December 16, 2017
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Why There are Complaints About Journalism

If the New York Times really were what the New York Times pretends to be, when it or its industry was criticized, it would bend over backwards to make sure it was being fair to the critics. That’s the true test of “objectivity,” isn’t it—how you act when it’s your own ox being gored?

Instead, the Times typically reacts to criticism the way a cat typically reacts to being given a bath.

Take, for example, a piece in the New York Times (2/23/16) that addresses presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ criticism of corporate media—or “the ‘corporate media,’ as he refers to it,” as the TimesJason Horowitz refers to it.

The first thing the Times wants you to know about Sanders’ media criticism is that it’s wrong: “As News Media Changes, Bernie Sanders’ Critique Remains Constant,” is the headline. Horowitz’s piece elaborates on this theme of Sanders’ failure to appreciate the brave new media world:

Despite the advent of the Internet, the diminishing of traditional news media companies and the emergence of new media Goliaths like Facebook that have helped fuel his rise, Mr. Sanders remains orthodox in his mass media doctrine….

As Mr. Sanders sees it, the profit-hungry billionaire owners of news media companies serve up lowest-common-denominator coverage, purposefully avoid the income-inequality issues he prioritizes and mute alternative voices as they take over more and more outlets.

Is that wrong? For example, aren’t news media owners mostly billionaires with a keen interest in profit? The largest stockholder of the New York Times is Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim, who’s a billionaire 77 times over; he didn’t get to be the second-richest person in the world without a healthy appetite for return on investment.

Horowitz attempts to set Sanders straight by asserting that

there has been a proliferation of new media offering alternative voices, and traditional news sources have shrunk in an Internet age of diminishing advertising revenue.

Here’s a chart of the top 10 online news sources, courtesy of Pew Research Center. One thing you should notice is that most of them are traditional news sources, now dominating online news. Of the ones that aren’t, Yahoo is partnered with ABC News (which is why they share a slot on the chart); Huffington Post is owned by AOL, which in turn is owned by Verizon; and Buzzfeed sold a $200 million equity stake to NBCUniversal, which is to say Comcast. When people think of “alternative voices,” they’re not generally thinking of giant cable and telecom companies. (Where’s Facebook? Facebook and other social media are not content producers; they direct content generated elsewhere, and if those were largely “alternative voices,” they’d be showing up on this chart.)

Far from shrinking the reach of traditional media, the internet has allowed them to reach vast new audiences. The Times is getting 57 million unique visitors a month—compare that to its peak daily print circulation of 1.2 million.  So maybe warnings about the power of corporate media aren’t so out of date after all?

And does corporate media, as Sanders says, avoid issues of income inequality? FAIR has studied this repeatedly, and while a content analysis can’t discern whether it’s on purpose or not, corporate media outlets do show a persistent lack of interest in inequality and poverty. One FAIR study (Extra!, 9-10/07) found that over a 38-month period, the three major nightly newscasts did fewer stories on poverty than on Michael Jackson’s legal travails (58 vs. 69). Another study (Extra!, 5/12) found a short, sharp increase in interest in inequality in 2011, coinciding with Occupy Wall Street, that quickly subsided to the prior level of neglect. According to our analysis of 2012 campaign coverage (Extra!, 9/12), “just 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (0.2 percent) addressed poverty in a substantive way.” Our most recent study of the issue (Extra!6/14) noted that four times as many network news stories mentioned billionaires (of whom there were 482 in the US at the time) as addressed the 50 million Americans living in poverty.

But the real point of the Times article is to respond to Sanders’ complaints about his own coverage, and his relationship with the journalists who follow his campaign—his “antagonism” toward the press, which goes beyond “the standard posture for politicians” and is actually “a pillar of his anti-establishment, socialist worldview.”

So what are his anti-establishment, socialist complaints?

In December, his campaign demanded that the “corporate network news” grant him as much coverage as it does Mrs. Clinton (the “Bernie blackout,” they called it).

Sanders was referring to the study by the Tyndall Report (cited in Washington Post,12/7/15), the standard resource on how much time the networks spend covering what.Tyndall found that in the first 11 months of 2015, Sanders had gotten roughly one-twentieth the coverage of Donald Trump, one-tenth the coverage of Hillary Clinton and one-fifth the campaign coverage of Joe Biden, who wasn’t even running. (FAIR noted this phenomenon as well—and documented it in print publications like the Times as well as on TV.)

But rather than mentioning the rather persuasive data that Sanders was pointing at, Horowitz ran a dismissive quote from Sanders’ primary opposition:

The Clinton campaign, however, argues that Mr. Sanders has benefited from the superficial horse-race journalism he scorns, and that coverage has largely focused on his avuncular style and cross-generational appeal rather than thorough inspections of his proposals or record.

It’s not clear where Clinton’s spokesperson saw evidence of this focus on Sanders’ avuncular appeal. Was it the New York Times news story (5/31/15) that reported that Sanders’ platform “may eventually persuade Democrats that he is unelectable in a general election”? Or the one (1/31/16) that  lumped Sanders in with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz  as “candidates on the ideological fringes” and “idol-smashing outsiders.” Or maybe it was the news article (2/15/16) that quoted economists associated with the Democratic establishment—misidentified as “liberal-leaning economists who share his goals”—comparing Sanders’ agenda to “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.”

-- Originally appeared at CommonDreams.org