Chapter 48: The Contemporary News Media Ecosystem
“Who wants a revolution? No one who owns a major media outlet.”
—Julie Hollar (1)
It is important for you to understand the contemporary news media ecosystem, for it is a critical interface between you and national-level political decision makers. As a student in this class—indeed, as a citizen of the American republic—you should be a smart consumer of political news. You should especially apply the “Of what is this an example?” question to the myriad things you hear and see in the media. To that end, here are some things to look for.
Where Do People Get Their News?
The acquisition of political information has undergone several transformations in American history. As mentioned above, newspapers used to dominate because they were the only game in town. Radio challenged newspapers as news sources, but it was television—with its combination of audio and video elements, plus the ability to go live—that really dealt newspapers a blow. Newspaper readership stagnated after 1970. Physical newspapers were dealt a second blow by the internet’s onset. The first dial-up access to the internet started in 1989, and the 1990s saw internet browsers and search engines develop. (2) Newspapers, magazines, and television news channels migrated online, and most people now receive their political news from the internet and cable television. Local newspapers continue to struggle, even in the online setting. (3) People rely on getting their political news on television, the internet, social media feeds, newspapers, and radio, roughly in that order of importance. (4)
Concentration of Ownership
One of the most obvious characteristics of the contemporary media ecosystem is the concentration of media company ownership. In 1983, 90 percent of American media was owned by fifty companies. By 2012, 90 percent of American media was owned by just six companies: Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time-Warner, and Disney. (5) Various mergers and acquisitions have occurred since then as the mediasphere has become even more concentrated. We can be very confident that nearly every form of mass media we use is controlled by the few people who run these corporations. We watch the movies these media giants decide to produce, read the books they decide to print, watch the television shows they decide to create on the cable or satellite systems that they own, read the magazines they decide to publish, watch what they consider to be news, and listen to the music that their musicians create.
Along with the general corporate media consolidation, the news media is quite concentrated as well. Look at the major news sources, whether broadcast, cable, or web: CNN is owned by AT&T’s WarnerMedia; ABC News is controlled by Disney; ViacomCBS owns CBS News; Fox News Channel is owned by the News-Corp, a media empire controlled by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch and his family; Comcast owns NBC News and MSNBC. PBS and NPR are owned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for which conservatives have repeatedly tried to cut funds and make ever more reliant on private and corporate donations. (6)
The concentration of the news media ecosystem encompasses local newspapers and radio stations across the country. A 2016 report by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism documented local newspapers’ travails. Readership is down, many papers have closed or merged, and the number of companies that own newspapers has declined—the largest twenty-five companies own more than half of all daily newspapers in America, and the three largest companies own twice as many newspapers now than they did a decade ago. These companies often have little connection to the communities in which they own and operate newspapers. Many other towns don’t have daily newspapers at all, and the internet does not provide local news. The result is that America is pockmarked by news deserts, areas that receive little or no substantive public affairs or community-interest news coverage . (7) Do you know who owns the newspapers in your state or city? Overall, radio ownership is less concentrated. Still, the top ten corporations that own radio stations account for nearly half of all radio station advertising revenue. (8) Many of these corporations push a conservative agenda with prominent right-wing talk shows and mandatory “talking points” for radio and TV journalists to read on air. (9) Do you know who owns the radio stations you listen to?
Media ownership concentration has been proceeding apace for some time now, but it was encouraged and further enabled by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The congressmen who voted for this law—and President Clinton, who signed it—promised that it would create more media competition, more diversity, lower prices for things like cable service, and more jobs in the media and telecommunications industries. According to Common Cause, however, the law brought the public “more media concentration, less diversity, and higher prices.” The Telecommunications Act did the following:
- Lifted the cap on the number of radio stations any one company could own. This allowed Clear Channel to grow from a relatively small company to one that owns over 1600 radio stations across the country.
- Extended broadcast license terms from five to eight years and made it more difficult for the public to challenge license renewals.
- Deregulated cable rates, resulting in cable cost increases.
- Raised the caps on the number of television stations that any one company could own and the audience that it could reach. Now just five companies control 75 percent of primetime viewing.
- Eased cable system cross ownership. Ninety percent of the top fifty cable stations are owned by the giant companies that also own the media networks.
- Gave away valuable publicly owned digital broadcasting spectrum to the media conglomerates. (10)
The decade following the Telecommunications Act passage witnessed numerous high-profile media mergers, because the new rules allowed for greater concentration. The Federal Communications Commission has subsequently further loosened media ownership regulations.
The political implications of media concentration are obvious. If relatively few large corporations control what we think is news and entertainment, they can shape the political debate. One interesting study of the Telecommunications Act looked at newspaper coverage of that bill as it worked its way through the political process. The study’s authors compared the coverage offered by newspapers that were owned by companies that stood to benefit greatly from loosening television station ownership, verses newspapers who were owned by companies that stood to benefit somewhat, versus newspapers who were owned by companies that were not in the television business. Only 15 percent of stories from those newspapers owned by companies that stood to benefit mentioned any of the proposed bill’s negative consequences, while 58 percent of newspaper stories from those papers owned by companies that were not in the television business mentioned negative legislation consequences. The authors concluded, “In short, very different pictures of the likely effects of this legislation were being painted by the different newspapers examined, pictures that served to further the interests of the newspapers’ corporate owners rather than the interests of their readers in fair and complete coverage of an important public policy issue.” (11) Indeed, it’s very difficult to find a story on corporate-owned media channels about the very topic of media concentration and what its negative consequences might be.
On what other issues does media concentration affect the picture we are receiving? Former reporter Tom Fenton argues that corporate news-media dominance and the attendant concentration on the bottom line—has led to the evisceration of foreign reporting. He writes that in the two decades before the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, American newspapers and television news stations reduced their coverage of foreign news by 70-80 percent. He also says that, “In the three months leading up to September 11, the phrase ‘al Qaeda’ was never mentioned on any of the three evening news broadcasts—not once.”(12) Others argue that when it comes to domestic coverage, the corporate news media have a clear pro-business slant. On April 30, 1997, the front page of the New York Times trumpeted the following headline: “Markets Surge as Labor Costs Stay in Check.” Of course, “labor costs” are the wages and benefits earned by workers, and “stay[ing] in check” is another way of saying that wages and benefits have not grown. Curiously, the article failed to quote any workers, their representatives, or labor activists about this development, but instead described the issue from the point of view of businessmen and financiers. Journalist Norman Solomon provides this example:
“At networks owned by multibillion-dollar conglomerates like General Electric, Viacom, and Disney, the news divisions solemnly report every uptick or downturn of the markets. In contrast, when was the last time you heard [television newscaster] Peter Jennings report the latest rates of on-the-job injuries or the average wait times at hospital emergency rooms?” (13)
Finally, consider the debate over whether to move from our current hodgepodge, largely corporate-run healthcare system and a single-payer healthcare system, which is favored by a majority of ordinary Americans because it would cost less and cover everyone. The organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has documented how corporate media frame the debate. The current healthcare system is referred to as “private health insurance” and its alternative is referred to as “socialized medicine” or “government-run healthcare.” The current system is never referred to as “corporate-run healthcare,” which would be the appropriate counterpart to the inaccurate epithet “government-run healthcare,” but corporate media won’t go there. What’s wrong with the oft-used phrase “government-run healthcare”? Well, the single-payer proposal would keep the same mix of mostly private doctors, clinics, and hospitals to provide care, but would pool tax revenue to create one public health insurance provider that would be governed by democratic input, unlike the health insurance companies we have now. (14)
The Internet Revolution
The Internet is a network of networks that gives people all over the globe the capability of emailing, webpage browsing, chatting, and file sharing. It grew out of embryonic networks such as the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) and the National Science Foundation’s NSFNet. The World Wide Web, the most visible part of the Internet, began when researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) created the first few web pages. There are well over 4 billion regular users of the Internet worldwide.
In the United States, a classic political struggle has been going on over the nature of the Internet. Telecommunication giants such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast—who own the “pipelines” through which the emails, videos, files, and web pages flow—would like to be able to discriminate between those who use the Internet and charge premiums to content providers who can pay for high speed and reliability. Those who could not pay for more than a simple connection would be relegated to whatever slow service was available after the large commercial content providers had used—and paid for—their share. As Steven Levy put it, “They would charge big companies like Google and Yahoo big fees to guarantee that their content got to customers at higher speeds. In other words, there’d be an elite toll road alongside a free but crowded interstate.” (15) An interesting coalition of consumer’s groups, small businesses and ideological groups from the left and the right argued against such a move. They maintained that “net neutrality,” which has been the norm on the Internet, should remain the standard practice—in other words, internet service providers should charge basic access fees to the Internet but otherwise not discriminate between those who would post web pages, video, or email. President Donald Trump campaigned against net neutrality. Ajit Pai, Trump’s pick to chair the Federal Communications Commission, cast the deciding vote in 2018 to kill net neutrality. However, the Biden administration affirmed its commitment to restoring net neutrality.
Meanwhile, the Internet revolution has been transforming the face of American politics in the following ways:
Campaign Mobilization and Fundraising—Howard Dean’s abortive 2004 run for the Presidency was notable for its pathbreaking use of the Internet to raise large sums of money through many small donations. The Dean campaign used the Internet to organize local meet-ups where supporters in a given locality could meet like-minded Deaniacs, talk about issues and strategies, and donate to the campaign. In the third quarter of 2003, the Dean campaign raised nearly $15 million this way—a record amount of fundraising in one quarter by a Democratic presidential candidate by any method—making him a real threat to frontrunners for the Democratic nomination. (16) In 2008, Barack Obama did especially well raising large amounts of money from a broad base of smaller donors and using social media sites. In 2016, Bernie Sanders concentrated his fundraising on the internet and solicited small donations. His campaign set up a text-to-donate system. His average contribution was $27, but he did quite nicely. In one day, he raised $8 million by asking for small donations. Sanders did equally as well fundraising online in his failed attempt to secure the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election. (17) The internet appears to have broadened the political-fundraising base. Between 1992 and 2016, the percentage of Americans who donated to political candidates doubled. (18)
Political Advertising—The Internet can be used as a cheap way to get the message out for a political candidate or interest group. Every candidate knows that his or her campaign needs a website to promote themselves and raise money. Campaigns generate mass emails to targeted audiences quickly and automatically. Increasingly, candidates are attempting to attract younger voters by releasing web versions of campaign commercials. Candidate and then President Donald Trump effectively used Twitter to speak directly to his supporter base. In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced shutting down traditional campaign rallies, candidates turned to internet versions of fireside chats.
Blogs, Blogs, and More Blogs—Web logs burst onto the political scene in a big way after the 2002 election but were in existence before that. Candidates use them to connect to potential voters in more personal ways than they can with static web pages. John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2004 and presidential candidate in 2008, dedicated “hours each week videotaping responses to videotaped questions, the entire exchange posted on his blog.” (19) Since then, candidates and politicians moved away from blogs to professionally maintained websites. But blogs are still relevant. Partisan or ideological blogs challenge politicians and sometimes hold the mainstream media to account. Often, blogs start rumors or conspiracy theories that are then picked up by corporate media. The location of all this debate and dialogue is often referred to as the blogosphere.
Fake News—The blogosphere and the internet revolution have given rise to numerous conspiracy-driven sites that don’t adhere to any journalistic standards and that publish stories with no real corroboration. Partisan Americans and other groups—e.g., the Russian government—have a strong interest that these kinds of Fake News stories flourish on the internet, where they sow confusion and animosity, and they undercut the news media and government’s legitimacy. Did Hilary Clinton and the Democrats run a child sex ring out of a D.C. pizzeria? No. Did a routine military exercise that happened to take place during the Obama administration constitute an attempt to occupy Texas? No. Fake news stories tend to be generated more often by conservatives who target liberal politicians because, as documented in the journal Psychological Science, social conservatives are simply more likely to believe unsubstantiated stories that trigger their fears. Fake news stories intended for liberal audiences just don’t seem to gain the same kind of traction. (20) So, fake news is a real phenomenon—carefully crafted, but unsubstantiated false stories intended to trigger fears, stimulate anger, or spread false information to a target audience—that has infected our political information stream. Unfortunately, the existence of fake news allows politicians to label as “fake news” any legitimate story that they don’t like.
Beware of Sound Bites
Unless you happen to be as old as the author of this text, you might not have noticed what is commonly called the incredible shrinking sound bite in politics. A sound bite is a short selection of what a candidate or sitting politician says in a speech or interview. Media editors use their judgment to select such clips to represent what they believe to be the politician’s most important or relevant point. Interestingly, the average sound bite in the 1960s was over forty-two seconds long, but fell to about nine seconds in 1988, and then to just over seven seconds in 2000 and 2004. (21) So, instead of allowing politicians to develop extensive arguments with assertions backed by evidence, the media have progressively been selecting shorter clips that essentially equate to bumper-sticker slogans—“Read My Lips, No New Taxes,” “Where’s the Beef?” or “Make America Great Again.” And because politicians no longer expect to be quoted at length, they now tend to pepper their speeches with these kinds of mindless slogans, knowing that the editors are looking for something catchy to put on the evening news. The result has been a mutually reinforcing process that has impoverished political debate. What is a media consumer to do? Go to the source, for one thing. Go to the candidate’s website to see if the full campaign speech text is posted there. Another possibility is to read a reputable news site, which will have much more extensive coverage of a candidate’s positions than you’ll find in the television news. Another strategy is to listen to public radio or television news shows, which tend to have longer sound bites and more extensive political discussions than network or cable television news.
You should also be on the lookout for pseudo-events, which populate the political landscape like mushrooms in a forest. A pseudo-event is an event that exists solely to generate media coverage and has little or no substance of its own. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event in the 1960s in his book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. There are several disturbing features of pseudo-events. For one, they are treated as news by the corporate media even though they are not really news. They are “planned” news events that the media find irresistible: a politician speaking about the importance of education just after having been photographed reading to little children or a politician riding in some piece of military hardware before making a speech on the military. Media consumers are lulled into thinking that something significant is happening. A second problem comes from the first. Pseudo-events crowd out real news coverage. Reporters devote time to them, leaving less time to report on real education or military issues. A third problem is that the imagery of pseudo-events can often be in direct contradiction to reality. The politician who poses for the cameras with disabled veterans may actually have voted to cut veteran’s benefits.
As an informed citizen, you should also cast a skeptical eye on political commercials. Politicians run campaign commercials and organized interests run advertisements designed to push their agendas. You should not rely on these commercials for more than a tiny fraction of your political knowledge. Because of their short format, political commercials do not provide voters the real information they need to understand complex political issues and how the various candidates plan to address them.
Keep an eye out for the following types of political ads but remember that these are ideal types. Real advertisements often combine characteristics of the following.
Negative campaign ads seek to associate an opponent with events or actions that are portrayed as horrendous in the extreme. My opponent is soft on crime! My opponent coddles foreign tyrants! My opponent is sleazy! You get the picture. The ads are characterized by unfavorable photos of the opponent paired with a litany of bad things or bad people. They treat issues in an extremely superficial way, often using code words and images to stand in for the issue of concern. Finally, they typically end with a shining photo of the candidate with their family, or smiling community members, or cops, etc., and a tag line about how they will stand strong against crime, against foreign tyrants, and against sleaze.
Backfire ads use the words and images of the opponent against them. Short clips of the opponent are used to show how wrong they were, how out-of-touch they are, how silly they looked, or how they’ve changed positions over time. They also often feature a sarcastic voice-over to drive the point home, just in case the viewer didn’t get it from the opponent’s words and images.
Candidate’s biography ads are sentimental, often sappy, reviews of the candidate’s life. They often highlight how dedicated and capable the candidate is, and how they are firmly in touch with American values. The ads might also feature the candidate’s family, usually with the unstated message that they are “normal” because they have a loving spouse and children. A further touch—when possible given the candidate’s actual life—is to highlight difficulties over which the candidate has triumphed. Candidates born into poverty or candidates who have a heroic war record often like to highlight those aspects of their lives. These ads are often completely devoid of real issue information—they rarely talk about what the candidate would do about specific issues—but are instead designed to give the viewer a positive feeling about the candidate.
Ads featuring endorsement by average folks or celebrities present the viewer with real people who praise and/or endorse the candidate. Ordinary people might talk about his qualities in person-on-the-street interviews. Maybe the candidate is shown interacting with average Americans, or a series of celebrities speak about the candidate. These ads are often used to showcase the populist aspects of the candidate’s personality or political program.
You should also remember that politicians, partisans, or ideologues spin much of the information you see or hear about politics. Spin refers to the biased portrayal of events that is designed to favor one set of interests over another. Spin happens in any mass communication setting, but we’re only concerned with political communication. Political interests are very concerned to place their partisans on radio and television programs and on web sites, so they can offer the most positive spin possible on any given development in the world of politics, society, and the economy. Such partisans are often called spin doctors, which is a derogatory term. A common spin tactic involves cherry-picking evidence—only citing evidence in favor of one’s position. Another involves choosing favorable language—is it an “estate tax” or a “death tax”, is it “tax relief” or a “tax cuts for the rich”? Yet another tactic spin doctors or politicians use is to employ passive language to defuse responsibility. They might say, “Mistakes have been made” instead of “I made a mistake” or “My party made a mistake.” Another tactic is to suppress expectations, which allows them to then exceed expectations when the election or primary happens. Spin is also frequently marked by the kinds of fallacious argumentation we discussed at the beginning of the text.
Students of the mass media have long noted that news is portrayed through frames that embed events in a particular linguistic or situational context. (22) Part of this is a result of the words journalists and editors choose to represent the world. A politician’s program might be labeled “Social Security reform” or it might be called “Social Security privatization,” and the choice of those labels affects how viewers ultimately perceive the issue. But this linguistic aspect of framing is fairly obvious. Pay attention to the less obvious form of framing involving the broader situational context. Specifically, the news media tends to favor an episodic frame for the news over a thematic frame.
An episodic frame emphasizes individual events or cases, one after another with little history or context given to each incident. This frame predominates in television and newspaper news coverage—”Today there was a bombing, a layoff at the local factory, a sex scandal, and a flood.” Episodic news often focuses on the story’s sensational details at the expense of asking, “Of what is this an example?” or “How is this related to that?” or “What is the broader context for this event?”
A thematic frame reverses the emphasis by looking at the broader context of an issue and relationships between the day’s or week’s happenings. So instead of an episodic story about layoffs at an automobile factory, with the requisite journalistic details about the factory, the numbers of jobs lost, and tearful interviews with a selected worker or two, thematic journalism would start with the context, say, deindustrialization or the effects of globalization, then add other examples of factory closures as well as some details. Indeed, the thematic frame would more likely do stories on the broader themes and then bring into the daily events as examples.
According to political scientist Shanto Iyengar, who has studied framing extensively, the predominance of episodic journalism encourages ordinary people to not make connections, to not place events in broader context, and to not assign responsibility to political elites. (23) If the news does an episodic story about a troubled military veteran who kills twenty people at a county fair, it becomes a sensation piece and the viewers naturally conclude that all responsibility for the event falls on the perpetrator. With thematic reporting, a news outlet might place the incident in the broader context of post-traumatic stress disorder or the extent to which America is flooded with guns. Then the viewers are likely to say that while the perpetrator is responsible for their actions, clearly political leaders have been making decisions with respect to veterans’ mental healthcare and gun regulation that have made such events more likely to happen rather than less likely. Read or watch news stories and ask yourself whether episodic or thematic frames predominate.
What if media literacy was a high school graduation requirement? What if schools from elementary through high school took it as their responsibility to ensure that students were savvy media consumers and critical skeptics of poor political media sources of information? Write curriculum that would accomplish this goal, with sections dedicated to elementary, junior high, and high school students.
- Julie Hollar, “Who Wants a Revolution? No One Who Owns a Major Media Outlet,” FAIR. March 16, 2020.
- Kim Ann Zimmermann and Jesse Emspak, “Internet History Timeline: ARPANET to the World Wide Web,” Livescience. June 27, 2017.
- Chris Isidore, “Newspaper Chain McClatchy Files for Bankruptcy,” CNN Business. February 13, 2020.
- A. W. Geiger, “Key Findings About the Online News Landscape in America,” Pew Research Center. October 11, 2019.
- Ashley Lutz, “These 6 Companies Control 90% of the Media in America,” Business Insider. June 14, 2012.
- John Nichols, “With His Assault on PBS and NPR, Trump Seeks to Eliminate Real News,” The Nation. February 14, 2018.
- Penelope Muse Abernathy, The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts. The University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism. 2016. No author, Thwarting the Emergence of News Deserts. The University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism. 2017.
- No author, “iHeart Tops Industry Revenue List With $2.6B,” Inside Radio. July 6, 2016.
- Mike Rosenberg, “Turmoil Inside KOMO News as Conservative Owner Sinclair Mandates Talking Points,” Seattle Times. April 3, 2018. Nicole Hemmer, “Sinclair Broadcasting, Not Fox News, is Becoming the Truest Heir to Roger Ailes’ Conservative News Legacy,” NBC News. June 12, 2018.
- Common Cause, Unintended Consequences and Lessons Learned. The Fallout from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. May 9, 2005. Pages 3-5. See also Michael Corcoran, “Democracy in Peril: Twenty Years of Media Consolidation Under the Telecommunications Act,” Truthout. February 11, 2016. Downloaded December 28, 2016 from http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34789-democracy-in-peril-twenty-years-of-media-consolidation-under-the-telecommunications-act.
- Martin Gilens and Craig Hertzman, “Corporate Ownership and News Bias: Newspaper Coverage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act,” Journal of Politics. 62(2): May 2000. Pages 369-386.
- Tom Fenton, Bad News. The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All. New York: Regan Books, 2005. Quote on page 4. Emphasis in the original. Earlier reference on page 17.
- Norman Solomon, “Big Money, Self-Censorship, and Corporate Media,” in Elliot D. Cohen, editor, News Incorporated. Corporate Media Ownership and Its Threat to Democracy. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2005. Page 55.
- Michael Corcoran, “’Government-Run Healthcare’ is a Product of Health Industry-Run Media,” FAIR. July 1, 2019.
- Steven Levy, “Celebrating a Web That’s Free—For Now,” Newsweek. October 9, 2006. Page 14.
- Gary Wolf, “How the Internet Invented Howard Dean,” Wired Magazine. January 2004. Online version.
- Clare Foran, “Bernie Sanders’s Big Money,” The Atlantic. March 1, 2016.
- Adam Hughes, “5 Facts About U.S. Political Donations,” Pew Research Center. May 17, 2017.
- Adam Nagourney, “Politics Faces Sweeping Change Via the Web,” New York Times. April 2, 2006.
- Daniel M. T. Fessler, Anne C. Pisor, and Colin Holbrook, “Political Orientation Predicts Credulity Regarding Putative Hazards,” Psychological Science. 28(5) 2017.
- Kiku Adatto, “The Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite,” The New Republic. May 28, 1990. Pages 20-23. Center for Media and Public Affairs, Campaign 2004: The Media Agenda. Part III—The General Election. Page 7.
- An early analysis in this vein was Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. London: Harper and Row, 1974.
- See, for example, his “Framing Responsibility for Political Issues,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. July, 1996. Pages 59-70.
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