University of Chicago

American Media Produces Biased News Just As Well As State-Led Media Regimes by Ryan Fleishman

Rampant “Fake” news and politically skewed information are an inevitable product of the current state of news in American society in a way much more dominant and insidious than Putin’s control of the government.

For example, look at this wonderful Daily Caller article. Breathe in the dulcet tones as they declare Brett Kavanaugh’s nondescript behavior as keeping “with his public commitments to collegiality and institutionalism — and the diminished attention that inevitably follows.” Did you notice how Kavanaugh is photographed as a friendly, smiling professional while the protestor is an intimidating short-haired harlot defiling our nation’s precious monuments? How news-worthy, how ethical. Donald Trump did not bribe the Daily Caller to print favorable articles but you wouldn’t know from the look of it.

News companies are companies and they want to make money. They make money from people watching them, and people watch news channels that synchronize with their personal world-vews. Look at the absolute dominance of Fox News in cable television ratings. For 17 years, Fox News has been the undisputed number 1 most-watched show on cable, averaging 1.33 million viewers daily in 2018. Because news media is ultimately about making money, not actualizing democratic ideals of the press, news sources are forced to produce content that the people want to watch rather than news that is perfectly true.

One factor exacerbating people’s tendencies towards motivated reasoning and news source’s tendencies towards pandering to them is the advent of the internet. Through the internet a near infinite amount of news stories on a single subject exist and people can easily find the exact opinion and take they like from the masses. News sources have an incentive to pander in order to ingratiate themselves beyond the website masses, and they lose their authority to declare news stories as true when the internet easily provides more preferable takes. This is the irony – having a choice of news sources inherently encourages bias in news because you can choose your own best news, drift towards the talking head that best fits what you want to be true. Since people have the power in the relationship between news and the people, news sources must come to meet the wills of people rather than pursue news in its own right. Michael Scherer provides a perfect example: “Assume, for instance, that 12 news organizations do the same story on the same day about how Hillary Clinton has a tough road ahead of her to get the nomination. Which story is going to get the most links and therefore the most readers? Is it the one that cautiously weighs the pros and cons, and presents a nuanced view of her chances? Or is it the one that says she is toast, and anyone who thinks different is living on another planet?”

And the people want their biased news sources. Drew Westen proves in this study that motivated reasoning is a genuine phenomenon shown through neuroimaging rather than some superstition murmured by political scientists. In fact, according to his study, motivated reasoning leads us to mentally ‘hash out’ received information into a more emotionally digestible form without being conscious of the process; We process information through a motivated filter unconsciously and unavoidably. Thus the people will not watch XXX station because their news is “bad” or “inaccurate” when their brains had already filtered the info through an emotional lens in the first place. You’ll like news you agree with whether you like it or not.

This enforcement of the majority will resembles Tocqueville’s idea of tyranny of the majority outlined in his book Democracy in America. Instead of the majority imposing their will and desires over the minority through winning elections, they submit their votes in the form of watch-time and read-time. The news outlets are then pressed to conform towards the majority’s will in order to chase that watch time and read time.

In Gehlbach’s article Reflections on Putin and the Media, he points to smaller media sources not worth strict control as the primary threat towards state run media regimes like with Putin and Fujimori. Gehlbach says, “In principle, the “minimalist” system of media control used by authoritarian leaders like Putin and Fujimori can work indefinitely, but it is vulnerable to shocks. Control of only the commanding heights leaves room for information to circulate at lower altitudes, threatening the regime’s carefully calibrated message.” [pg. 85] However, financial and social incentives apply to every news source regardless of scope or size. A small newspaper is just as obligated to present their news in a way that caters to their audience as the New York Times.

A possible solution towards this bastardized version of a state-led media regime is an instilled value of freedom of the press. If we are emotionally connected to the idea of a free press more than our specific political stances we will be biased towards unbiased sources. Tocqueville espouses religious mores as preventative functions that help assert just behavior over the tyranny of the majority, and the secular more of a free press can curtail skewed news. 85% of people still agree that freedom of the press is an essential feature of democracy, though frankly this already strikes me as a bit low. If given the chance for further research I would be interested in the change of people’s belief in the freedom of the press in relation to the change in overall bias in news media.

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