“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? He will be attractive! …. He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing! He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing… he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.” – Albert Brooks, Broadcast News (1987)
I’d been in college about four months when Broadcast News hit theaters. The timing was perfect – I was a Broadcast Journalism major at a big communications school; this was my future. Funnier, sharper and with better looking people, but potentially my future.
It also turned out to be the first influence on my decision not to pursue broadcast, and instead stick with print journalism. There were other factors – including things out of my control, but by senior year I’d veered pretty straight into freelance writing and dodged the TV wing of things entirely.
I mention all of this as prologue to something I’m hearing a lot during this election phase: namely, that we’re in the state we’re in with the candidates we are in “because of the media.”
According to some, it is the media’s fault for:
- Valuing headlines and ratings over substance
- Elevating entertainment over content
- Giving voice to the loudest, not the smartest or savviest in the room
- [Insert your own complaint here.]
Essentially, it’s the media’s fault for lowering our standards where they’re important. And while that may not be inaccurate, it ignores the root cause of how this all happened.
We didn’t get here suddenly as of this election. We didn’t get here just because of these candidates. And guess what: “the media” is not some monolith that speaks with one voice on one topic at all times. If you want to go and blame “the media” for the state of this election cycle, there are two other things you need to do first:
- Brush up on your history
- Look in the mirror
A Little History Lesson
When airwaves were first seriously regulated in the U.S. (by the Radio Act of 1927 and the Telecommunications Act of 1934), a mission statement emerged: Namely that the government would grant private entities a license to use the airwaves for commercial interests – but with the caveat that they understood the airwaves were to inform and educate the public. Basically, you got permission to run a network if you did so in the public interest.
News divisions were the sop to the public interest: For most of the day, a network like ABC or NBC or CBS could do more or less what it liked to make money, but some portion of it had to be more purely informational. So wedges were carved out, and became news blocks. They were never considered to be ratings-makers; they were there because in order to keep the license, a network had to follow the rules and provide us with actual information.
The 1934 Act also looked at equal time rules for political candidates: If one candidate got a certain amount of time on a channel’s airwaves, the other candidate had to legally be permitted the same amount of time. There was also the Fairness Doctrine, which was developed to provide a diverse number of opinions from the public, to avoid one-sided coverage. In addition, companies were limited in how many radio and television and print outlets they could own in any one part of the country – if you had X number of radio stations you could only have Y number of print outlets, and so forth. Again, to protect us from one-sided discourse.
Without getting too bogged down in all of the nuances, the point is this: The airwaves were once believed to be yours and mine, on loan to the networks.
But capitalism is like a car with an alignment problem. It lists to the side most beneficial to itself, and it does it so persistently and intently that trying to veer the wheel back to the main road – to that whole public interest thing – can be exhausting, because it never ends.
During the Ronald Reagan presidency, we as a collective body began taking our hands off the wheel. Reagan was big on deregulation, and his administration began the process of shifting to a “fundamental and ideologically-driven reappraisal of regulations long held central to national broadcasting policy,” notes C.H. Sterling in the Museum of Television’s summary of deregulation. Over his terms in office he and a friendly Congress:
- Extended TV licenses from three years to five years
- Expanded how many TV stations any company could own, leading the way for the consolidation we see today
- Abolished requirements for minimal non-entertainment programming
- Eliminated the fairness doctrine
- Dropped FCC guidelines for how much advertising could be aired
- Deregulated TV’s emerging competitors, like cable
By loosening the rules – of how many stations could be owned, of the content on the stations, of competitor requirements – our elected representatives veered us into a ditch, the length, width and depth of which we’re still plumbing. News became something that not only could draw ratings but had to draw ratings. News had to begin paying for itself.
News could no longer be pure information, or even commentary. News had to put on a pretty dress and smart tie and be appealing and winsome and maintain our attention. News had to be … entertainment.
But let’s flash back just a tad so as not to forget the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (signed into law by President Bill Clinton); by then we’d had 16 years or so of media deregulation and there was considerable pressure to re-think the 1934 Act entirely. Big businesses were consolidating media networks and didn’t want to be hampered by any rules that said you couldn’t own, say, a movie studio and a TV network that happened to have news on it. It’s capitalism! If I can afford it, who are you to say I can’t buy it?
But as in many areas of life, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, or should be allowed to.
The 1996 act re-defined the notion of “cross-media ownership” by wallpapering over rules established by the FCC in 1975 that said for the sake of diverse voices in a community, if someone owned a daily newspaper they could not own a “full-power broadcast station that serviced the same community.” It was meant to avoid media concentration. With the 1996 change, the FCC was permitted to repeal or change any regulation it believed was not in the public interest. That overturned what had been an issue for elected politicians to a regulatory body who could be (and often was) run or heavily influenced by the industry it policed.
Fox, here’s your hen house.
These days, one company is now permitted to own up to 45% of the media in a given market (in 1985 it was 25%). Owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same market is not a problem. And it’s no longer considered necessary for a channel to even contain news, so long as the public is able to find its news elsewhere, somewhere. Licenses to networks are no longer reviewed for their “public interest” elements.
It took about eighty years to do it, but those public airwaves – are no longer public. Not in any way that matters.
Should you care?
You tell me. Currently, we have a “big six” when it comes to media: Comcast, Walt Disney, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, CBS and Viacom. If you consume information or entertainment in the U.S., you are almost guaranteed to absorb it from one of these outlets. (There are exceptions, from E.W. Scripps to Sony to AMC Networks, but these are small potatoes, relatively speaking – and not necessarily dedicated to news.) What this means is that the disparate voices we’re supposed to be hearing, on airwaves originally designated for all of us to own collectively, are run by a very small group of people – none of whom are required to do anything other than earn money for themselves and shareholders.
In the years since we began allowing politicians to undermine our standards we’ve also quietly nodded along as news, in the process of transforming into entertainment, undermined our expectations of what we can and should know about how the world around us operates. We elected these people – and re-elected them. Some of us may have had good intentions: government with too many regulations is slow and bogged down, and sometimes needs the underbrush cleared out. But when you go in to prune a tree, if you gouge the taproot you’ve set in motion a slow death. Somewhere along the way, we nicked the taproot, again and again and again, and what we have now is a great big hollow tree trunk.
As it turns out, there wasn’t just one devil in the end, lowering our standards where it was important. There were hundreds, thousands of them. They sold us on the dream that we were better off with them calling the shots, that the public didn’t really know where its interest lay. And in some ways, they were right. We didn’t.
But we should have.
So during the election cycle, the next time you want to throw shade on “the media,” remember that it didn’t have to end up this way. We had chances and choices. And now we have the media system we deserve.
Can you do anything when you want actual news and information? Sure, you can. You can put your hands back on that wheel and start tugging. Read and watch outlets that have nothing to do with the “big six.” Insist on standards and call out sources that don’t meet them. Look to raw data and primary sources and shut out the extraneous noise. But remember, this is an ongoing project. The car wants to be in the ditch.
And the devil has a great deal of patience.
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