the real problem for american media

CNN control room during Wolf Blitzer's The Situation Room.  By  Michael Newman , licensed under    CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

CNN control room during Wolf Blitzer's The Situation Room. By Michael Newman, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While listening to a radio program earlier this week, someone called in to describe why a tweeting president was so fundamentally groundbreaking. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “We can now bypass the media and hear directly from the president himself.” In a separate program, a woman explained that she can wake up in the morning and know what’s happening in the country by reading the president’s latest tweets on her phone. In fact, she’s comforted to know that the president is working so hard when he tweets at 3 a.m.

They go on to make a very valid claim – that there was never a “Muslim Ban” put out by the president, but only an Executive Order 13769. It was the media that started calling it a “Muslim Ban.” Therefore, we should all condemn fake news outlets and start receiving daily briefings from @POTUS on Twitter.

I suppose it’s good that a full-fledged conversation regarding the American media is finally happening, because serious issues do indeed need to be addressed. However, let’s clear up the point about hearing from the president directly. That has been possible for quite some time. Not counting the early days of America when citizens could walk up to the White House and chat with the president, the mass public first began hearing from the president directly through the invention and widespread adoption of radios in the early 20th century. As the country went through the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin Roosevelt used the radio to speak on a variety of pressing issues in what became known as the “fireside chats.” Through the decades, it has only become easier with the use of televisions and computers. Weekly radio addresses were a tradition for most recent presidents, with Barack Obama using YouTube as the delivery medium.

But that’s beside the point. What the callers seem to suggest is that they prefer receiving daily briefings and the latest news directly from the president because, presumably, primary sources are more credible than all secondary sources such as the Internet, newspaper, or any other forms of media. That is a dangerous idea. A nation in which the head of state is the sole legitimate source of news and information is not reflective of a democracy, but rather of an authoritarian government. I can go into how the press holds government accountable, how it is enshrined in the constitution, and how it is the foundation of a stable democracy. But that’s available all over the Internet. Instead, let’s talk about why our secondary sources are failing.

You may remember back in grade school when your teacher asked you to get one primary source and three secondary sources to do your project. And that is intentional. Primary sources, by definition, are scarce. Secondary sources, on the other hand, can be derived from and be used to support or refute the primary source. There are naturally more secondary sources, and they are equally important in scientifically examining a claim. But secondary sources – media outlets – are under attack. According to the president, CNN is fake news and The New York Times is failing.

Much like what happened with healthcare in America, mainstream media developed with little help from the government. It is largely a private sector business that was initially dominated by the Big Three – ABC, CBS, and NBC. Then came CNN in 1980 and Fox News in 1996. And like many industries where there are only a few corporations serving a large, common market, they tend to maximize revenue by focusing on specific niche groups and staying out of each other’s way. Think of broadband Internet, airlines, wireless carriers, etc. American media is often categorized as either liberal or conservative and is known for pushing news personalities. CNN sensationalizes the news, and Fox News attempts to balance other mainstream outlets by telling “the other side of the news.” It’s as if news is a consumer product and we let capitalism shape its trends when news ought to be a commodity just like electricity and water.

The lack of oversight and standardization meant that every news outlet could craft their version of news and sell it to the public. USA Today is synonymous with hotel newspapers while CNN International caters to US expatriates. As America would have it, there is no shortage of news brands to choose from. And though market competition is generally healthy, it inevitably creates confusion as a byproduct. Normally, businesses thrive on consumers’ confusion to attack their competitors. Yet confusion in the news industry means no one outlet can fully claim credibility. When one media decides to report another as fake news, a war of words starts among media companies.

In recent months, CNN has increased broadcast of their tagline, “The most trusted name in news.” It’s a simple statement, but also a bold one. And I think it highlights precisely the problem with American media – news outlets have a hard time building credibility with the public. The business driving force behind media companies has cultivated a need for each outlet to be unique and to be better than others. Networks are often concerned with television ratings and pay multi-million dollar salaries to keep hosts such as Bill O’Reilly on Fox, Anderson Cooper on CNN, and Matt Lauer on NBC. Trust is developed between presenters and viewers, not organizations and viewers. Even for print media, a columnist has much more fame than the reporter who wrote that headline article on page A1. While even the most truly independent news organization is subject to criticisms, American mainstream media is especially susceptible to attacks because news do not appear to come from an army of journalists. It appears to come from a few people who work for a few news brands. With time, news has become a heterogeneous mixture of voices representing conservative or liberal America when it should really be a homogeneous report of facts.

What we need is a publicly-funded, independent, and authoritative news entity which serves the citizen’s interests foremost. Since private media companies do so much of the news gathering in America, they are reluctant to disseminate facts without combining it with personalities and perspectives. It is one reason why there are so many reports of a “Muslim Ban” when that is an interpretation of Executive Order 13769. When facts and opinions are reported together, it feeds the narrative about false reporting and fake news.

In the same way that Amtrak relies on government subsidies to build large railroad infrastructures, news gathering is an exhaustive task and should receive a similar taxpayer funding scheme. A model like the United Kingdom’s British Broadcasting Company would be in America’s public interest, serving as a centralized and impartial outlet for news and information. The BBC’s high-quality reporting is often regarded as the industry gold standard in its country and around the world. Indeed, many private media companies in the UK compete less on news gathering but more on providing critical and relevant analyses.

While such a model is unlikely to take place in the States, we do have non-profit organizations such as the National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service which come close to a public media. Because of their decentralized structures, however, these non-profits do not enjoy as much recognition as its counterparts do in other areas of the world. Yet there is no better opportunity to raise awareness of these media platforms than now. Simply share more links from a source like NPR or donate to your local station if you can. When we have a strong and competitive public model for credible and reliable news, it will hold the private media companies to account and raise the standard across the industry.

David Fung