To Infinity and Beyond: A Look at Media and Elections in the 21st Century

Right before I left for Italy at the end of June, my two daughters took me to see the movie Toy Story 3 for Fathers’ Day. They are both grown now, but we had enjoyed the Toy Story movies when they were children and I’ve always been fond of Buzz Lightyear, Woody and the rest of the gang.

No matter what we do in life, there is always a little child in all of us, and I am no exception.

Ironically, when my wife and I arrived in Rome, what did we find playing at the cinema just a block from our apartment? Toy Story 3 – in Italian, of course.

We decided we would go see it on a rainy day, but other than a few sprinkles, there have not been any rainy days in Rome since I arrived to teach a course in media and elections at John Cabot University. Nevertheless, Toy Story 3 provides an interesting lesson about media and elections. Let me explain:

To understand the state of the media in the U.S. today, first and foremost, one must be aware that news organizations have dual identities.

As Max Frankel observed in his memoir about working as executive editor of The New York Times: “We could not decide whether The Times had to be a good newspaper to be profitable or profitable to produce a good newspaper”

News organizations are providers of information, but they also are businesses designed to turn profits. Those two objectives are not always consistent with each other. In fact, they often are at odds.

Over the past 30 to 40 years, the business of journalism in America has become more dominant than the actual practice of journalism. There has been tremendous consolidation of news organizations. In New Jersey, we had 33 daily newspapers in 1970, most of them independently owned. Today, we have only 18.Of that 18, 12 are owned by just two chains. On the national level, there now are just about a half dozen mega-corporations that own the bulk of media organizations in the U.S.

This type of media consolidation adversely affects the quality of news in several ways.

First, the news becomes homogenized because there are less independent voices providing news and information.

Secondly, these mega-corporations not only own news organizations, but they also own other types of businesses ranging from book publishers and movie studios to sports teams to job-search companies. From a corporate standpoint, they must make decisions on where to allocate their resources, and the news divisions often come out on the short end of the stick.

Imagine, for example, that you are the head of the Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC News, and you are responsible for deciding how best to use the company’s money. If you put money into ABC News, you produce a product that will bring in some revenue through advertisers, but each newscast has a limited shelf life. You produce a product that is a 30-minute nightly newscast and that is all it is. It’s no good the following day. You have to go out and create another program every day.

On the other hand, if you invest your money in something like Toy Story, you are going to have a large upfront cost – $50 million, in fact, for the first Toy Story movie. But you will make it back – and then some – at the box office. Toy Story earned over $191 million in the United States and Canada during its initial theatrical release.

But that was just the beginning. Unlike the limited return on investing in ABC News, Toy Story has continued to generate revenue for Disney long after its initial release in 1995. The movie has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits through VHS, DVD and Blu-ray sales; Toy Story toys, video games and software; theme park attractions, soundtracks, sequels, a Disney on Ice Show and more.

This is an extreme example, but it illustrates why the quality of news has diminished. The top priority of the corporations that own news organizations is not to produce quality news; it is to make a profit.

That means less staff and less resources in their news divisions. Costs are slashed to produce news at the lowest possible cost and to turn the greatest profit. As a result, news organizations cannot cover as many stories as they did in the past. What they can cover they do less in depth and with less scrutiny. And they are more likely to be susceptible to the tremendous amounts of spin coming from both the left and the right.

While this trend to focus on profit was taking hold in the industry, two developments took place which exacerbated the situation.

First, the Internet radically changed the way people obtain news and information. We get our news more quickly, more conveniently and in a more specialized manner. We can choose the type of news that interests us – politics, entertainment, sports – and get as much or as little of it as we want.

With the Internet, we also get our news seemingly at no cost. Newspapers never made the bulk of their money from what people paid to purchase a copy. Most of the revenue came from ads. But now the revenue once made from classified ads has all but disappeared, thanks to Craig’s List. Meanwhile, larger advertisers, such as retail stores and car companies, are finding that the Internet offers less expensive and more effective ways of reaching potential customers than traditional media outlets do.

Add the global economic crisis to all of this and it is not a very pretty picture for the news business.

So how does what is happening in the media industry impact campaigns and elections?

First, politics in the U.S. has become extremely polarized. With the growth of the Internet – and before it, cable TV – we now have more choices than ever for news and entertainment.

On one hand, this is a good thing. But on the other hand, the people who are most interested in government and politics tend to be those with strong views – on both the left and the right. So we have media such as Fox, which caters to conservatives, and MSNBC, which has more of an appeal to liberals. Media outlets such as these take care of those with strong political views, but the vast majority of Americans are not that focused on politics and government. As a result, they feel disconnected and tune out. Instead of news, they turn to one of the many entertainment choices now available on television or the Internet.

Hand in hand with this trend, the media have been giving us less coverage of substantive issues and more on strategy, competition, and trivia.

Reporters don’t have the time and resources needed to dissect complex policy. It is much simpler to write about what are known as horse race issues, such as polls, endorsements and strategy.

“Most political reporters, particularly those who cover campaigns, are greater experts in politics than they are in policy,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman explained in their book The Press Effect. “Since politics is what they know, politics is what they cover.”

As citizens and as voters, we, the public, rely on the media to provide us with the information we need to make informed, educated decisions when we cast our votes for the men and women who will lead our communities, our states and our nation. When that information is not forthcoming, large segments of the public have little use for media or politics.

According to the 2009 State of the Media Report from Project for Excellence in Journalism: “The public retained a deep skepticism about what they see, hear and read in the media. No major news outlet – broadcast or cable, print or online – stood out as particularly credible. There was no indication that Americans altered their fundamental judgment that the news media are politically biased, that stories are often inaccurate and that journalists do not care about the people they report on.”

Meanwhile, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that just 20 percent of the American public approve of the job Congress is doing, one of the poorest approval ratings recorded during a mid-term election year. And in a poll released just last week on the favorability of leading political figures in America, President Obama only was fifth on the list. (Interestingly, the person with the highest favorability was Michelle Obama.)

Despite the current state of media and politics in America, there are signs that better days are ahead.

True, the media industry is experiencing tough times. This has had a negative impact on the quality of the news we receive – and, in turn, a negative impact on politics and government. But as consumers of news, we have more ways than ever to obtain news and information – and to obtain it quickly and conveniently.

We are still getting acclimated to this new era in which we live, and there is much that still needs to be addressed.

Blogs and Internet news sites are not held to the same standards as traditional journalism, so we must be more careful about the news we read online. The Internet also has given politicians the ability to bypass traditional media and deliver their messages directly to voters through websites, blogs, email and social networks. This also gives us reason for concern – since information is going directly to voters without the scrutiny of the news media.

On a personal note, I am optimistic because, having spent a good portion of my career as a journalist, I have learned that there is an intangible quality that comes with the job — a desire and a commitment to provide the public with useful and valuable information, regardless of whatever hurdles stand in the way.

As Monika Bauerlein of Mother Jones magazine put it: “The crisis in journalism right now is primarily a crisis in for-profit journalism, because the sources of that profit have dried up.”

The business side of the media industry is indeed in crisis. The journalism side also is having a tough time, but there are signs of light at the end of the tunnel.

In New Jersey and elsewhere, there are other innovative new media models that are starting to make an impact. The non-profit news site Pro Publica, for example, won a Pulitzer Prize for its work this year.

The Internet also is helping to hold politicians accountable. The ease – and speed – with which we can now record video and post it on YouTube is making it more difficult for politicians to get away with making comments that exaggerate the truth, or simply are untrue. At the same time, as the Shirley Sherrod case taught us, we must be careful in how we react and respond to videos and other material on the Internet.

The technology we enjoy today has made our lives easier in many ways, but it also has given us new responsibilities. To ensure a healthy democracy, we must be more discerning and inquisitive about what we see and hear – from the media, from politicians, and even from one another.

# # #

This article was adapted from remarks delivered at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy, on July 26 as part of a program comparing media and elections in Italy and the U.S.

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