Sunday, June 08, 2008

The True Role of America's Media

This weekend I had the distinct pleasure of addressing the Gulf Coast Regional gathering of the Hugh O'Brien Youth Leadership conclave at Rice Univeristy.

I was invited to participate on a panel to discuss Media issues, in the company of KUHT's Ernie Manousse and the Galveston County Republican Party Chairman, John LeCour.

We were asked to comment on two main questions:
1.) Is the American Media responsible for creating a structure of individuals voting only on personal content of candidates?
2.) How much time should the local news devote to global issues that candidates should be responsible for? Should news discuss the candidates’ platform more?

I was encouraged by the attentiveness, perception, and questions these high school sophmores were asking about how Media works, and what role it plays in shaping our society. Unlike the "young skulls of mush" that Rush Limbaugh likes to lampoon, these kids were sharp, and have a lot on the ball.

The process really got me to thinking...and I hope those questions would pull at your brain a bit, too: What is the responsibility of American Media?

Certainly, inherent with the privilege to inform and entertain comes a liability for keeping things fair. But is American Media’s primary responsibility to its audience or its investors?

Media is a business, just like Banking, Retail, and the Grocery business. Are banks required to accept DDA accounts from just anyone? Do Retailers have a mandate to sell to anyone at any price—and are they required to sell everything made? With so many grocery stores in operation, why are there still hungry kids in America tonight?

You know the answer as well as I: they'd all go broke if they had to cater to everyone. So, apply that principle to the Media and ask, must the Media inform as well as entertain, if Media consumers aren’t buying what they’re telling or selling?

Perhaps the real question might be re-phrased just a bit: Is the Media is responsible for reporting to, or appealing to, the audiences it reaches?
Does the Media shape or reflect its Audience?

Let’s talk about Fairness for a moment.
What is fair?
FOX News has made it their Brand, “Fair and Balanced, You Decide,” daring viewers to pick apart the stories, and thresh the rhetoric from fact.

If we are to hold the American Media to a standard of fairness, a la a Fairness Doctrine, thus removing some of the free market forces of competition for audience share, should the Media then be underwritten to an extent so that it can survive financially?
PBS is an excellent example of this principle.

If the Media presents a view or position to the public that is unpopular, to the extent that the outlet providing that presentation cannot survive financially, does that position still merit support from the public for the sole purpose of providing “balance?” carried an article by Jamison Foser on how the Media has covered the Bush Administration (a lightning rod for commentary!), to which this poignant post was made:

“The media is an absolute train wreck that will never learn or improve. It will only dwindle and fade. As they lose more and more of their audience, they will make no changes. They will only continue to lose still more.

“A corporate media would seek to improve its ratings. It would cater to the majority and promote policies that don't destroy the economy. We do not have a corporate media. We have a deeply partisan and deeply stupid media.”

The poster is not wrong.
But, let’s look objectively at Media as a business.

Newspapers have to sell copies—increase circulation—to stay in business. Radio must attract and retain listeners. TV must attract and retain viewers. The more audience share each Media outlet amasses, the more profitable it becomes.

There has been much criticism of the Media for being biased, un-fair, slanted… yet, is Media having to portray the slant that sells for the sake of survival?
Note that the Liberal-leaning Air America Radio Network has had more than its share of difficulties launching; is that indicative of the reception such programming can expect?

Media Matters for America ran a very telling survey of the syndicated columnist landscape, contacting each publication individually to determine which columnists were being carried.
The results showed that in paper after paper, state after state, and region after region, conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts.

Editor & Publisher paraphrased one syndicate executive noting, "U.S. dailies run more conservative than liberal columns, but some are willing to consider liberal voices."

If content is what sells papers, can it not be inferred that such writers are what more readers are willing to buy? And if American Media Consumers were truly concerned about this issue, why then can most major cities support only one daily newspaper?

(To be fair, part of the failure of many major dailies has been because of the advance of electronic media, particularly the shift to on-line news consumption, and the refusal of those defunct publications to recognize that trend. Guess what: Clicks still tell the tale of the tape, and the measurement of on-line viewing/consumption is actually more accurate than newspaper circulation numbers could ever represent.)

When the question is asked, whether American Media is responsible for creating a voting mentality more centered upon personality than policies, one must also ask what it is that Media Consumers expect and are willing to support from their Media outlets?

Which would you be most likely to do: Listen to Rush Limbaugh, Jim Rome, or Ray Lucia?
Which magazine would you be most likely to purchase first: The Economist, People, or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition?
Which TV show would you make an appointment to view through its entirety: CBS Big Brother, anything on ESPN, or the McNeil-Lehrer Hour?

(When I asked these questions this weekend, the majority of responses tended towards the pop-cultural end of the spectrum.)

Which brings us to the second question up for consideration: How much time should the local news devote to global issues for which the Candidates would be responsible?
As much as they can get away with.

Should the news cover the candidates’ platform more?

Is there a responsibility on the part of Media members to provide as balanced a story as possible? I believe that there is. It is what separates Journalists from hacks; but I also recognize the fact that such “balanced” stories are not always feasible (no comments available), or reasonable (“…we need a piece that sells this angle”) because of the market forces that must be calculated into the equation.

How, then, do those who are concerned with Media balance, effect change so that the proper equilibrium is maintained?
What is equilibrium?
Who is the determinant?

I believe that economic force—the same economic force that dictates the decisions that result in Radio format changes, cancellations of TV shows, and the disappearance of most cities’ competing daily paper—is the motivation needed to effect such change.
If you like the coverage, support the sponsors.
If you do not, let those same sponsors know why you are not buying their product.

That seems so simplistic, but in the final analysis, in a capitalist society economics are what truly get the attention of the decision-makers for content in the Media.

Is the American Media responsible for creating a structure of individuals voting only on personal content of candidates?
Not entirely responsible, but certainly culpable for creating the hyper-glammed, instant-gratification, 20-second sound-bite universe in which it operates.

If the local news devoted more time to global issues and political platforms—would you watch, read or listen?
Would most people?

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