As my colleague Eric Alterman argues, since the days of Goldwater conservatives have been complaining about the actions of the referees (the American media) in their struggle to dominate American politics. The refs (the media), according to the conservatives, are biased against them and really want the other side (the liberals) to win the game. Alterman makes a very convincing argument that the claim of liberal bias has been effective at intimidating American media and convincing the public that many of our common problems are really the fault of the messenger. But the problem of media bias is not simply a tactic in the game of politics.
We live in a time when it is increasingly difficult for the public to digest all the matters of real importance to our local or national community. With so much information coming at us, with so little time between work and family obligations, many of us rely on mass media to sort through the events of the day and tell us what is most important. Who has the time to read several newspapers and magazines and the hundreds of sources on the Internet and compare the reports of the various newscasts? Because mass media informs our political decisions, media bias is not simply a problem of partisanship, it is a problem of peace or war, of solving our problems or descending into confusion. For a nation dedicated to the proposition that citizens are the ultimate authority, that our elected representatives are elected to serve the public good as we understand it, there is no greater or more urgent problem facing America than a biased media.
Bias is the ideological distortion of information, and that problem is built into our current system. Our communication system supports a vibrant commercial media but ignores the needs of a government of the people. The bias inherent in such a system promotes the agenda of corporations, not citizens. Our peculiar American system of communication says that whoever has the most money will be the loudest voice in the public debate. The bias dominating our political conversation is not from the radical right and it is certainly not from the few remaining public figures willing to be called liberal. Multinational corporations dominate the political conversation in the U.S. today.
The founders of our democracy would say that debate dominated by any one faction in our society is not sufficient to the needs of democracy. With our relatively recent focus on the First Amendment to the Constitution, we forget that even before it was amended the founders created a mechanism that supported the communication of all Americans . . . it was called the Post Office. The Post Office was the largest part of the federal republic under the founders. It was larger than the Army or the Treasury. It was larger and more robust than that of any other advanced nation in the world.
When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about democracy in America, newspapers were highly ideological, highly partisan and carried by the U.S. Post Office at a discount. Moreover, newspapers were delivered free to other newspaper publishers so that news could spread.
Newspaper distribution was subsidized by business and personal correspondence in Jefferson’s America. The founders established a system that promoted diverse communication as a way to check and balance different political factions. And they understood that merchants and bankers, the international corporations of their day, were a political faction.
It is true that we live in more complex times. And in many ways we live in times that are far more open and democratic than the time of the founders. But I think there are important lessons in the fact that the founders placed such importance on constructing a communications system that made truly diverse and equal political communication possible. Our current structure of communications is far off the democratic course established by the founders.
Multinational corporations are provided a tax structure in the U.S. that promotes their lifeblood – advertising. They are given free licenses by the government to use the public airwaves. They are given access to our public streets and alleys. But what is most important to Viacom, the News Corporation, General Electric, Disney, Comcast and, yes, even the New York Times is not public service in exchange for these public benefits – it is whether at the end of the quarter they turn a profit.
If Americans do not understand one another because of the distortions or omissions in the news, NBC will not lose its access to public property. If Americans and countless civilians in other countries lose their lives because of the drumbeat for war, FOX will not be punished. The New York Times will not be held responsible for focusing on Whitewater and passing on lies about weapons of mass destruction. If you are given more information about Michael Jackson and Britney Spears than about the actions of your city council or state legislators, the licenses of your local radio and television stations will not be taken away.
But the solution to the problem of bad speech is not censorship but better speech. Progressives have long supported the tradition of a competitive commercial press unrestrained by government. But we need more. We need a media responsible to promote democratic dialogue. We need media independent of corporations and corporate bias.
If we really want news we can trust, we must create a structure that makes it possible and we must pay for it. One way to accomplish this might be to require commercial media to pay full fare for their access to the tens of billions of dollars of public resources they have access to for pennies. A lion’s share of that money should be used to fully support a reformed public service news service in the U.S. This modern equivalent of the Post Office must be independent from both partisan and corporate pressure, unlike our current structure. And, unlike our current structure, it must be truly accountable to local communities through democratic means.
I would say these steps were radical, if they were not consistent with the founders of our republic= Unless we take these steps, we can only expect a continuation of the sort of yellow journalism we are experiencing today.
Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.