America's Media Woes, Navigated by a Scalded Frog, Part 1
Vertical integration, oligarchy ownership, groomed bias, activism presented as journalism, and social media, these all impact your ability to learn what is happening in the world around you. Americans still widely believe that the media has a critical role to play in the democracy, but at the same time, a growing number think the press is doing a poor job.
To navigate the country's current roiling media waters you need to understand the hazards that hover beneath its steaming, murky surface. I'm Alison Kartevold, welcome to the first official episode of Gist Say'n.
As I did research for this podcast, I kept finding more and more things I wanted to talk about, so I'm going divide this episode into two parts. The first will examine the impact of vertical integration, oligarch ownership, and bias. Part two will look more at activism presented as journalism and the hazards of using social media as news content.
The Scalded Frog
You know the story about the boiled frog, right? It's the one where you put a frog in a pan of cool water on a stove, you turn on the stove and slowly heat the water. As the story goes, the frog doesn't jump out, in fact, he just sits there until it boils, and it dies. Nothing is stopping the frog from hopping out, no lid, it just happens so slowly it doesn’t notice how dangerous it’s getting, until it is too late. Well in this story, I am the, not boiled, but the scalded frog.
I have spent my entire adult life working as a journalist. As a network news freelancer, I was a little frog, not just in a pan, but in a cauldron big enough to sustain its own ecosystem, an outsider free to swim from one network to another and gain intimate insight to the inner workings of each lily pad.
For decades I defended the media against all comers, people I didn't even know, and sometimes family members and friends. Then several years ago my edge of the cauldron tipped, and I was spilled out away from the heat. I did not jump out on my own, mind you. Circumstances were just such that, at that point, I needed to step back from my chosen profession and take care of my family. In doing so, I learned distance can provide its own insights.
Now things on the home front are better, and I'm finally at a point where I could reenter the workforce. To be honest, though, I am struggling. My cauldron, journalism, the media, that water is now at a full boil, and I don’t know if I can bring myself to jump back in. It's as if we are back in the late 1800’s and William R. Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer are willing to start a real war just to sell more newspapers. “Yellow Journalism” it seems was the original “Fake News.”
So for now, I've decided to set out atop my own lily pad, and do this podcast and website. It wasn't an easy decision, because, after this, the other big lily pads are not likely to have me back, and the waters are pretty turbulent for such a small platform. But enough about frogs and lily pads, let's jump in and talk about the things that you, the average person just trying to live your life, might not realize about what is lurking beneath the surface of America's news media.
First up, consolidation.
Court Ruling Opens Door for More Vertical Integration
On June 12th, US District Court Justice, Richard Leon, ruled on an antitrust case that the Department of Justice had brought against AT&T and Time Warner. This was the first time in decades the DOJ’s antitrust unit had tried to stop companies from merging that were not direct competitors. The merger would, however, allow the two companies to achieve what's called vertical integration, instead of just delivering content AT&T would be in charge of creating content too. After 18 months of prep and a six-week trial, the judge ruled in favor of allowing AT&T to buy Time Warner.
As AT&T/Time Warner attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, left the courthouse he said, “As the evidence in the trial shows this will only serve to benefit consumers. Just as we have seen from all the other vertically integrated companies that are providing so many wonderful new offerings and innovations to consumers as they are watching television in so many new and different ways. And this is just an iteration of that process.”
In contrast, Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General of the Antitrust Division, indicated that his department would be reviewing the ruling to determine the impact it might have on future mergers, but said that “It does not change our view that structural remedy is the best way to protect American consumers.”
While the DOJ does that, media conglomerates are poised for the onset of merger mania. Disney and Comcast are already in a bidding war over parts of 21st Century Fox. Instead of breaking down who might buy what, I want to delve deeper into how media consolidations impact your ability to remain informed about the world around you. I want to talk about the impact they have on the news.
However, if you have not been following all the vertical integrations that have and are likely to now continue to occur, instead of reinventing the wheel, I suggest you follow the video links I’ve placed on the episode extras page in the corresponding article. One is done by the Wall Street Journal, and the other was put together by NBC News. They are each about three minutes long, and I think the visuals will really help you understand the current media landscape and how it is bound to change rapidly in the coming months.
Incidentally, The Wall Street Journal is owned by the same family-run media dynasty that currently owns News Corp and 21st Century Fox, which also owns Fox News, and NBC News is owned by Comcast, another company where one family holds 33 percent of the company's voting power. I'll speak more on the oligarchy nature of this, but first, it is important to realize that these are just two of the handful of media conglomerates that control the vast majority of all media, including news media, in the United States.
The other big players that have national news media holdings include the newly minted Warner Media that now owns CNN, Disney, that owns ABC, and the privately held National Amusements that owns CBS. Which by the way, totally dominates news radio content by supplying more than 1,000 radio stations with their national news segments. By multiple reports, these companies alone control somewhere around 90 percent of all the media the American public consumes.
You might think that this consolidation of media power excludes local media outlets, but it does not. For example, in 2017 1,761 full-power TV stations were operating across the country in local markets. According to the Pew Research center, at that time, 37 percent of those stations were owned by just five companies.
Due to a recent merger, Nexstar is now the second largest owner of local TV Stations at 169. The owner of Nexstar is also its President and CEO. Along with those TV stations, Perry Sook’s company holds 114 local websites and 202 local mobile apps. Across these platforms, the company says it produces 185,000 hours of local content per year.
With a count of 192, Sinclair Broadcast Group owns more local TV Stations than any other company in the country. It is the self-proclaimed leading local news provider in the nation, and like the other examples already given, controlling ownership is held by one person or family.
There are other companies that hold fewer local TV stations, but still have far-reaching influences across a variety of media outlets.
One example of this would be Hearst. Yes, the one that was founded by William Randolph Hearst in the late 1800’s. The one that used Yellow Journalism, or the exaggeration, exploitation and even fabrication of news events to encourage a real war, while fighting a war for subscribers against rival publisher, Joseph Pulitzer.
By the way, Hearst won that war and went on to build a media empire. By 1920 one-in-four Americans got their news from a Hearst newspaper. So this is not really new territory we find ourselves in.
The company is still around and being run by William R. Hearst III. It only has 31 local TV stations, but its other 300 plus businesses include the magazines Cosmo, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, plus newspapers, the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Chronicle. It also has investments in channels such as A&E, The History Channel, Lifetime, ESPN, BuzzFeed, and VICE.
The point is, most people don’t realize that at all levels there is a tremendous amount of cross-ownership of news content providers within a small group of very wealthy people.
Not only is there a dwindling number of companies in charge of all the major news content producers in the country, behind those corporations there is often a single person or family group that holds the controlling voter shares.
Oligarchy Ownership, It Matters
In 2016, Forbes published a story entitled, These 15 Billionaires Own America's News Media Companies. The list has continued to morph since then, but names like the former mayor of New York, Micheal Bloomberg of Bloomberg Media, Rupert Murdoch, who among other content providers owns Fox News, and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post in 2013 and who, given the recent court ruling, may just be getting started with his media purchases, are all still valid examples of the billionaires in charge.
In 2005, the Wall Street Journal was ranked by a UCLA study as being the most liberal of all the then 20 major media outlets surveyed. Today it’s unlikely you’d find anyone who describes the paper as liberal. The website Media Bias/Fact Check ranks it as slightly right of center due to its editorial page content.
So what changed? Ownership. In 2005, the paper was controlled by the Bancroft family. In 2007, they sold it to News Corp, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is widely viewed as conservative.
Back in April, a video from Deadspin went viral that demonstrates the impact oligarchy, and out of market ownership can have on local TV newscasts. It is a brutal example that local content is not always produced locally. If you haven’t seen it, go to the website (gistsayn.com) under the episode extra tabs. There you will find not only a corresponding article for each podcast episode but links to much of their source materials.
The video shows anchors in multiple local markets all reading from the exact same script. In this case, the stations are owned by Sinclair, whose owners, the Smith Family lead by David Smith, are viewed as conservative. CNN and other national media outlets quickly ran stories and headlines like, Sinclair tells stations to air media-bashing promos - and the criticism goes viral.
Sinclair fired back with another video pointing out that CNN has also preached against fake news from its international platform and wonders aloud why what it did was any different.
Unfortunately, there is more than enough hypocrisy to go around here. Yes, Sinclair currently owns 192 local stations and can influence control over what news stories are covered and how they are covered in 89 markets.
However, while Nielsen ratings show CNN lost 25 percent of its prime-time viewers in May, it still has the potential to reach 91 million US households and 354 million households worldwide. CNN Digital continued to rank number one among all online news sources in May, with 128 million unique domestic visitors. In addition, it will soon be getting paid by Facebook to provide news content for its new Facebook Watch.
CNN anchors slammed Sinclair Broadcasting for exhibiting a conservative, pro-Trump narrative across its virtual national platform. However, CNN's own rating on Media Bias/Fact Check is "Left Bias," and its factual reporting rating is "Mixed." The site's definition of "Left Bias" is:
"These media sources are moderately to strongly biased toward liberal causes through story selection and/or political affiliation. They may utilize strong loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes), publish misleading reports and omit reporting of information that may damage liberal causes."
Whether or not you agree with this rating, this is not the CNN of Bernard Shaw's day. The problem is not just who has the greatest reach, it's bias. Don't get me wrong, there was bias thirty years ago, and companies looked out for their own best interests, but the bias wasn't sanctioned, it was not groomed and rewarded the way it far too often is today. Bias was not expected.
Natural vs. Groomed Bias
A June Gallup/Knight Foundation poll indicated the public's belief that the information they receive from the news is bias has risen to 62 percent. Everyone has biases that are constantly being influenced by the lives they live, and the people and events they see and interact with. Completely unbiased reporting is unattainable, but in my opinion, we should still strive to achieve it.
Newsrooms have always been susceptible to groupthink. You have a relatively small section of people, working long hours, under stressful circumstances, and often out of sheer exhaustion, they eventually stop sticking their heads up out of their foxholes. They talk among themselves and mistakenly believe that since they all agree with each other, everyone else must agree with them too. And if you do happen to be one of the few in a newsroom who has an opinion that varies, you learn pretty quickly to keep it to yourself.
What is perhaps even more disturbing, is the fact that 39 percent of American's believe that the news they receive contains misinformation, and 44 percent feels its inaccurate, implying a feeling that there is an intentional effort underway to mislead them. Are these journalists just overworked or inept, are they acting on their own, or do their marching orders come from the top? In my experience, it can be any combination of these things. I do know though, the further along in your career you are, the harder it is to stand up to orders you disagree with.
My first job out of college was as the night-side/weekend reporter at the ABC affiliate in Spokane, Washington, call letters, KXLY. On the weekends I was always the first person in the Newsroom. By design I would answer phones, monitor scanners, log feed tapes, and figure out what my packaged story would be for our first newscast of the day, which wouldn't be until 6:30 at night.
At midday, the producer would arrive, take over the desk duties and begin deciding what other stories would be in the show, while I went out in the field to do my package and a couple shorter pieces. Unless a story was breaking, I would go home after my report aired at 6:30, the producer would stay on through the 11:00 pm news, where my story would be rerun.
I was 23 years old, inexperienced, righteous, passionate, and naive. I loved what I was doing. I believed it made our community a better place. I totally bought into the idea that the Press served a vital role, of not only keeping its community informed, but in keeping our democracy a democracy.
I tell you this because it explains my mindset on that Saturday morning so long ago. At least I think it was Saturday, really it could have been a Sunday, that morning when I picked up the phone and heard a man identify himself as the owner of the McDonald's franchise in Spokane. The man was a bit upset, and he asked me if we planned on doing a story about protesters, vegetarian protesters, who wanted to picket outside some of his restaurants.
Now this was the first I had heard of any kind of possible protest, and the weekends could be slow news days, so he now had my full attention. I told him I was unaware of any protest, but rest assured if anyone were picketing outside of his restaurants we would be there to cover it. Keep in mind now, I was fresh out of college.
In response, he about lost his mind. He yelled something like, I advertise heavily on your station, and I do not want you doing a story about protesters. I calmly explained that we didn't have any current plans to do a story, but, if a large group gathered outside of a McDonald's restaurant and picketed in protest, I had an obligation to show up and see what was going on.
“Mr. McDonald’s” owner did not like that answer either, and informed me that he would be calling my boss. I politely said he was free to call whomever he liked. When the line went dead, I began calling around to all the McDonald’s in town to see if anything was actually happening.
Honestly, I was a little disappointed that no one I spoke to had seen any sign of protesters, but then the phone rang again. It wasn’t my boss, it was my boss’s, boss’s, boss. I don’t think I had even met the General Manager slash Vice President of the corporation that owned our station at that point, but there he was, asking me why he had just received an irate phone call, at home, on the weekend, from one of our station’s biggest advertisers.
I gave a recap of my previous phone conversation at the end of which he said, “If I were in your moccasins I would not do a story about a protest at McDonald's.” I said I had no plans to do one, but that I didn’t think it was right for an advertiser to try and dictate the content of our newscasts.
You do remember what I said about being young, naive and righteous, right? At this point, he simply repeated, “If I were in your moccasins I would not do a story on this.” The moccasin thing has always stuck with me. I then reiterated that advertisers could not be allowed to hold our newsroom hostage.
As the phone call was winding down, the weekend sports anchor had come up to my desk and heard my side of the conversation. When I hung up, he asked with great concern who I’d been talking to, once I told him he said, “This is not good, Alison, this is not good for you at all.” At the time I didn’t understand, but ultimately, he was right. While he went on to work there for many years to come, I didn’t last another year.
Back then, in the early 90's, this type of interference remained behind the scenes, it didn't play out in the public, and it was usually driven by a desire to protect the company, not directly advocate to change what viewers thought about anything else. Or maybe it was only limited because the company's interests were limited.
It certainly wasn't because the media was without a liberal bias. If you google media bias charts, you will get a subjective mix that shows which side of the line various organizations lie. One constant though is that there are more liberal than conservative outlets.
The Loss of Objectivity
Since at least the 60’s, newsrooms have been heavily weighted to the liberal side of the spectrum by the individuals that work there. In 2005, a study done by UCLA adopted the same methods used to determine whether representatives or senators voting records were liberal or conservative to determine the leanings of media outlets. The results surprised even the study's author.
"I suspected that many media outlets would tilt to the left because surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democrat than Republican," said Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist and the study's lead author. "But I was surprised at just how pronounced the distinctions are."
Fifty, thirty, even twenty years ago reporters were not allowed to give opinions, not on air or in print, opinions were the jobs of commentators and columnists. The definition of journalism was to be accurate, fair and objective. Today, 66 percent of Americans say most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion.
According to a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey released in January of this year, on a trust scale of zero to 100, the American public gives the media a 37. A failing grade, that is the cost of obliterating the line between fact and opinion. Without objectivity, you lose trust.
Whenever you get a room full of people who all share a similar point of view they will naturally feed off each other. Newsrooms are no exception. Opinions are fine, everybody’s got at least one, but they should not be disguised as fact. In its purest form, the news is meant to inform, not tell you what to think. The sheer introduction of information can influence, so great care should be taken not to taint it. When bias is expected, unbiased reporting is no longer something to strive for. Instead, sell-able personalities, “got-ya” storytelling, and corporate agendas win the day.
The situation is hard to fight. For example, after Disney bought ABC in the mid 90's, its news programs slowly, but surely, started doing more stories about entertainment releases. Even producers at the network's flagship, World News Tonight, began to be strongly encouraged to approve news angles for stories that could correlate with movies being released by its parent company. Back then the corporate types called it synergy, now it is vertical integration.
I know first hand that at least in the beginning, this didn't go down well with the people actually producing the news. In May of 2001, I was asked to go and field produce a story in San Francisco about special police patrols being needed outside of movie theaters that we're going to be showing Pearl Harbor. Apparently, scores of death threats had been made against moviegoers of Japanese descent.
Once I was on site and started to interview police, it became clear, the story was bogus. One guy had sent all the emails. There was no real threat, and the only reason the police were doing patrols was because I was there with a camera crew, when I stopped rolling so did the patrols.
It made me very unpopular with the entertainment reporter based out of LA, but I called the desk and shared my concerns, and they, rightly in my view, killed the story. Pearl Harbor did not get free advertising during the news broadcast that night.
But... that is just one story, on one day, at the beginning of the onslaught of interference from distant parent companies, as they became more and more comfortable pushing corporate agendas into newsrooms and onto newscasts. As with any business where you are not in control, you either get on board with the mandates, or you get pushed out. Then the new people hired are taught from the beginning what is expected of them.
I know a lot of very good people who would like nothing more than to just do the work, report the outcome without picking a side, but they also want to keep their jobs. In television, keeping your job means having stories on the air, getting stories on the air means covering ones that the higher-ups want to see. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator, but what is good for the part is not always good for the whole.
Freedom of the press is not the first of our amendments because our fledgling government wanted to make sure it could control every narrative, no, just the opposite. It is first because the founding fathers realized how easy it is to control people when you also control the information they receive. The power of manicured information is exactly why dictatorships and communists countries insist on controlling the flow of information and ideas. We Americans do not fully appreciate the purpose of our free press, but if subverted both individuals and the republic suffer.
If you are eager for more, just roll on into part two, where I'll be talking about journalism versus activism and how social media impacts that equation. Thanks for joining this little, scalded, media frog.
Please follow the website and podcast both. You can download the Podbean app, there are versions for apple and android devices. They don't pay me, I actually pay them to host the podcast, but they do have a good mobile app. Once we get a couple more episodes uploaded, you will also be able to follow us on iTunes if you like.
Civil comments and questions are always welcome us know what you think via email, Facebook, or Twitter. This is Alison Kartevold, and I'll see you next time, and remember it's OK to agree or disagree, cause I'm Gist Say'n.