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I’m constantly amazed by the amount of political bias demonstrated by the media. It’s pretty much everywhere. As far as I can tell, it applies universally to newspapers, radio, TV and most certainly to the plethora of online news sources. Step out into the wild world of social media, and the intensity of the bias on display is truly remarkable. The bias also permeates all different levels; from the level of the individual journalist up through the top execs at the giant media corporations.
Then there are all the claims about how this show or this journalist is utterly and totally objective, fully and fairly presenting both sides of every issue. Uhggggghhhhhh… What a load of manure. Do the folks at Fox News really think they’re actually “Fair and Balanced?” Clearly they lean to the right. Does Meet the Press host Chuck Todd really think he presents both sides equitably? With his Casper Milquetoast style of questioning for those on the left and hard-nosed style for those on the right? But I really don’t want to get into a detailed analysis of who leans left and who leans right…
What’s much more intriguing is why the bias is so ubiquitous. Was it always this extreme?
Actually, no and yes. As a baby boomer, I have very clear memories of “the most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite. And he legitimately was “the most trusted man in America.” Opinion polls at the time conclusively confirmed it. Can you imagine that in 2018??? A journalist acclaimed by pretty much everybody as always telling it like it is without any bias???
If you lean left, can you imagine Rush Limbaugh or Anne Coulter winning a poll as the most trusted journalist in America? If you lean right, can you imagine Joy Behar or Bill Maher winning a poll as the most trusted journalist in America? Not in a million years!
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So what circumstances enabled Walter Cronkite to earn that reputation?
Well here’s a shocker… It was all about the money. And it still is all about the money. Let’s look at a bit of history.
As a 19th century American, you got all of your national news from your local newspaper. And in the – Surprise! Surprise! – intensely partisan nature of the time, you chose your local paper based on the political views of its editorial page. And, yes, the editorial bent spilled over into the “hard” news as well. Also, any city of any size at all had at least two newspapers, so you could choose your bias. This remained true even well into the 1980s!
Anyway… back in 1870 through the 19-teens, 90% or so of local newspapers openly demonstrated a strong political bias. Most folks chose their paper to get their own personal opinions reinforced. Newspapers therefore, openly demonstrated a strong political bias because a strong political bias helped them sell more subscriptions! (Have I mentioned the notion of “Follow the Money?”) Even in the 19th century, the precursor of today’s internet-based “echo chambers” were available. And they were and are so, so easy to fall into.
Then early in the 20th century, new technology appeared. Radio, and shortly thereafter, television came into being. These technologies enabled the media barons to reach a mass audience across all of America. Now think about your sales pitch to a giant advertiser if you’re a radio or TV sales rep in 1920. Your audience reach is massively larger. Your value to the advertiser is also massively larger.
But… Exactly because your audience is massively larger, it by default includes folks with a wide diversity of political views.
Are you going to spin your editorial opinions and news reporting style either left or right? Or will you spin them to encompass both ends of the political spectrum? To, so to speak, be actually and legitimately “fair and balanced?”
Remember now that newspapers earned money through both subscriptions and advertising. Radio and TV don’t have subscribers, only advertisers. The advertisers – the people who pay for what’s on your radio or TV show – want to reach the largest possible audience. You, the station manager who wants ad money from the advertisers, is NOT going to risk alienating half of your audience. You are going to present both sides in an extremely balanced manner. You are NOT going to risk alienating and losing any portion of your audience. You are in it for the money. (Have I mentioned “Follow the Money?”)
TV accelerated the editorial and reporting balance. There were a few thousand sets in 1946, some 12 million in 1951 and by 1955, half of all U.S. homes had one. That set the stage for Cronkite who was recruited by none other than Edward R. Murrow and was perfectly suited for the role he ultimately assumed when he joined CBS News in 1950. He became the anchorman for the CBS Evening News in 1962, and remained there for 19 years through through 1981.
And then along comes the Internet and Social Media.
It took a decade or so, but the Internet did indeed blow a gigantic hole in the highly centrally controlled – and also comfy and very lucrative – cash flow model of the radio and TV business. And guess what happened to balanced reporting when their money pipeline sprung a bunch of leaks?
You got it… Right back to bias, bias everywhere!
By 2016, money spent on internet-based advertising surpassed money spent on cable and broadcast TV. It continues to grow at about 14% and continues to increase its lead over all other types of media. Need I point out the fact that as of right now, there’s an enormous diversity of opinions available online? That there is exactly zero chance of anyone getting even remotely close to being the most trusted journalist in America? Have I mentioned “Follow the Money?”
Frankly, I like the fact that I can read, listen to and watch a massive diversity of opinion. I think it’s a good thing that we went back to the past and are no longer being fed homogenized, sanitized information and insight by a tiny number of advertising-fed media giants. That post World War II through the 70s era of mass media concentration was an historical anomaly. I hope we never go back to something like it.
I’m your Intentionally Vicarious host, Todd Youngblood – and I love basking in the glory of my own brilliance when today’s media agrees with me and my worldview. I also love the outrage generated inside of me by the media when it doesn’t agree with me and my worldview. That inspires me to explore more information sources, question everything, learn as much as I can and think deeply about what I learn. Oh yeah… and I’m still focused on having more fun than anyone else I know.
And that’s the way it is. August 17, 2018.
Here is a video of what IMHO is Cronkite’s finest hour. The raw, real emotion of the man blasts through even now, 55 years later. (Note: It includes bits of the CBS soap opera that was interrupted.)