as Election Spoiler
Perhaps our most sacred secular act is voting. James Madison wrote in 1798 that "The people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty." He believed that the way the people expressed their political will, short of riot and revolution, was through popular elections. And today, the way people make their electoral decisions is by learning about the issues and candidates primarily through the print and electronic press.
Madison's vision of democracy depended on an informed electorate "examining public characters and measures." The voters would actively participate in the public policy debate. But recent elections have demonstrated that citizens are becoming more and more removed from the electoral process, with little chance even to watch a genuine debate among the candidates, much less to participate in the give and take themselves.
Robert Dahl, a respected political scientist, commented about the 1988 election process in the U.S.: "It represents a real loss of control by the electorate over the process of government. People are no longer controlling the major questions of policy that the winner will have to deal with." Dahl then zeroed in on television coverage: "Voters are asked to make judgments about the character of the candidates -- without real discussion, with advertising and sound bites that trivialize their differences and give limited and prejudicial information. There's no other democratic system in the world that puts so heavy a burden on its citizens in choosing the chief executive. Democracy requires that questions be posed in an intelligible way." 11
While newspapers certainly are not blameless, it is television that has become the spoiler of elections in the United States. TV has corrupted the process in at least three ways. First, commercial TV has consistently refused to provide time as a public service to all candidates. Thus electoral information becomes a commodity. Instead of treating their license to broadcast as an obligation to provide air time for all candidates so that voters may be informed, broadcasters have turned electioneering into a huge profit-making scheme that charges ever-greater prices to candidates who wish to be heard. As a result, everyone loses -- except the broadcasters. And while public broadcasters are willing to provide time, U.S. presidential candidates have shied away from appearing only on the Public Broadcasting System.
Second, as part of its economic incentive, TV has encouraged shorter and shorter exposure of both candidates and issues. For example, the length of the average U.S. network television news "sound bite" (itself an insult to the voter's intelligence) dropped from 11.8 seconds in the 1984 campaign to 9 seconds in 1988. Nine seconds of cryptic slogans -- "read my lips," "no new taxes," -- is totally inadequate to explain how any candidate proposes to reduce the foreign debt and balance the budget, without increasing taxes.
Also, during the Reagan Administration, TV developed the photo-opportunity into an art, though hardly an informative one. The photo-op is simply a triumph of pictures over ideas, and TV producers, once again driven by economic rather than public service pressures, have allowed the pictures to dominate the copy, and thus the image to replace substance. And everyone -- even most broadcasters -- agree that the 1988 Presidential candidate "debates" were not debates at all, but a carefully scripted tip-toe of bland questions not being answered by carefully rehearsed candidates, a charade boring rather than enlightening the viewers.
Third, TV, and the press in general, has begun to rely on polling as an alternative to investigative reporting -- a way to deal with issues more easily and inexpensively than old-fashioned digging into the candidates' past performance. But the press has special protection because it is expected to clarify, to set in context, to suggest alternatives, to seek out informed expressions and viewpoints on all sides, in other words, to help develop Madison's informed electorate.
In 1988 each of the major U.S. television networks worked with a major newspaper -- CBS News with The New York Times, NBC News with The Wall Street Journal, and ABC News with The Washington Post -- in order to produce polls which themselves mightily influenced both politicians and public. This kind of polling results in a circular process: politicians look to polls to find out "what the public thinks," then modify their image and views to conform, while citizens eagerly consult the polls to find out what they themselves are thinking and which candidate most closely resembles the results of the polls. Consider, for example, the effect of an ABC News report, aired more than a month before the election, that featured a state-by-state poll declaring Mr. Bush the winner.
An additional misuse of polling is the networks' computerized predictions on election night. For at least the past decade, in both Canadian and U.S. federal elections, network newscasters have "announced" a winner long before millions of voters in the western parts of each nation had an opportunity to vote.
What can be done about TV's spoiler effect? Fortunately there are still workable solutions. Most crucial in the U.S. would be reversing the deregulation of radio and TV, which has encouraged broadcasters to put their own economic self-interest ahead of the public interest. Regulation is a key moral issue. In addition, citizens, through Congress, could enact a few simple -- but politically difficult -- remedies:
1. Make all Presidential candidates' receipt of Federal election funds conditional on their willingness to participate in several unscripted, genuine face-to-face debates. Another tactic to insure real debate would be to ask candidates to confront one another on TV for three hours; after the first hour or so, candidates could no longer dodge questions or avoid revealing their real attitudes and thinking processes to the public. The 1988 election campaign in Canada did precisely this. Two genuine debates were held on national TV, each three hours in length, one in English, one in French -- both without the benefit of journalists. And it resulted in Canadians learning a great deal about their candidates' views on significant issues and their approaches to problems facing the nation.
2. Require television stations, as a condition of their license, to give a certain amount of free time to all candidates. If candidates accept, they would not be allowed to purchase additional time. Again, Canada and England have such requirements, and broadcasters provide this service and still manage to make acceptable profits, not from elections, but from advertising related to their regular entertainment programming.
3. Close all polls at the same time. One suggestion is a 24-hour voting day; another would be to close the polls throughout the nation at, for example, 10 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Pacific time). Several such proposals are being considered by Congress.
In Canada the situation is somewhat different. Federal candidates are offered free time for debates, and so it is important that citizens at least hold the line on existing regulations of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission. However, the closing of polls at one time through Canada, as in the U.S., would help insure that all voters have an equal opportunity to vote before "election results" begin to be announced.
TV inherently personalizes news and public events through close-ups that allow viewers to scrutinize the faces and "style" of the men and women who appear on the screen. This means that, lacking the information necessary to determine where the truth lies, viewers must rely on relatively superficial impressions to judge whom they believe can be trusted. An issue-oriented political party, with its platform and issues, is thus easily circumvented; viewers can vote for the person whose style and charm appears most appealing. Their attention is channeled toward cues about how one "feels" about a candidate rather than to past record or position on particular issues.
Personalized politics is here to stay. There is no reasonable expectation that communication-by-personality will be eliminated. But there are ways in which we can expect the television industry itself to take into consideration this new process and to use it to benefit, rather than befuddle, us as viewers. For example, extensive interviews give a viewer a completely different feel for a candidate than does a nine-second "sound bites." Genuine debates rather than stiff, formal and unreal appearances by candidates mouthing formula responses would add immeasurably to the voters' ability to make informed decisions. And while issue-oriented analysis by TV's journalists rather than a daily "story" handed out by the campaign managers might cost a network more money, it would begin to meet the ethical norms of good journalism as well as the needs of the electorate.
Madison's vision of free and open communication in a democracy is not just another theory; it is basic to a democratic nation's welfare. But if the people turn over the channels of communication to commerce, then profits and not public welfare will guide who communicates and what is communicated. The Good News celebrates the worth of every person, not only the rich, and the idea that everyone -- both rich and poor -- should have a say in the way their lives are governed is a major implication of the gospel. Thus while Christians may differ regarding particular candidates and issues, there can be little disagreement among them that information about candidates and issues is of fundamental importance. If elections are to remain open and free, then Christians among others are going to have to insist that television, their primary source of information, meet its public service obligation and cease to be the election spoiler.
Also, by choosing to deal with some problems and ignoring others, television news shapes the public's political priorities. The research shows that the public has a limited memory for last month's news and is vulnerable to today's. When TV focuses on an issue, the public's priorities are altered, and then altered again as TV news moves on to something new.
This is not to suggest that the public behaves like a herd of sheep. Most people approach TV news with a good deal of skepticism. They check out how the news compares with other sources, and they tend to accept those views which agree with their own and to reject those which do not.
But it is far more important today than ever before that viewers watch TV "defensively". Viewers need to recognize the biases that are built into the present commercial television system. They need to compensate for the system's tendencies to support the status quo by relying on the views of those in power, both in government and business. They need to cultivate an even stronger habit of testing TV news -- testing it against other sources of news, especially those that are non-commercial, such as the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S. and the semi-public CBC in Canada, and those that depend on citizen funding, such as subscriber-supported magazines and newspapers. They need to recognize the built-in bias of TV to reinforce the culture's own commercial values and worldview. And finally, they need to support reform measures which would help television support and enhance the political process rather than despoil it.
In sum, viewers must maintain critical distance between themselves and TV news, and then watch it from the perspective of their own worldview. For the Christian, this means viewing TV from the perspective of the Christian faith and its values and assumptions.
Unfortunately, we no longer can take TV for granted: "We are no longer fascinated or perplexed by its machinery. We do not tell stories of its wonders. We do not confine our television sets to special rooms. We do not doubt the reality of what we see on television, are largely unaware of the special angle of vision it affords." 12 Such easy acquiescence is hazardous to our health -- both political and personal. We must not take TV for granted. We must constantly decide who is in control: TV or ourselves.
1. Thomas Jefferson, "Letters to E. Carrington, 16 January 1787," in Saul K. Padover (ed.) Thomas Jefferson on Democracy (New York: New American Library, 1954), p. 83.
2. Coulson, David C., "Antitrust Law and Newspapers," in Picard, R.G., Winter, J.P., McCombs, M.E. and Lacy, S. (eds.) Press Concentration and Monopoly: New Perspectives on Newspaper Ownership and Operation (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988), p. 179.
3. Bagdikian, Ben, The Media Monopoly (1983). Boston: Beacon, p. 9.
4. Bagdikian, p. 126.
5. Bagdikian, p. 120.
6. Media and Values, No. 47, Summer 1989, p. 5.
7. Pickard, Winter, McCombs, and Lacy, p. 181.
8. Picard, Winter, McCombs, and Lacy, p. 194.
9. Pickard, Winter, McCombs, and Lacy, p. 196.
10. Klaus Bruhn Jensen, "News as Ideology: Economic Statistics and Political Ritual in Television Network News" in Journal of Communication, Vol. 37 No. 1 (Winter 1987), pp. 8 - 27.
11. Lewis, Anthony, "The People Speak," New York Times, November 28, 1988, Op-Ed page.
12. Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1984). New York: Viking, p. 79.