The American media has long been thought of as an independent arbiter of the verifiable truth, monitoring society and reporting back to the populace. Today this could not be farther from reality. Economist James Hamilton put it best when he stated “news emerges not from individuals seeking to improve the functioning of democracy but from readers seeking diversion, reporters forging careers, and owners searching profits.”
The media, with no exception to any other industry, is shaped by financial forces.
In accordance with the foundations of capitalism, American media functions on the fundamental notions of profit maximization. The forces of capitalism have led the making and maintaining of profits to dominate news distribution.
Concurrently, polls are indicating an increased polarization of the American public along party lines. A recent Pew Research study found a growing shift toward the extremes as “92% of Republicans are to the right of the medium Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” Similarly, the study accounted for an elevated animosity between the two parties, as negative perceptions for the other side have heightened across the same time period.
Countless answers have been proposed in efforts to explain America’s growing partisanship, but, ultimately, the root answer is clear: Capitalism’s control over the media is expanding political polarization. Americans know information from what the media provides yet, due to the need for profits, modern media provides information under the incentive of selling not informing.
Capitalism has always reigned supreme in the United States, but it was not until the 1980s that news consolidation became the pattern. News outlets were placed into the hands of a few and ever narrowing number of corporations, often with little interest in the news.
Currently, six corporations own 90% of the United States media, creating a media oligopoly. These corporations have immense control over what and how news is covered, and with so few companies in the market, there is consistent pressure to cut costs and outperform competitors.
Subsequently, the 1980s saw the digital revolution. An increase in channels on broadcast TV and the explosion of the internet granted a variety of media options. While seemingly beneficial, the expansion created competition for attention between news and entertainment. News at large was forced to shift from informational to engaging, as the success of news outlets was dependent on the audience’s attention.
The chairman of CBS, Leslie Moonves, put it best when he stated Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Radical ideas gain more attention, making it no surprise that a recent evaluation of national broadcast and cable news found a bias towards fanatical candidates. This subsequently resulted in an inaccurately extreme representation of the House of Representatives and Senate legislative bodies.
The desire for profits skews attention towards policy makers who praise new and radical perspectives. Inevitably, the portrayal of political extremism results in an elevated political animosity.
Disappointedly, the strive for attention has also caused news outlets to liken political elections to horse races between political candidates, with constantly updated bar graphs showing who is winning and who is losing in the polls. The horse race has been pushed into the norm due to its economic and consumer advantages. Covering elections in this manner is cheaper — easier to consume for the average American — than analyzing policy platforms. Consecutively, policy based coverage accounted for a mere 10% of the 2016 election.
Covering the horse race does not provide voters with a balanced comparison of electees that will help them make an educated decision at the polls. Horse race coverage frames politics as a constant battle between the two dominant political parties, thus creating an in-group and an out-group.
Horse race coverage, which floods modern journalism, divides our nation.
The other major shift has been the rise in ideologically based coverage. Fox News originally discovered they could bring in a reliable audience without an extensive number of reporters by spouting the take on the news Republicans and conservatives wanted to hear. This commercially driven outline of American journalism has similarly been adopted on the left by MSNBC and CNN. While these news outlets differ in their reliability rankings, each has taken an emphasis on surface level coverage — which tends to antagonize the other side — over deep investigative journalism.
This strategy is cheap yet intriguing to audiences. These affirmational sources, driven by the business model, are creating a duopoly between Republicans and Democrats.
It can be argued that not all journalism is manipulated in search of profits. Local news sources are ranked as among the most objective and trusted news outlets, providing a relatively balanced analysis of current events.
Nevertheless, objective news is simply not profitable, and, with that, more than a fourth of the country's local newspapers have disappeared. Thousands of Americans now reside in so-called news deserts, with thousands more having their local papers bought off by corporations exclusively interested in profits. Everyday, more Americans are left to fill their gap in independent local news with the more national and partisan sources.
Ultimately, modern media has a glaring conflict of interest. News outlets are dependent on profits, and thus the media is manipulated to draw in readers — which goes on to increase ideological divisions. Americans rely on the media for information, but a media entangled in ulterior motives to churn profits is breeding a divided country.
We may have been born a united nation, but so long as the media remains under capitalism’s grasp, we are in for a dangerous and disunited future.
Em-J Krigsman is a freshman studying Political Science and Journalism. Do you think capitalism is harming American Journalism? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Em-J is an Opinion Editor for The Daily Cardinal, and is also a member of the Editorial Board.