By Invitation Only
How the media limit political debate
Published in Social Anarchism #22, 1996
The appalling state of what passes for current affairs television programming in the U.S.A. is notorious, although the problem is by no means unique to Disneyland. Moderators of barely concealed, and sometimes avowedly, right-wing political persuasion, mostly aging white men, sit around in air-conditioned studios asking sycophantic questions of a procession of establishment representatives, also predominantly aging white men, with similar conservative views. Their discussions reflect the concerns of ruling elites. Program participants, there by invitation only, are overwhelmingly members of those elites. Workers and their interests are systematically excluded.
Croteau and Hoynes' By Invitation Only. How the media limit political debate (BIO) adds to a steady stream of carefully researched articles, documentaries and books on the sinister socializing role of U.S. mass media. Earlier notable contributions include Parenti's Inventing Reality (St. Martin's, 1986), Chomsky's Necessary Illusions (South End, 1989), and Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon, 1988). The new book brings together two studies by its authors, previously published separately in 1989 and 1990, documenting the relentless bias displayed by the widely watched ABC's Nightline and PBS' ("Public" Television's) MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour [now the Jim Lehrer NewsHour since MacNeil left the program in late 1995]. They are accompanied by a six-month follow-up study recording the negligible impact on those programs of the release of the original reports, plus brief chapters on the role of media in a democratic society, media politics, and the implications of the research findings. The last section broadens BIO's focus to media in general, not just television, and considers the opportunities and limitations that mainstream and alternative media offer social change activists. Even if some of Croteau and Hoynes' conclusions are unduly pessimistic, as I shall suggest, BIO is a useful and stimulating book.
Croteau and Hoynes (C & H) focus primarily on current affairs programs. Every major network has them. Ideologically, in the U.S. they range from far right to loony right. Apart from ABC's Nightline and PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer, examples include CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, PBS' Washington Week in Review, The McLaughlin Group, and Firing Line (featuring the pompous ramblings of William F. Buckley), and CNN's (or as some prefer since its role in promoting the 1991 Gulf massacre, PNN's - Pentagon News Network's) thuggish Evans and Novak and Crossfire, whose regular hosts include that well-known White House skier, John Sununu, and the lovable Patrick Buchanansomeone, it has been suggested, who sounds better in the original German. This is not to mention the growing plethora of business programs openly devoted to the needs and interests of corporate America. Such programs, C & H point out, are potentially very influential in shaping public opinion because they allow for more extended and detailed coverage of an issue than news broadcasts, and provide opportunities for apparent intimacy and spontaneity on the part of their invited guests.
C & H are sociologists. They would not approve of the title of this review or of some of the comments so far. They warn against the unreliability of judgments about "left", "right" or "center" in news media ideology, terms as likely to reflect the analysts' views as those in the material analyzed, and against judgments about the (always arguable) "truth" or "accuracy" of coverage. They opt instead for measuring ideological diversity, or lack thereof, as their index of "bias", quantifying relatively objective characteristics -- race, sex, nationality, occupation -- of the all-important guests on the programs, and such matters as whether they appear alone or as a member of a panel, early (greater prominence) or late in a program, how much they speak, and interactions between types of guests thus defined and the topics they are invited to address. C & H conducted detailed content analyses over a three-year period, supplemented by qualitative case studies of the way particular issues were treated, as well as the six-month followup study. By their criteria, were a variety of views reflected? Was coverage inclusive or exclusive?
As hinted earlier, it will come as no surprise to anyone who has had the misfortune of watching U.S. TV for any length of time that the answer to both questions was a resounding "no." C & H found evidence of massive bias, that is, lack of diversity. Invited guests are overwhelmingly white men about 90% white and 85% male on the two programs in question during all three studiesand insiders, that is, representatives of state power. The most favored are White House staff; past and present secretaries and under-secretaries for this and that; Beltway Republocrats; CEO's of multinational corporations, right-wing Christian fundamentalist bigots (e.g. from the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority), spokesweazels for far-right "think tanks" (e.g. the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Heritage Foundation); tame "experts" and "consultants" from a narrow range of universities, mostly a stone's throw from Washington, D.C. or Arlington, Virginia; "ex-" CIA and NSA employees; and (like the news "anchors" and public affairs program hosts themselves) other conservative white male journalists. The four most frequent guests on Ted Koppel's Nightline from 1/1/85 to 4/30/88, the period of the first study, for example, were Alexander "I'm in charge" Haig, Henry Kissinger, Elliot Abrams (Reagan's point man for efforts to "democratize" Central America) and Gerry Falwell.
The result? The officials who devised government policies evaluate their own work; retired generals "debate" secretaries of "defense" over U.S. "strategic interests" and whether to bomb country X this week or next; Israelis discuss "the Arab problem"; notorious Guatemalan President Cereso pontificates on Sandinista human rights abuses; business leaders advise on "labor problems" and environmental protection; policemen discuss drugs and crime; religious bigots adjudicate on abortion, school prayer and family values; and "ex-"CIA officers vilify the week's "rogue nation" or "terrorist group". Working people, women, members of ethnic minorities, representatives of organized labor, community activists, true experts on U.S. foreign policy (e.g. Chomsky) -- the people whose lives are directly affected by the results of these discussionsare marginalized or excluded altogether. On the rare occasion they receive an invitation, C & H show, they are likely to appear late in a program after house-trained guests have framed an issue "acceptably". They are allowed less time, interrupted and challenged more, and explicitly labeled as "partisan" or as representatives of "special interests" pursuing an "agenda". Haig, Kissinger, Weinberger, Abrams and their ilk, meanwhile, are presented as politically neutral "experts" and given free rein. Despite all this, Koppel, MacNeil, Lehrer and the rest of the flunkies use "we" and "us" as if the elites really did represent the rest of us.
Revealing yet again just how phony the 'Public' in Public TV is (the same is true of Public Radiosee Charlotte Ryan's "A Study of National Public Radio," Extra! 6, 3, 1993, 18-21 and 26), C & H found the range of topics and guests was slightly more narrow on PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer than on the avowedly commercial network, ABC's Nightline. Public TV and Public Radio in the U.S. were under threat from an even nastier than usual Republocrat Congress in June, 1995. While liberals rushed in to defend them, my own view is that getting rid of both would be an excellent liberating move. For one thing, the "vacuum" they would leave would make many people think (often for the first time) about alternatives. The result might well be an upsurge of support for more genuinely public, that is, grassroots or community-based, programminglike Deep Dish TV, Pacifica Radio and the Great Atlantic Radio Conspiracy in the U.S., Co-op Radio in Vancouver, Radio Libertaire in Paris, Radio 2SER in Sydney, 3CR in Melbourne, and (in many people's view) SBS television throughout Australia.
Now, of course, there is an easy remedy for biased, boring TV programming -- swift use of the remote. Or why watch television at all? The problem is that neither course of action does anything about the effect such programs have on the millions who do not switch off. And like it or not, there are lots of them -- five to seven million customers per week-night for Nightline in the U.S. alone, for example, C & H report, and both Nightline and MacNeil/Lehrer are rebroadcast in other countries. Such programs are often the major source of information on public affairs for those viewers. Their attitudes are formed that way, their attitudes influence their actions, that is, the ways they vote or behave at work, and the results of those actions affect our lives.
C & H point out that the programs' coverage leaves "middle America" unaware of alternative positions and options. There are sometimes arguments among guests (usually, Republican "versus" Democrat), to be sure, but this only gives the illusion of debate, since most disagreements are over details, not basic assumptions -- which the hosts and carefully screened guests all share. If balance is ever sought at all, it is through pairing representatives of the far right with liberals, never with representatives of the far left. The homogeneity of topics and guests conveys the false impression that there is a domestic political consensus on all the important issues -- an impression any government would be happy with -- which viewers are then likely to adopt as received wisdom. "When it comes to the inner workings of Washington," C & H write (p. 132), "MacNeil/Lehrer serves as a veritable press agency for the views of U.S. officialdom - one that excludes the views of critics." The homogeneity also suggests general peace and contentment in the U.S., in contrast with endless conflict and class struggle everywhere else. Continual exclusion of alternative views, moreover, delegitimizes those views and their representatives. Lehrer is reported (p. 132) by ex-staffers to have no time for public interest representatives, whom he dismisses as "moaners and whiners". Continual exposure for the likes of Kissinger, Falwell, Hyland, Simes, Hatch, Hyde, Bork, Kirkpatrick, Cheney, Dole, Ornstein, Boren, Perle, Haig, Abrams, Netanyahu, Luger, Buchanan, Ledeen, Kupperman (and now Gingrich), conversely, legitimizes them and their ideas.
Having documented massive bias, the authors move on to discuss its causes and solutions. Explanations commonly offered in the literature, most of which C & H embrace, include (1) self-censorship, careerism, fear, ignorance, laziness, the need to maintain sources, and natural selection among reporters, journalists, editors and producers; (2) the influence of advertisers (MacNeil/Lehrer's sponsors, for example, include such workers' friends as Pepsico, New York Life, Dow Chemical, Archer Daniels Midland, and AT&T); and (3) the influence of owners, currently a shrinking group of about 20 for-profit corporations, which have a lot of interests in common with the governments and other corporations they report on. As businesses dependent on audience ratings for attracting advertisers, they also have a self-created need to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the largest possible audience. Hence, "If it bleeds, it leads."
Another problem, in my view, is simply that the hacks involved in producing current affairs programs revere the powerful. I have often noted how CIA directors and government officials routinely address the shows' hosts by their first names -- "Nice to be with you again, Jim (Lehrer)", etc. -- producing smug smiles and wriggles of satisfaction in Jim, Ted or Robin, when the relationship implied by such familiarity would be the kiss of death for a real journalist's credibility. C & H (p. 11) quote Jeff Gralnick, a former executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight, as claiming: "It's my job to take the news as [government officials] choose to give it to us...The evening newscast is not supposed to be the watchdog on the government."
Some hosts may even secretly wish they were the other side of the microphone. Koppel has stated that he feels qualified in some respects to be Secretary of State "because part of the job is to sell American foreign policy, not only to Congress but to the American public" (p. 66). Such remarks simultaneously reveal a disastrous misunderstanding of the potential role of mass media (although perhaps a genuine understanding of their actual role), and why "investigative journalism" in Disneyworld has come to mean safe pursuit of the trivial, e.g. exposes of politicians' sex lives.
In sum, mass media are as bad as they are because they reflect the class interests of their owners. Fatuously, if this is correct, C & H recommend that progressive social change activists attempt to improve matters through a twin strategy of supporting alternative media, and (especially at the local level) trying to gain access to mainstream media, with an emphasis on the latter. Tactics, they suggest, can include everything from bombarding letters-to-the-editor pages to "cultivating" individual journalists, using gimmicks to attract TV coverage, supplying editors with user-friendly press releases or pre-digested information packets, and learning to speak in seven-second sound bites. While explicitly recognizing the inherent limitations and likely success rate, C & H argue that such an effort is important because any coverage won can broaden a conflict's audience and participants, and "can help movements to attract resources and supporters, especially elites" (p. 186). They claim, for example, that mainstream media coverage which attracted federal help was critical for the success of the Civil Rights Movement. In doing so, however, they ignore the role of those mainstream media and of the federal government in creating the need for a Civil Rights Movement in the first place, as well as the well-known fact that most media acknowledgment of alternative movements and government "reforms" merely provide recognition of rights first won on the streets. Perhaps with greater justification, C & H suggest that mainstream media coverage also inhibits overt government repression and extra-legal violence, can legitimize a movement, boost its morale, and make new people aware there is a challenge to the hegemonic political climate. They are pessimistic about a strategy of supporting alternative media alone. That will not work, they say, because alternative media lack the human and financial resources to provide quality coverage of a wide enough range of issues, and are too underfunded and too low tech to reach people not already sympathetic to the cause.
While some of C & H's claims for the value of mainstream media coverage may be valid in the short term, other aspects of the analysis and their general recommendation strike me as flawed. Where the analysis is concerned, studies like theirs provide valuable ammunition for media critics, but a focus on western capitalist societies alone obscures the fact that mass media in authoritarian socialist (or if you prefer, state-capitalist) societies, such as North Korea, the PRC, Cuba, or eastern Europe before 1989, are or were just as, and some would say more, blatantly propagandist for the interests of their ruling military-industrial complexes. The point, surely, is that mass media do not serve the interests of capitalists or of proletarians, of left or of right; they serve state interests. Whatever the locally prevailing configuration of church, government, military, political party or corporate power may be, media are only mass media as long as states tolerate them. As shown by the fate of one of the first regular anarchist publications ever to achieve a mass audience, Proudhon's Le Representant du Peuple, which Woodcock reports reached a circulation of 40,000 copies in the much smaller Paris of the 1840's (Anarchism, Penguin, 1963, pp. 115-122), once alternative media reach a sufficiently large audience to threaten the state (or even before that), they are crushed -- censored, shut down, whatever it takes. In other words, they cease to be mass media unless the people whose values and interests they represent themselves seize state power. As long as states exist, mass media are by definition state media.
It follows that at least part of C & H's recommendation must also be flawed because if mass media that survive within a state system inevitably reflect state interests -- and there is no reason to doubt thatthen even if all the tactics C & H suggest were successful, they could never have more than a trivial ameliorative effect. A strategy of trying to gain (at best) token access to mass media is as useful as working for one political party against another, and just as damaging to working people's interests in the long run. Mass media, like politicians, are part of the problem, not the solution. Both are parts of the state apparatus. Courting them legitimizes them, just as voting legitimizes the charade of electoral politics, and can quickly lead to confusion of the options offered with the range available. Worse, it diverts attention and effort from the true task at hand, and provides a safety valve on a system that is rotten, instead of challenging the system itself. In short, it is the old confusion of trying to change the system by participating in it when it is the system itself that needs changing. Too often, the desire for freedom from external control becomes mistaken for freedom to be the new controllers.
Working people who are interested in the freedom that control over their own, not other people's, lives can bring need to think beyond short-term, band-aid tactics. They have not worked in the past, and no evidence is offered that they will now. In fact C & H devote space (pp. 171-182) to what is effectively counter-evidence to their own proposal when they report the pathetic blend of denials, obfuscation and token improvements that their original studies elicited from most of the few media commentators who covered them at all, and especially from those directly responsible for Nightline and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, as well as data from the follow-up study confirming that any changes in the two programs' content, guest-lists and so on were indeed minimal.
Instead of providing state media with free copy, I believe we should put our limited resources and efforts into building alternative (in the sense of radical, oppositional) media, (a) precisely because our resources are limited, and (b) because we need to build alternatives to state offerings, not help prop them up. C & H assert that logistical limitations will prevent alternative media and the causes they espouse from ever breaking out of the political ghetto. However, many anarchist and authoritarian socialist newspapers and magazines have reached relatively large audiences in the past, and others do so now, suggesting some cause for optimism. Today, moreover, community radio, public access TV, and cheap electronic mail systems are providing new opportunities whose potential is only just beginning to be explored by those on the political right and left.
In sum, while C & H concentrate primarily on just two U.S. examples of a particular television genre, the public affairs program, their analysis and insights have much broader implications. BIO provides a valuable contribution to the ongoing analysis of mass media, although that very focus can lead to unduly pessimistic conclusions about the potential of radical alternatives.
By Invitation Only. How the Media Limit Political Debate by David Croteau and William Hoynes. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1994. $9.95. 218 pp. paper.
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