Journalists, Employees of Media Oligopoly

From Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism by Thomas E. Patterson (Kindle Locations 1270-1317):

“If truth were the test, the machinery of news would grind to a halt. Whole areas of public life would be walled off to reporters because judgments about them are speculative. When Woodrow Wilson said he had spent much of his adult life in government and yet had never seen “a government,” he was saying that government is a concept and not an object. 23 How can journalists claim to know “the truth” of something as complex and intangible as government? Political scientists spend their careers studying government without mastering the subject fully. How can journalists with much less time and specialized training somehow accomplish it?”

A very good question. The best journalists know a little bit about many things, but rarely do they know a lot about anything in particular. They aren’t experts in knowledge. Their expertise is simply in communicating, which means they translate and filter the knowledge of other experts. They are middlemen. Most of the time they don’t even understand what they are attempting to communicate, but they must always speak with the authority of the experts they claim to speak for.

“Journalists are asked to make too many judgments under conditions of too little time and too much uncertainty for the news to be the last word. “When we expect [the press] to supply a body of truth,” Lippmann wrote, “we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news [and] the illimitable complexity of society.” 24 3.”

The one thing journalists have little training in is how to communicate complexity. Most of them don’t even try. However, without complexity, there can be no truth.

“Almost alone among the professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. 25 The claim is not that journalists lack knowledge or skill, for that is far from true. Nor is the claim an entry into the perennial but ultimately fruitless debate over whether journalism is a craft rather than a profession. 26 The claim instead is a precise one: Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment. 1

“Medicine, law, and the sciences, even economics and psychology, have disciplinary knowledge that guides practitioners’ decisions, narrowing the choices and reducing the chances of error. Journalists have no such advantage. Although there is a theoretical knowledge of journalism, it is not definitive, nor is its mastery a prerequisite for practice. 27 Although a majority of journalists have a college degree in journalism, many have a degree in a different field and some have no degree at all. 28”

I’m constantly shocked that so many news reporters (I’m not sure the fancy word of ‘journalist’ applies to most) are seemingly ignorant about what they report on. Doesn’t curiosity ever get the better of them? You’d think they’d feel some moral compunction to inform themselves first. Instead, it seems like it is just a job to them. They go to the office and someone hands them a script. Or else they wing it and try to appear intelligent.

“Journalists are often in the thankless position of knowing less about the subject at hand than the newsmakers they are covering, a reversal of the typical situation, in which the professional practitioner is the more knowledgeable party. Only rarely do clients know more about the law than do their attorneys , whereas newsmakers normally know more about the issue at hand than the journalists covering them. During the Persian Gulf War, journalists who visited the Pentagon press office were greeted with a sign that read, “Welcome Temporary War Experts.” 29

“The knowledge advantage that newsmakers have over journalists is not simply that they are privy to what’s said in closed-door meetings or contained in briefing papers. 30 They are assisted by experts. The president would never rely on his own instincts across a host of issues without the advice of policy specialists; nor would any congressional committee chair, top bureaucrat, or lobbyist. To be sure, journalists acquire expertise as a result of being on the same news beat for lengthy periods, but this form of expertise does not compare with that of most professionals . Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are masters of their own house in a way that journalists are not.”

In some ways, it isn’t the fault of journalists. They are being asked to do the impossible. No one can know everything or even most things. That is why the author suggests that journalists should specialize and only report on what they are experts on.

“Journalists’ knowledge deficit does not appear to be a major concern within their profession. In 2008, the Knight Foundation created a blue-ribbon commission aimed at strengthening journalism so that it could better serve communities’ “information needs.” None of the panel’s fourteen recommendations spoke to journalism’s knowledge deficit. 31 Yet the public has a sense of it. In a Freedom Forum study, journalist Robert Haiman found that although the public “respects the professional and technical skills [of] journalists,” it feels that journalists “don’t have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they have to explain to the public.” In the five cities where he held public forums (Nashville; New London, Connecticut; Phoenix; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon), Haiman heard repeated complaints from local civic and business leaders who questioned reporters’ preparation. “We heard stories,” he writes, “about reporters who did not know the difference between debt and equity, who did not know basic legal terminology used in a trial, and who had little idea of how manufacturing , wholesaling, distributing, and retailing actually work and relate to each other.” 32”

Journalists know little about even the wealthy and powerful they report upon. It isn’t their job to understand because that might mean questioning. If the corporate owners and management of newsrooms wanted informed intelligent journalists, they would hire such people. The point is that news is about business, not knowledge and understanding.

These journalists live in their own media bubble. They know even less about those who aren’t wealthy and powerful. As a college dropout, I know more about many issues, from poverty to racism, than does the average journalist. Having a good looking face and speaking clearly, for the job of journalists, is more important than being informed and insightful.

“If journalists are, as has been claimed, “the custodians of the facts,” 33 their armament is sometimes akin to that of a palace guard. It is difficult to protect the facts in those instances when someone else commands them. 4.”

That is the whole point. Journalists, generally speaking, aren’t independent actors. Most of them are employees. And most of them are employed by big business. They work for corporations that are subsidiaries of a few holders of all of mass media. They are part of a media oligopoly.

“When it comes to a subject of more than average complexity, the truth in news typically comes from outside of journalism. The news media, Lippmann argued, “can normally record only what has been recorded for it by the working of institutions. Everything else is argument and opinion.” 34”

Journalists are just extensions of the organizations and mouthpieces of the institutions they are enmeshed in. Why would we expect anything different from them? Demanding higher standards of the employees of corporations is only meaningful if we demand higher standards of the corporations that employ them. The first higher standard we should demand is a breaking up of the media oligopoly.

5 thoughts on “Journalists, Employees of Media Oligopoly

  1. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up some terms using the Kindle search function. Apparently, no where in the book are found the terms: oligopoly, monopoly, corporate, corporation, subsidiary, big biz, big business, etc. That seems a glaring blind spot. The author is entirely focused on journalists and journalism as a profession, but ignores the larger system that shapes this profession and determines the outcomes.

    • Perhaps the author is willfully ignorant about this area. He fears the implications that may arise from this problem – namely the corporate own mainstream media.

      Alternatively, the author still hopes given his rather optimistic tone that the reform within the system is possible. The problem is news corporations have huge conflicts of interest.

  2. I looked up ‘Chomsky’ as a term. He wasn’t in there at all, despite Chomsky’s important analysis of the media in terms of the propaganda model. So, I looked up the term ‘propaganda’.

    It did come up a bit, but mostly in passing. The author was briefly considering the distinction between journalism and propaganda. He never offers the perspective that maybe there is no clear distinction.

    I had more success in finding examples of ‘business’ being discussed. Even so, most of it was rather superficial about the needs of newsrooms to make a profit. Some of what the author wrote, though, was interesting. I will give him credit where it is due.

    He touches upon, even if just barely, the issue of big money ruling a supposed free press. He isn’t ignoring the conflict, although neither is he considering the most hard-hitting criticisms. His conclusions feel weak in relation to the problems of news media. Ultimately, the author seems to put most of the blame on journalists. A more pervasively systemic and institutional/organizational view eludes his grasp.

    Still, it is better than nothing. It isn’t half bad for a mostly mainstream perspective.

    I love that he points out that the typical capitalist justification is bullshit. He doesn’t state it that strongly, but that is what it comes down to. The news media isn’t just giving people what they want. I wish the author had explored more deeply why the news media as big business doesn’t give customers the product they want. The author never questions how CEOs, corporate boards, and upper management of newsrooms control and determine what type of journalist/reporter/pundit gets hired and what they are allowed to say and not say. No discussion is given of the memos and scripts given by management, as sources have shown happens at Fox News.

    The author does, however, point out the role Fox News has played as part of the problem. He points out that they are not “Fair and Balance”. He also points out that their viewers are extremely misinformed. However, he never goes beyond this basic analysis, which is simply pointing out what everyone already knows. The question is: Why is this the case and what or who is causing it to be that way? Fox News is just the most blatant example that typifies nearly all of MSM news.

    The role of advertisers is only lightly touched upon. The connection is never made between big biz advertising and the media itself as big biz, often with ties to the very corporations they are reporting on.

    The author gets so close to where the story begins to be interesting. He goes right up to that edge and then stops.

    Anyway, here is from one of the more interesting chapters, Five–The Audience Problem:

    Kindle Locations 2063-2091:

    “The code of ethics of the American Society of News Editors declares that journalism is “to serve the general welfare by informing the people.” The Radio Television Digital News Association’s ethics code says “professional electronic journalists should recognize that their first obligation is to the public.” In its ethics code, the Society of Professional Journalists claims that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends.”

    “Journalism’s codes reflect the age-old idea that democracy requires a press free of government control and dedicated to informing the public. “Where the press is free and every man able to read,” Thomas Jefferson said, “all is safe.” 2 The notion that democracy and press freedom are inseparable has been the bedrock of First Amendment jurisprudence. “The Founding Fathers,” the Supreme Court ruled in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), “gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” 3

    “Yet government is not the only threat to a free and responsible press. The press’s civic obligation has always sat uneasily with its determination to make money. In the early decades of the republic, publishers were dependent on government printing contracts for revenue, which tied them to the political parties. 4 The partisan press was brought to its knees not by a fit of conscience, but by a better deal. The invention of the high-speed rotary press enabled publishers to print their papers more cheaply, driving up circulations and attracting a new set of sponsors that paid far more money than the political parties ever could —so much money, in fact, that newspapers avoided stories that would upset their advertisers. 5 “One set of masters,” political scientist V. O. Key, Jr., wrote, “had been replaced by another.” 6

    “The press is unusual in that it is a private business with a public trust. It is obligated by its constitutionally protected position to serve the public interest but driven by its business needs to serve itself. 7 The twin imperatives have long been a source of conflict within and outside news organizations, but the business side cannot be ignored. It would be foolish to assume that knowledge-based journalism could gain a foothold in the newsroom if what it produces lacks audience appeal. News organizations are not— consciously at least— in the business of self-destruction.

    “Without implementing it on a broad scale, there is no way to prove that knowledge -based journalism would have substantial audience appeal. However, an examination of news consumption patterns suggests a considerable overlap between knowledge -based journalism’s features and people’s news preferences.”

    Kindle Locations 2180-2215:

    “Two tendencies in Robinson’s study are particularly noteworthy, given that they contradict the conventional wisdom about Americans’ news tastes. One is the low level of interest in celebrity-based stories— public affairs trump celebrity interest by a wide margin. The second is that news of domestic policy problems and issues outdraws news that is more emphatically “political,” also by a decent margin. Policy trumps politics. 5 Robinson’s findings coincide with those of an earlier Harvard study that used survey and experimental methods to assess Americans’ news preferences. Unlike Robinson’s study, which examined only top news stories, the Harvard study examined routine stories. As with Robinson’s study, soft news stories— those focusing on celebrities and entertainers— ranked at the bottom of the list. Stories about policy problems and issues— jobs, school spending, and the like—ranked much higher. “Public affairs news,” the Harvard study concluded, “is more appealing than soft news to most people.” 15

    “Audience demand is only one half of the marketplace for news. The other half is the supply side— the stories that news outlets produce. Are the media’s top stories also the ones of greatest interest to the public? As it happens, supply and demand do not coincide. News outlets overproduce some types of news relative to demand, while underproducing other types.

    “Washington-centered stories are overproduced . Of keen interest to the politically interested, they are of only passing interest to most citizens. Even the stories that address the fate of top leaders do not ordinarily attract close public attention . Although the press heavily covered Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate majority leader in 2002 for praising Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential bid, only 20 percent of Americans said they were following the story closely. 16 Run-of-the-mill Washington stories fare worse. Although such stories are often at or near the top of the day’s news, they are far down the list of stories Americans follow closely. “‘Inside -the-Beltway stories,’ ” Robinson notes, are “heavily covered, but lightly watched.” 17

    “To be sure, citizens take some interest in political goings-on. 18 During the closing phase of a presidential campaign, people are attuned to their favorite candidate’s chance of victory. 19 Relatively few citizens, however, intently follow the political wrangling that is the mainstay of national political coverage. 20 One reason is that their stake in the conflict is seldom made clear. 21 A Project for Excellence in Journalism election study, for example, found that reporters were seven times more likely to say how campaign developments might affect the candidates than to say how they might affect the voters. 22

    “The oversupply of political stories reflects what the Washington Post’s Dan Balz calls “the gap” between the interests of “the media and ordinary folks.” 23 Most journalists know a lot more about politics than they do about policy, and they like to cover what they know best—“ talking mainly to each other,” as Lance Bennett put it. 24”

    • Perhaps the most appropriate response to Chomsky is this:

      But what is at play here is this destructive dynamic that the more one dissents from political orthodoxies, the more personalized, style-focused and substance-free the attacks become. That’s because once someone becomes sufficiently critical of establishment pieties, the goal is not merely to dispute their claims but to silence them. That’s accomplished by demonizing the person on personality and style grounds to the point where huge numbers of people decide that nothing they say should even be considered, let alone accepted. It’s a sorry and anti-intellectual tactic, to be sure, but a brutally effective one.

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