Myth: The U.S. has a liberal media.
Fact: The media are being increasingly monopolized by parent corporations
with pro-corporate or conservative agendas.
The U.S. media are rapidly being monopolized by a dwindling
number of parent corporations, all of whom have conservative economic
agendas. The media are also critically dependent upon corporations
for advertising. As a result, the news almost completely ignores
corporate crime, as well as pro-labor and pro-consumer issues.
Surveys of journalists show that the majority were personally liberal in the 1980s,
but today they are centrists, with more conservatives than liberals on
economic issues. However, no study has proven that they give their personal bias to the news.
On the other hand, the political spectrum of pundits -- who do engage in
noisy editorializing -- leans heavily to the right. The most extreme
example of this is talk radio, where liberals are almost nonexistent.
The Fairness Doctrine was designed to prevent one-sided bias in
the media by requiring broadcasters to air opposing views. It
once enjoyed the broad support of both liberals and conservatives.
But now that the media have become increasingly owned and controlled
by corporations, conservatives defiantly oppose the Fairness Doctrine.
This is probably the best proof that the media's bias is conservative,
Conservatives often promote the myth that the U.S. media are
liberal. This myth serves several purposes: it raises public skepticism
about liberal news stories, hides conservative bias when it appears,
and goads the media to the right. GOP strategist William Kristol
also reveals another reason: "I admit it: the liberal media
were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as
an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures." (1)
In unguarded moments, however, even far-right figures like Pat
Buchanan come clean: "The truth is, I've gotten fairer, more
comprehensive coverage of my ideas than I ever imagined I would
receive." He further conceded: "I've gotten balanced
coverage and broad coverage -- all we could have asked
heaven sakes, we kid about the liberal media, but every Republican
on earth does that." (2)
So what's the real story? The fact is that conservatives have
powerful friends in the media: the corporations that own them,
and the corporations that pay for their advertising. These giant
firms have been increasingly successful in bending the media's
message to suit their self-interests, which include a conservative
and pro-corporate agenda. Studies show that the media are eerily
silent on the issues most important to workers, consumers and
other citizens adversely affected by corporate behavior. Conservatives
respond to these charges with (old) polls showing that most journalists
are personally liberal, but these polls are outdated. New polls show the
majority of journalists are centrists. And of those who are not centrists,
there are more conservatives than liberals on economic issues. We'll
explore more of this question below.
The Media Monopoly
Easily the most famous book on media trends in the last 15 years is Ben Bagdikian's
1983 book, The Media Monopoly. In it, he predicted that deregulation
under President Reagan would allow media ownership to concentrate
in fewer and fewer corporate hands. This, in turn, would result
in a more pro-corporate media. Ridiculed as "alarmist"
when it first came out, it has since been praised as a classic
for the accuracy of its predictions. "I derive no pleasure
from having been correct," writes the former dean of American
journalism in his most recent edition. (3)
To be specific, the number one trend within the media today is that they are
rapidly being monopolized by large corporations. Technically,
the term "monopoly" is incorrect when describing today's
media -- what we actually have is a shrinking media oligopoly.
Most scholars use the term "media monopoly" only because
that's the direction the media are headed. This essay will also
use the term "media monopoly" to denote the direction,
rather than the current status, of the media.
The dangers of a media monopoly
Before reviewing the statistical evidence of the media monopoly,
which is undisputed even by the media themselves, we should make
certain of its dangers.
The incentives for buying media organizations have long been obvious
to Wall Street, which has seen vicious competition break out to
capture the remaining media markets. These incentives were articulated
in 1986 by Christopher Shaw, a Wall Street expert who has handled
over 120 media mergers. Shaw told investors that media buy-outs
would give them two things: "profitability" and "influence."
There is nothing inherently wrong with either profitability or
influence, of course -- it's just that in a monopoly, they would
be abused. Consider the abuse of profits. All the usual market
failures would be present in a media monopoly: the captive market,
the rise in prices, the drop in quality, and the exploitation
But significantly more troubling is the monopolization of influence.
If one person controls all information, there are no opposing
viewpoints so essential to keeping public and scientific debate
honest. We profoundly condemn the monopoly of information by the
state, as exemplified by Joseph Goebbels' "Ministry of Propaganda
and Enlightenment." But this danger is no less evident if
a single business takes over the control of all information
in society. Then all information would come from a corporate point
of view, silencing the voices of workers, consumers and other
citizens who are affected by corporate behavior. Democracy is
based on the assumption that opposing viewpoints can be heard.
If corporations could somehow eliminate or control populist debate,
then we will not have a true democracy.
The potential for abuse by corporate owners is obvious. Just one
example was General Electric's earlier buyout of NBC News. General
Electric is the 10th largest company in the United States. It
is a major Defense contractor and an international player on the
world market. It is sensitive to the needs of its clients, who
come from all sectors of the economy. It is also a fact that GE
has suffered many a scandal throughout its history. During the
Great Depression, it cut the life of its light bulbs by one-third
to drive up profits. It was convicted of an illegal agreement
with a German arms company during World War II. It has been convicted
of fraud, fixing bids, conspiracy and tax evasion. (5) In all
these cases, control of a major media outlet would have given
it undue influence, whether in the market or before Congress or
Furthermore, GE has played an active role in conservative politics.
Shortly after the company acquired NBC, a GE executive announced
that NBC should start a political action committee to contribute
money to strengthen the company's influence in Washington. Failure
to cooperate, the executive said, would raise questions about
the employees' "dedication to the company." (6) Later
the President of NBC News clarified that its news employees would
be exempt from contributing, but this hardly removes the larger
conflict of interest.
It should not be surprising that these parent companies, like
most big businesses and all Defense contractors, are extremely
conservative. They have agendas: they desire lower taxes, fewer
lawsuits from the public, fewer environmental restraints, better
public relations (a euphemism for less public exposure to scandals),
higher profits and more effective lobbying power in Washington.
Controlling public opinion would give them all these things. Ironically,
it would not be necessary for a single winner to emerge from the
take-over wars. Shaw maintains that by the year 2000, all U.S.
media will be in the hands of six giant corporations. Most business
analysts agree with him. (7) One can safely assume that they will
all have the same business and political agenda.
The statistical evidence of a media monopoly
That said, let's review the evidence of a media monopoly.
Ownership of all forms of media (newspapers, magazines, radio
shows, network television, cable, journals, books, movies, videos
and cassettes) are quickly being consolidated under a few corporations.
In all, the number of dominant corporations who control any
form of media has shrunk from 46 in 1981 to exactly half in 1992:
23. At the end of World War II, 80 percent of all newspapers were
privately owned. Today, that figure is its exact opposite: 80
percent of all newspapers are owned by corporate chains. From
1960 to today, the number of corporations which own newspapers
fell from 27 to 14. (Gannett Company, which publishes USA Today,
is the largest, with 87 other daily newspapers.) From 1981 to
1988, the number of corporations who owned magazines fell from
20 to a mere three. Television news is dominated by four
major networks, who control up to three-fourths of the audience
One of the most obvious signs of this trend is that cities are
becoming "one-newspaper towns." One of the persons most
responsible for buying out competing newspapers is Rupert Murdoch,
who says that his worldwide strategy is acquisition and takeovers.
(9) Another is Allen Neuharth, chairman of Gannett Company, who
told a group of Wall Street investors that "No Gannett newspaper
has any direct competition." (10)
Since the 1992 edition of The Media Monopoly, media mergers
of unprecedented scale have continued unabated -- but there's
no discussion of the dangers involved, or the controversy it should
represent. Disney has since bought ABC, Westinghouse has bought
CBS, and Time-Warner has bought Turner Broadcasting System. Congress
cleared out the remaining obstacles for still more media mergers
by passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Headlines in the
media blared about the bill's attempt to censor pornography on
the Internet, but otherwise remained completely silent about its
deregulation of anti-trust laws for the media. For this bit of
censorship, the Telecom Act was voted the number one censored
story of 1995 by Project Censored.
The cable industry offers a perfect snapshot of media monopolization
and all its dangers. After the cable television industry was deregulated
in 1984, prices soared, quality of programming plummeted, and
cable systems began selling their channels in indivisible blocs
that prevented subscribers from voting with their dollars. From
1986 to 1990, the cost of basic service rose 56 percent -- twice
the rate of inflation. (11) The problem? Growing monopolization,
at several levels. There are now 11,000 cable systems across the
nation, almost all of them exercising a local monopoly over their
municipal region. They in turn are controlled by a handful of
national companies. By far the most dominant is the phenomenally
expanding TCI, which is a gatekeeper over national programming.
Its owner, John Malone, owns all or part of 25 national or regional
cable channels, including Turner Broadcasting. (12) Because there
is little or no competition, cable programmers search for the
cheapest shows to produce. Quality of programming has sunk to
network TV levels. It seems that each year, Congress passes yet
another cable deregulation bill. Every single one has been touted
to "open competition" and "benefit the consumer."
But the concentration of power in the cable industry keeps getting
worse, not better.
Another source of pro-corporate bias: advertising
Owning and monopolizing the media is only one way that corporations
introduce a pro-corporate bias into the media. An equally pervasive
one is advertising.
Most media depend on the sale of corporate advertisements to stay
alive. Without advertisements, a medium would have to charge its
customers a higher up-front price for its product.
But that would kill its circulation, since competitors would offer
up-front prices that were considerably lower or even
free. Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch. The consumer
actually pays a higher price for the advertiser's products, which
then go to the media.
Advertising has been criticized on many grounds: it is inefficient,
wastes time and resources, is terribly unpleasant, stifles free
market competition, helps sustains long-term advantages to giant
corporations, and makes people buy products for psychological
reasons instead of economic ones like cost, quality and demand.
Entire essays could be written on each of these shortcomings,
but what we will address is how advertising injects a pro-corporate
bias into the media.
The media generally cannot run stories that offend corporations,
because sponsors will threaten to pull their advertising dollars.
In 1980, the liberal staff at Mother Jones debated over
whether or not to publish a series of articles linking cigarettes
to cancer. The editors knew that the tobacco industry would punish
them by canceling their lucrative advertising contracts, which
the young, struggling magazine desperately needed. Mother Jones
stuck to its principles and printed the articles anyway; and,
just as expected, the tobacco companies angrily pulled their ads.
And whereas a parent corporation like GE has a particular set
of interests that NBC would never report against, advertisers
have general interests that reporters would never tilt against
either. A publisher never knows who the next advertiser might
be; therefore it's good policy not to write offensive things about
any corporation, or even corporate culture in general.
No news organization could attract advertisers if it persistently
attacked the corporate agenda.
Evidence of pro-corporate bias in the media
Obviously, parent corporations and advertising sponsors have
the ability and incentive to twist journalists' arms, but do they
actually? The answer is both yes and no. Media owners and advertisers
are generally prevented from interfering in the editor's
office because of 75 years of improving journalist ethics. Back
in the 1920s, the blatant manipulation of the news by owners resulted
in "Yellow Journalism" and the sort of corruption so
brilliantly captured by the movie Citizen Kane. But that
does not mean that owners today still do not exert influence over
their editors. Ben Bagdikian writes that owners let the editors
operate freely until a story arises that affects the company's
interest. Then one of two forms of influence will be exerted.
It may be a direct order, as when the Chairman of General Electric
called the President of NBC News after the 1987 stock market crash
and told him not to use words in their reporting that would adversely
affect GE stock. (13) (The NBC News president claimed he did not
pass on the order.)
Or it may be an unspoken agreement. Editors and writers know what
their employer's interests are, and they protect them without
being told. Why? Either to demonstrate their dedication to the
company, thus protecting their future promotions, or simply because
they fear being fired. Unfortunately, it is a frequent practice
for owners to fire journalists who, knowingly or not, write against
their particular interests. Just one of many examples is the owner
of the Dallas Morning News, who fired Earl Golz for writing
a story about an imminent bank failure that outraged the owners
of the Abilene National Bank. Golz' story proved true -- the bank
crashed a few weeks later -- but Golz' was not rehired. (14) To
be sure, other journalists witnessing his fate would practice
self-censorship whenever it came to protecting their owner's interests.
Whether owners interfere explicitly or implicitly in the newsroom,
evidence of it continually surfaces. Here are just a few examples:
The above stories are anecdotal, but they show specifically how
editors and advertisers interfere with the objectivity of the
media. Now let's look at broader statistics. All feature the same
theme: the power of editorial selection. Editors play a crucial
role in deciding which stories get covered and which ones don't.
This is an important tool for shaping and influencing the nation's
debate. Due to the abuse of this power, three giant trends have
grown within the media as big business continues to monopolize
- During the debate on health care reform, the New York Times
ran stories persistently in favor of managed competition, a program
which would have been profitable to major health care corporations.
Other proposals for reform, like the Canadian single-payer program,
were criticized or ignored. Reason: four members of the Times
board of directors are also directors of major insurance companies,
and two are directors of pharmaceutical companies. (15)
- Victor Neufeld, the executive producer of ABC's top-rated
news show 20/20, repeatedly rejected several promising
stories on nuclear power hazards. Reason: His wife is a prominent
spokesman for the nuclear and chemical industries. (16)
- Walter Annenberg, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer,
used his paper to attack a candidate who opposed action that would
have benefited the stockholders of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Reason: he was the single largest stockholder. (17)
- Rupert Murdoch's Post endorsed President Carter in
the crucial New York Presidential primary, contributing to his
victory. Reason: two days earlier, Murdoch had lunch with Carter,
convincing him to lean on the Export-Import Bank of the United
States to give him a taxpayer-subsidized loan of $290 million.
The bank had previously rejected the loan. (18)
- A four-month study by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting)
analyzed how the New York Times and Washington Post
covered NAFTA. Of the experts quoted in their articles, pro-NAFTA
outnumbered anti-NAFTA sources by three to one. Not a single labor
union representative was quoted. Reason: these newspapers' boards
of directors are drawn from big business. (19)
- Journalist Elizabeth Whelan asked ten major women's magazines
to run a series of articles on the rise of smoking-related diseases
in women; all ten magazines refused. Reason: "I frequently
wrote on health topics for women's magazines," says Whelan,
"and have been told repeatedly by editors to stay away from
the subject of tobacco." (20)
The first is that pro-labor stories are almost completely absent,
even though blue-collar workers make up the vast majority of this
nation's work force, and indeed the news media's audience. The
majority of stories should include the conditions they
work under, the challenges they face, the wages they earn and
the hazards that maim and kill them. But the media is curiously
silent on nearly all these natural topics. In 1989, researcher
John Tasini studied ABC, NBC and CBS for a year to see how much
coverage was devoted to workers' issues, including the minimum
wage, workplace safety and child care. He found it amounted to
a dismal 2.3 percent of all coverage. In fact, all three networks
carried only 13 minutes of coverage on workplace safety for the
entire year! The worst offender was NBC Nightly News, who
devoted a total of 40 seconds to worker safety. This is not surprising,
since its parent corporation, GE, has an appalling work safety
record. (21) Elsewhere, a Los Angeles Times poll found
that 53 percent of the nation's newspaper editors were pro-management,
but only 8 percent were pro-labor. (22) The pro-corporate bias
of our media is one of the most important reasons for the decline
of labor unions in this country.
The second trend is the increasingly conservative selection of
experts to be quoted in the news. Think tanks are ideal places
to find such "experts." (True academics have a low opinion
of think tanks, which are simply propaganda outlets for the giant
corporate foundations that pour millions of dollars into them.)
Think tanks are highly partisan, and the quality of their work
is mediocre at best. Why? They lack the checks and balances which
keep academia honest, such as peer review, the scientific conference
and independence of funding. Unfortunately, it has been a growing
trend in journalism to rely on think tanks more than academia.
That's because think tanks have conducted an aggressive campaign
to become media friendly, packaging their findings in nice sound-bites
and faxed press releases. This is in stark contrast to academics,
who have little interest, expertise, funding or organization to
conduct mass media relations. And this is not to mention that
corporate-owned media organizations are encouraged to gather their
facts from corporate-funded think tanks.
So, how many times do journalists quote conservative think tanks
over liberal ones? The media watchdog FAIR conducted a Nexus search
of major newspapers, radio and TV transcripts for 1995, and came
up with the following answer:
Total Number of Think Tank Citations in Major Newspapers, Radio
and TV transcripts: (23)
Although there are far more conservative think tanks than liberal
ones in the first place, reporters could easily balance the facts
if they wanted to simply by consulting academics at universities.
The third trend is that when news organizations cover corruption
in Washington, it is always politicians who get the blame, and
never corporations. This is one reason why Americans hate politics,
why voter anger has been rising over the last 20 years, why the
people's trust in Congress has reached its lowest point in half
a century. But this one-sided anger is illogical. The politicians
are getting the money from somewhere. Big business, of
course, need not fear being exposed as the ones donating the money
and requesting the shady favors in the first place; after all,
a watchdog doesn't bite its master. It is interesting to note
that when President Clinton became embroiled in a campaign contribution
scandal on the eve of his re-election, the corporate media made
sure to choose a foreign corporate lobbyist to blame.
To be sure, if Westinghouse were to get caught laundering millions
in drug money, CBS News would report the story in a straightforward
fashion. But otherwise, the searchlight is directed away from
business and onto politicians. Even once liberal news magazines
like 60 Minutes, which proudly took on corporate criminals
in the 70s, has considerably toned down its approach towards the
Fortune 500 today, and concentrates on everyone else.
The personal biases of journalists
The claim that the U.S. has a "liberal media" began with a book called The Media Elite, by S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter. Their 1980 survey of journalists revealed that journalists were indeed much more liberal than the rest of America, a point which no one disputed. However, the authors then went on to make a second claim: that these liberal journalists inserted their own personal bias into the news. This second claim has not withstood academic scrutiny. (Click on the following link to see why.)
However, that debate is archaic today, because new studies show that today's journalists are more centrist than anything else. However, those who are not centrists identify themselves more frequently as conservatives on economic issues, and more frequently as liberals on social issues.
The following study was conducted by David Croteau of Virginia Commonwealth University. (24) He targeted Washington bureau chiefs and Washington-based journalists who cover national politics and/or economic policy. His questionnaires went to 78 national news organizations, with an emphasis on the following 14:
1. ABC News /ABC Radio
2. Associated Press /AP Broadcast News
3. Bloomberg News
5. Knight-Ridder Newspapers/Tribune Information Services
6. Los Angeles Times
7. NBC News
8. New York Times
9. Reuters America, Inc.
11. USA Today/USA Weekend
12. Wall Street Journal
13. Washington Post
14. Washington Times
The 141 journalists and bureau chiefs who responded were an excellent cross-section of the target group as a whole. When their positions on political issues were tallied up, this was the result:
|Q#22. On social issues, how would you characterize your political orientation?
||Q#23. On economic issues, how would you characterize your political orientation?
What caused journalists to shift over the last 15 years from liberal attitudes to centrist ones, even conservative ones on economic issues?
One answer, of course, is that the media's parent corporations began hiring less liberal journalists. But another answer has to be the exploding salaries of celebrity journalists. It is a common observation in political science that receiving a higher income tends to make a person more economically conservative.
Between 1980 and 1995, the salaries of celebrity journalists sky-rocketed. In 1995, Diane Sawyer made $8 million; Ted Koppel, $5 million; David Brinkley, $1 million; George Will, $1.5 million; Cokie Roberts, $700,000. (25) These salaries place them in America's richest 1 percent (actually, the top one-twentieth of the top 1 percent). Keep in mind that the top 1 percent saw their wealth explode during the 80s, eventually coming to own 40 percent of America's wealth. These celebrity journalists live and work in centers of power like Washington D.C and New York City, where they rub elbows with the nation's political and business elite.
Says PBS producer Stephen Talbot:
"There's an Our Town quality to official Washington -- a very small, incestuous world of politicians and press who are now almost interchangeable. The press was once known as ink-stained wretches. But in their tuxedos and evening gowns at an event like the White House Correspondents Dinner, they resemble nothing more than the politicians they cover." (26)
Newsweek columnist Jonathon Alter concedes:
"I'm a part of this so-called overclass -- and so are my bosses and many of my colleagues at Newsweek and elsewhere in the national media. There's no point in denying it." (27)
And all evidence shows that celebrity journalists identify with the various elites they cover. Recently, ABC weathered a scandal (due to lack of coverage, naturally) in which its journalists were criticized for accepting huge speaking fees before big business groups. It turns out that corporate lobbyists cultivate "friendships" not only with politicians, but TV journalists as well. They were paying Cokie Roberts, David Brinkley and Sam Donaldson between $20,000 and $35,000 per 40-minute speech. David Gergen collected over $700,000 from speaker fees in one 16-month period alone. In general, the speeches have been very friendly to big business, and that is why lobbyists were willing to pay such huge honoraria. In a 1992 speech, for example, David Brinkley described Bill Clinton's tax increase on the rich as a "sick, stupid joke." (This was even before he called Clinton "boring" on the eve of his 1996 reelection.) In July, 1994, ABC finally advised its journalists to stop accepting speaker fees from corporations and lobbying groups. The decision was immediately protested by Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, David Brinkley, Brit Hume and others. (28)
The ironic thing is that Cokie Roberts is a Democrat, as are many of her colleagues. Again, this underscores the fact that inside the Beltway, a "liberal" is often no more than a moderate conservative.
Does personal bias result in media bias?
Granted, journalists have their own personal viewpoints, ranging from liberal to conservative. But what does that really mean? Very little, it turns out.
The idea that the media's message can be boiled down to the personal biases of individual journalists is profoundly and absurdly reductionist. The media is composed of individuals, yes, but it is also composed of institutions, organizational structures, traditions, rules, social and economic forces, and interest groups applying pressure. And all these things affect the media's message in profound ways.
For example, consider the rule of balanced sources. Under normal circumstances, journalists get both sides of the story. This is a basic rule of thumb that every journalist knows, and is taught in every Journalism 101 class. It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative; it is widely considered unethical to present only one side of the story. The only time that this ethic seems to break down is when a conflict of interest arises between journalists and the corporations that pay their paychecks.
But this ethic doesn't stop corporations from "legitimately" biasing the media towards conservatism. All they have to do is hire pundits who are mostly conservatives themselves. Pundits enjoy a unique role in the media, in that they are expected to be biased. In fact, the more outrageous their opinions, the better. Whereas a reporter must stick to the facts and report both sides, pundits are free to interpret them any way they want. What this means is that criticism of reporters for their alleged liberal bias is actually misplaced. It is really the political spectrum of pundits that we should worry about.
Unfortunately, there are far more conservative pundits than progressive ones:
Conservative pundits: Pat Buchanan, Fred Barnes, John McLaughlin, David Gergen, Robert Novak, William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, William Safire, Cal Thomas, Jonathon Alter, Joe Klein, Robert J. Samuelson, James Kilpatrick, Rush Limbaugh, and hundreds of other conservative radio talk-show hosts.
Centrists (self-described): Sam Donaldson, Mark Shields, Michael Kinsley, Morton Kondrake, Al Hunt, Jack Germond, Hodding Carter.
Progressive pundits: Jim Hightower (cancelled), Barbara Eirenreich, Molly Ivins.
Conservatives freely admit to this bias themselves. Here's Adam Myerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review:
"[Pundit] journalism today is very different from what it was 10 to 20 years ago. Today, op-ed pages are dominated by conservatives… We have a tremendous amount of conservative opinion, but this creates a problem for those who are interested in a career in journalism after college… If Bill Buckley were to come out of Yale today, nobody would pay much attention to him. He would not be that unusual… because there are probably hundreds of people with those ideas [and] they have already got syndicated columns." (29)
In fact, no one can deny the extreme right-wing bias of the pundit spectrum after listening to talk radio. Conservatives have captured an entire media arm and devoted it almost exclusively to corporate and conservative propaganda. Liberal talk-show hosts are almost non-existent. Conservatives blame this on the low ratings of liberal talk show hosts, but this is a curious argument, since liberals form the largest political school of thought in America. The fact is that corporate owners simply do not promote liberal talk show hosts. When ABC first hired Rush Limbaugh, they spent millions promoting him, ghost-writing his books and arranging appearances on Nightline, The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour and even Phil Donahue. No liberal talk show host has received anything even remotely resembling this kind of promotion. It's just another way that corporations ensure the conservative slant of the media.
The Fairness Doctrine
The United States once had a law which attempted to balance
viewpoints in radio and television: the Fairness Doctrine. Created
by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, this law required
broadcasters to cover controversial issues with some opposing
views. It required neither the internal balancing of programs,
nor for equal time, nor for all opinions to be heard. It merely
prevented broadcasters from airing relentless, one-sided propaganda.
An example of the Fairness Doctrine in action was the ABC movie
The Day After. This anti-nuclear war movie angered many
conservatives like Henry Kissinger, who believe that the willingness
to use nuclear weapons is actually a deterrence to war. However,
Kissinger got a chance to respond to the movie on national television,
for Nightline followed the movie with a group discussion
that included Kissinger and other conservative pundits. The reason
why ABC was so even-handed, presenting both a liberal and conservative
viewpoint on nuclear war, was because the Fairness Doctrine required
Another example was controversial state ballot measures. The Fairness
Doctrine required broadcasters to air both viewpoints of any initiative.
It is interesting to note that since the Fairness Doctrine was
repealed in 1987, studies show that the media's treatment of many
initiatives has been heavily one-sided. (30)
Why the Fairness Doctrine? Why not just let the market produce
what it wants? The market works fine in the case of print media,
because almost anyone can afford to print something, even if it's
just a flyer. However, this is not the case for radio and television.
In the 1920s, the airwaves were unregulated, and became so overcrowded
with signals that they jammed each other. The Federal Communication
Commission therefore started issueing licenses for broadcasters
to use certain radio frequencies. Because the spectrum is so limited,
however, there can only be a limited number of broadcasters. Diversity
of opinion cannot be achieved by adding more stations, but only
by creating it within stations. This is the rationale for the Fairness
Up until the late 1980s, the Fairness Doctrine enjoyed broad popular
support, ranging from the left-wing ACLU to the right-wing National
Rifle Association and Accuracy In Media. In 1987, Congress considered
a bill that would inscribe the Fairness Doctrine in federal law.
It passed with overwhelming support in the House (3 to 1) and
the Senate (nearly 2 to 1). Even such far-right legislators as
Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms voted in favor of it. (31)
Unfortunately, Reagan vetoed the law, and then went a step further:
his FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine completely. Reagan had staffed
the FCC with corporate media types who were bent on deregulating
the media at all costs, and were thus hostile to the Fairness
Doctrine. It was the equivalent of letting the fox guard the chicken
coop. Shortly afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives
were free to take over AM talk radio, without fear of giving equal
time to liberals.
Interestingly, media corporations have fought all subsequent attempts
by Congress to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine -- a sure sign
that they have an incentive to avoid balanced coverage. Rush Limbaugh
has gone so far as to slander it the "Hush Rush Law."
(In fact, Rush would not be silenced, nor even forced to internally
balance his program.) Today, conservatives have done a complete
180 on the Fairness Doctrine: their one-time support has turned
into angry opposition.
This speaks volumes about the true bias of the media. It also
shows conservative media criticism to be highly incoherent. If
the media were truly as liberal as they claim, they would jump
at the chance to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, for it would
give them a voice they didn't have before. The fact that they
oppose it so vigorously proves that they know when they have a
good thing, and don't want to give it up.
A solution: public media
The manipulation of the media by the interests that control
it proves the need for major reform. There are a number of good
suggestions, but by far the best is expanding public media. This
is media supported neither by advertisements nor parent corporations,
but by the taxpayers themselves. With only the American people
to answer to, public journalists are free to investigate businesses
as aggressively as they do government. In fact, journalists in public media
should be elected, just as politicians are elected. The media prides
itself on being the "Fourth Estate" or "fourth branch of government." We should
recognize this fact by making it true.
Of course, the private media would be free to continue operating as before. The
creation of a truly public media would be just one more player on the block --
but a player that has no secret agenda and is more responsible to the people.
Europe has a much stronger tradition of public media than the
U.S., and it has worked superbly for them. In the U.S., our experiment
with public media is limited to National Public Radio and National
Public Television -- both underfunded, both under severe attack
by the Republican party. With the GOP threatening to cut off its
funding, NPR has recently backed off its criticism of corporations.
It should also be noted that our "public" media depends
rather heavily on corporate donations. This is a mistake. Progressives
argue that the U.S. should strengthen its public media, and institute
reforms that insulate it from all political and economic influence.
And only then will we have a media that truly operates "without
fear or favor."
Related Essay: ABC and the rise of Rush Limbaugh
Return to Overview
1. Both quoted by Norman Solomon, "Politics: What
is Disinformation?" San Francisco Bay Guardian, August
3. Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press,
1984 ) p. ix.
4. Bagdikian, p. 11, quoting The Executive Enterprise Briefing
Book (New York City), October 20-21, 1986.
5. Bagdikian, p. 209, citing Jerry de Muth, "GE: Profile
of a Corporation," Dissent, July/August 1967, pp.
6. Bagdikian, p. 209, quoting The New York Times, December
10, 1986, p. I.
7. Bagdikian, pp. 5-6.
8. Bagdikian, pp. 17-26.
9. Bagdikian, p. 4.
10. Bagdikian, p. 67.
11. Study by the federal General Accounting Office, cited in "Cost
of Cable Service Up 56%," Washington Post, July 19,
12. Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Through the Media Looking
Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in the News (Monroe, Maine:
Common Courage Press, 1995), p. 3.
13. Bagdikian, p. xvii.
14. Bagdikian, p. 37, citing The Wall Street Journal, August
16, 1982, p. 17.
15. Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Through the Media Looking
Glass, (Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1995), pp. 78-82.
16. Cohen, p. 66.
17. Bagdikian, pp. 41-2, citing John Cooney, The Annenbergs
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), pp. 292-5.
18. Bagdikian, p. 41, citing The Washington Post, May 13,
1980, p. A7.
19. Cohen, p. 235.
20. Bagdikian, p. 172.
21. Cohen, p. 125.
22. Cohen, p. 124.
23. Nexis search conducted by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting.
Here is a more complete chart:
Media References to Major Think-Tanks in 1995
Think Tank /Political Orientation / References
Heritage Foundation / conservative / 2268
Brookings Institution / centrist / 2192
American Enterprise Institute / conservative / 1297
Cato Institute / conservative-libertarian / 1163
RAND Corporation / center-right / 795
Urban Institute / center-left / 749
Council on Foreign Relations / centrist / 747
Center for Strategic and International Studies / conservative
Hoover Institution / conservative / 570
Progress and Freedom Foundation / conservative / 570
Carnegie Endowment / centrist / 517
Freedom Forum / centrist / 496
Progressive Policy Institute / centrist / 455
Institute for International Economics / centrist / 410
Economic Policy Institute / progressive / 399
Hudson Institute / conservative / 354
Competitive Enterprise Institute / conservative / 298
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies / progressive
Manhattan Institute / conservative / 254
Reason Foundation conservative/libertarian / 229
Worldwatch Institute / progressive / 201
International Institute for Strategic Studies / conservative /
Institute for Policy Studies / progressive / 161
Center for Defense Information / progressive / 136
24. David Croteau, "Examining the 'Liberal Media' Claim: Journalists' Views on Politics, Economic Policy and Media Coverage," (Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, June 1998). A copy of this report can be found online at http://www.fair.org/reports/journalist-survey.html.
25. Cohen, pp. 6-8.
26. "Why Americans Hate the Press," Frontline,
27. Jonathon Alter, "Cop-Out on Class," Newsweek,
July 31, 1995, p. 49.
28. Cohen, pp. 6-8.
29. Adam Myerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's Policy
Review, Newslink, 11/88.
30. Jeff Cohen, "The 'Hush Rush' Hoax: Limbaugh on the Fairness Doctrine,"