If you get the impression that Americans’ grasp of the news scarcely overlaps, you are not imagining things. Americans have been bemoaning “media bias” for years. Still, it is hard to chalk up today’s level of public polarization to garden variety media bias.
There is so much effort to maintain an overt “narrative” on the part of leading cable, digital and print news sources that some public figures are scrambling to account for the shift. FOX News’ Tucker Carlson suggests that the actions of American intelligence agencies — the so-called Deep State — helps to explain the American divide. Indeed, the frequency with which cable news outlets recruit former FBI officials and intelligence heads, such as former CIA Director John Brennan and former NSA head James Clapper, as paid contributors is unprecedented. Given that a majority of former Obama administration bureaucrats under contract to cable news providers are antagonistic to the current president — shamelessly proclaiming America’s dirty laundry to an Internet-connected world — the impression that a Deep State is at war with the Trump administration is not wholly unjustified. What this theory fails to acknowledge, however, is that Americans in all walks of life, at every level on the income and education spectrum, are under the influence of a national media that is arguably doing as much to divide as to inform.
For cable news anchors and journalists at the national level, contending with the partisan whims of career politicians and DC bureaucrats is nothing new. What is a relative newcomer on the journalism scene, however, is the rising influence of “stakeholder-driven journalism“. That’s journalistic jargon to describe the formation of strategic alliances between journalists, advocacy organizations and nonprofits. And therein, arguably, lies the least appreciated aspect of our highly divisive national climate.
Big Activism and the Fourth Estate
“Even as journalism is overlapping with activism in some ways, some activists are also venturing into journalism, writes Michael Blanding of Neiman Reports, a publication of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University.
Although the Internet has given rise to a plurality of voices, Joshua Benton, a fellow Neiman Reports contributor, documents a paradox. Increasingly, mainstream media has become geographically concentrated — a phenomena that threatens to grow a bubble mentality among journalists who are clustered in just a handful of major cities on the East and West coasts.
“You see this pattern over and over again in digital news: What was once pitched as opening up a space has led instead to greater concentration of power in the hands of a few,” Benton writes.
Although the melding of activism and journalism can also be attributed to the ideological leanings of those who are inclined to enter the journalism profession, as Mark Levin writes in his bestselling book “Unfreedom of the Press”, mounting pressure to establish a collaboration between advocacy organizations and journalists is also driven by unchecked media concentration. Media concentration began long before the Internet dominated so much of the news delivery business. But in an environment where legacy media has struggled to create a profitable online presence, the pitfalls of media concentration are only amplified.
Ben Bagdikian, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and author of “The New Media Monopoly”, has described the five media monopolies that control the lion’s share of American media as a “cartel” that wields enough influence to change U.S. politics and define social values.
Over the years, the press has shifted from papering over the sins of our leaders — President John Kennedy’s extramarital affairs, to cite an example — to pouncing on any and all scandal, particularly in an election year. In elections past, an extramarital affair might derail a candidate’s run for office — John Edwards, as an example — and lying about one under oath might contribute to one’s impeachment (President Bill Clinton). But in today’s media concentrated, social media-dominated environment, critics don’t just lament bias — but a blatant lack of curiosity on the part of journalists.
In the era of Dogpile and its better-known counterpart, Google, anyone can become a fact checker with the help of a search engine. And yet, paradoxically, mainstream media is apt to promote buzzword narratives that are not as open-and-shut as they appear. Case-in-point: As multiple caravans began to head toward the Southern border, media took the position, much like outspoken Democrats in Congress, that the surge was “manufactured“. Americans were told that the numbers of migrants did not rise to historic levels — and yet, record-breaking or not, the sheer number of caravans that arrived at the border soon overwhelmed the federal government’s limited ability to process and house migrants. When it could no longer be denied that a series of caravans had indeed overwhelmed the border, media recast the border crisis as manufactured in the sense that Trump administration policy created a “humanitarian crisis”. Omitting, as a point of contrast, any and all reference to the cyclical nature of border crisis — President Obama, too, petitioned Congress for funding upon facing a 2014 surge of “unaccompanied minors” — helped to drive home a public impression that the Trump administration had fabricated the crisis. Rather than hold members of Congress accountable for putting hapless migrants in the middle of a battle of the wills with the president, enabling behavior on the part of the press and pundits allowed Congress to deny and delay much-needed humanitarian assistance.
In another example, The Hill’s John Solomon recently published evidence that Hunter Biden’s then-Ukraine employer retained American legal assistance to stave off an effort on the part of a Ukrainian prosecutor, while President Obama was still in office, to investigate Burisma, the natural gas company on whose board then-Vice President Joe Biden’s son sat. Nonetheless, mainstream media in recent weeks has doubled down on their quixotic lack of curiosity, stating that a Hunter-Biden conflict of interest in Ukraine — and even the president’s controversial July 2019 request of the current president of Ukraine “to get to the bottom” of Ukraine’s alleged involvement in 2016 election meddling — is little more than “right-wing conspiracy”.
As part of the effort to attribute the alleged Biden-Ukraine conflict to a baseless conspiracy, media outlets have embarked on a campaign to tar John Solomon’s reputation as a reporter for daring to dig too deep. In the rush to promote a “no-evidence” narrative, media outlets conveniently ignore the fact that Solomon’s reporting isn’t the only place where eyebrows have been raised. The New York times reported that Hunter Biden was warned while his father was still in office not to get involved with the oligarch-run natural gas company. What’s more, a 2015 NYT article acknowledges that it was unclear even then what, if any steps, the Obama administration took to ensure Biden’s son was not undermining his father’s work in Ukraine. Steven Pifer, a former American ambassador to the Ukraine told the NYT, “I would hope that [somebody in the vice president’s office] has done some kind of check, because I think the vice president has done a very good job of sending the anti-corruption message in Ukraine, and you would hate to see something like this undercut that message.”
President Trump’s current whistleblower allegations aside, all the speculation in the world about whether the former vice president wielded his influence to force out a Ukraine prosecutor on the eve of an investigation ignores a simple, incontrovertible fact: Only Joe Biden can account for his own motives. Assertions that Ukraine’s then-prosecutor was corrupt, in no way preclude the fact that Biden’s son, as a Burisma board member, was in danger of being swept up in an investigation, which if nothing more would have brought dishonor to the Biden family name had he in any way been connected to such a scandal.
If the optics in Ukraine were questionable before Trump entered office, they would become relevant yet again when Biden entered the 2020 race — no matter who the former vice president faced off with on the Republican side of the ticket.
That President Trump may have crossed a line by bringing up his 2020 competitor’s Ukraine history in a July phone call to Ukraine’s current president is one thing. To imply, as the national media has done, that there is no conceivable reason why candidate Biden should answer to the electorate — after openly bragging in 2018 about getting the prosecutor in question fired! — is to renege on a long tradition of a free and independent press reporting upon current and past scandals — on any candidate of any party! — in the lead up to a presidential election.
In any other era in American journalism, an appearance of impropriety, if not an out-and-out conflict of interest on the part of a presidential candidate, would be fair game. But because news organizations are increasingly pressuring readers and viewers to ascribe the mere existence of questions as evidence of a tinfoil hat affliction, it raises yet another question: Is a professional lack of curiosity, and the press uniformity it fosters, is in any way a product of external pressures?
To be sure, politicians leaning on media to be friendly toward their causes and interests is nothing new. Social media, for its part, certainly favors a more sensationalized brand of “clickbait” news coverage. On the flip side, however, social media is a place where journalists are forced to contend not only with trolls but citizen fact checkers who will call out the error of a news story. Under such conditions, journalistic independence is difficult maintain — yet more imperative than than ever. When reporters add to these existing pressures the obligation to walk the line between the public interest and the objectives of advocacy organizations and nonprofits with which media outlets are increasingly inclined to collaborate, the result may very well be a conflict of interest of a far less appreciated variety — a journalistic catch-22.
The polarization that has wracked the country in recent years isn’t just a product of Trump-come-lately on the national political scene — it’s the snowballing impact of decades worth of media concentration. When the casual observer can readily identify that a large percentage of our national news is essentially waging a “media war” — for which the evidence is the increasing frequency for which partisan news outlets lob the journalistic atomic weapon of “conspiracy” at one another — all bets are off.
Pundits and partisans on the Left — even as they express grave concerns for the influence of the libertarian Koch brothers! — dismiss as “conspiracy” the notion that the Left-leaning financier, George Soros, is a distorting influence in domestic politics. Look closely, however, and one can appreciate that low profile behavior on the part of Soros is in no way synonymous with “no impact”. Consider: The Los Angeles Times has acknowledged Soros’ role, in the name of sentencing reform, behind district attorney races across the country. (Various scandals involving refusal to prosecute crimes, the most notable being the Jussie Smollett hate crime hoax, have arisen in conjunction with Soros’-funded DAs who are working, in conjunction with other Soros’-funded efforts, to reduce incarceration rates.) In a similar vein, California Propositions 36 and 47 were Soros’ backed. And the Influence Watch website confirms that Soros’ extensive network of nonprofits operate not just in the U.S. but internationally. Why does this matter? Because logic would seem to dictate that a self-respecting journalist, regardless of their personal politics, would seek to save face for their own reputations, if not their professional credibility, assuming they are in a position to do their jobs independently — that is, without outside pressure.
And yet that’s not what we’re seeing.
“Evil orange man” in the Oval Office or not, at some point the journalism profession must return to some semblance of normal. Whether there is any turning back to pre-Trump journalistic standards is the more telling question, however. Media outlets appear hell bent on boxing themselves into a corner from which emergence would require copping not just to credibility-damaging spin — but behaviors that will undoubtedly appear in long-view of history as the actions of political hacks. The more the so-called fake news piles up, the less and less likely it is that news organizations will come clean about partisan overreach — even if the result of investigation on the part of Attorney General William Barr, the Inspector General Michael Horowitz and the U.S. Attorney John Durham should demonstrate, to any reasonably honest person, that the mainstream media oversold their dismissive stance toward the notion that Trump has been targeted first as a candidate and subsequently as president.
When the dust settles on the Trump era, the reckoning Americans saw in the national media upon belatedly acknowledging the error of parroting Bush administration claims about 9-11 terrorism links and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will not be forthcoming. For better or worse, mainstream media is determined to remain in the hot seat they have created by over-investing in presumptions-of-guilt news narratives.
Honest people, of course, are free to draw their own conclusions. For that matter, it is not even particularly noteworthy that mainstream media outlets no longer pay lip-service to the aim of objectivity, which has been openly challenged in the Trump era. Lockstep reporting, nonetheless, is another phenomena entirely. One is all but forced to infer — to deduce — that outside pressure has contributed to observable declines in journalistic independence. Research into this area suggests that cash-strapped media operations have been more inclined in recent years to enter into “strategic alliances”, with philanthropists’ help, to push stories to the forefront for the sake of promoting a policy agenda. And so, in addition to the usual political pressures upon journalists to portray politicians and their policies in a favorable light, mainstream media organizations are in some cases binding themselves to contractual agreements to further stakeholder objectives. That such efforts dovetail with Soros’ Open Society Foundations (OSF) advocacy objectives — among them drug decriminalization and paperless migration — is, at best, a poorly-guarded secret.
There is an argument to be made that private-public partnerships are a win-win for struggling newsrooms and social justice advocates alike. But that does not absolve the risk that behind-the-scenes collusion has wormed its way into the newsroom — a trend that has arguably already taken hold given the absence of public debate about how the modernization of media improves vs. harms the public interest. Drastic shifts in media business models without a corresponding effort to self-report the shift suggests, if only indirectly, that news organizations grasp that sacrificing press freedom for the sake of financial sustainability is all but inevitable.
The public, for our part, may simply observe that the news media of today isn’t the news media many of us remember.
Social media is frequently blamed for this change. After all, even as the president over-exposes the pedestrian, petty and sometimes outrageous inner workings of his mind on Twitter, the press, too, has become more speculative, hyperbolic and accusation driven. We know this, in part, because once-respected news outlets such as CNN have invited guests on to make increasingly wild assertions, perhaps most notably a former Duke University psychiatrist who went unchallenged upon asserting that President Trump may have more blood on his hands than Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined. Unfortunately, putting a finger on the broader context for this media war phenomena — when domestic and foreign media, alike, have remained largely silent about the profound restructuring of the journalism business model — is often beyond the reach of busy news consumers. As a result, media bias and Deep State fears predominate at the expense of the more apropos question of how much press freedom the mainstream media can reasonably expect to retain in the wake of hitching themselves to so many collaborative wagons.
All things equal, it should follow that prominent pundits, anchors and journalists, irregardless of politics, should be wary of losing face. After all, in a day and age when Americans can readily use a search engine to appreciate that they are being subjected to a hyper-politicized, black-and-white spin, one would expect the journalism profession to be more cognizant of approaching a story with an even hand. The fact that some observations are self-evident — i.e. “the sky is blue” — suggests that there should be limits on how far partisan news outlets, even, will push their viewers and readers to adopt a dogmatic point of view. Instead we are witnessing what can only be described as a race to the bottom against an overly concentrated, increasingly integrated, social media-sensationalized, preach-to-the-choir backdrop. So pervasive are the silos in which journalists on the East and West coasts operate, that they are inclined to attribute such headwinds to only one source: Donald Trump. One shudders to consider that if the American people reelect this controversial president, how the bulk of the American media — and the voters they have unduly influenced — will react. If it was difficult to accept the outcome of the 2016 election, will we face civil unrest in the event of a Trump win in 2020? In the overheated climate that passes for modern-day journalism, such questions cannot be excluded.
In a Digital Era that favors integrated social and economic networks, traditional journalistic norms that favor independence invariably clash. And something is bound to give.
Americans, for our part, must be willing to confront the next logical question: How many “beds” are top cable, digital and print news journalists climbing into in order to satisfy a multiplicity of competing expectations: favor that is curried for access to high-profile individuals and politicians, stakeholder collaborations, advertisers, editors, publishers — and the public interest? Perhaps most tellingly, do these strange bedfellows involve billionaire-backed philanthropies?
Enduring the drama that accompanies a controversial public figure, such as Donald Trump, is one thing. A media that actively perpetuates an agenda, as opposed to allowing the chips to fall where they may, is another. Selective reporting — that is, cherry-picking the news to fit a preordained narrative — is increasingly a fact of life. Still, the fragmenting psychological impact of media warfare is nothing to trivialize.
A bifurcated electorate that scarcely agrees on basic current-events facts is a disenfranchised one.
There is a difference in a Democracy between an informed citizen participating in a robust debate — and a misinformed citizen who, without appreciating as much, marches to the drum of a Big Activism agenda, none the wiser to their role in parroting what amounts to propaganda. To a larger extent than most of us would like to admit, what is best for the country is a subjective proposition. We all need basic things like clean air, clean water, access to food, affordable housing and jobs. Beyond the basics there is plenty of room for honest people to arrive at differing conclusions. News that is driven by a change agenda, whether the product of public-private collaboration or an ideology-driven newsroom, tends to be most successful when complex issues are grossly oversimplified. By its nature, this method of communicating tends to distort, if not dumb-down, the public conversation. Nonetheless, it requires no ill intent on the part of proponents. Deleterious impacts simply come with the territory.
Unintended consequences do not require a conspiracy.
Activist agendas are often distilled into “talking points”. Talking points, in turn, are good at conveying the broad strokes of an idea but are terrible at encouraging nuanced debate. They over promise, underestimate obstacles and reject dissent. Not surprisingly, then, attempts to shift public opinion through the sheer force of repetition of those points is a disruptive, if not manipulative, act. Non-organic shifts in public opinion, in turn, rely not just on hard news facts but emotional ploys such as guilt, casting aspersions on the intentions of critics and pressure to question less and conform more. Under such circumstances, it’s not hard to see why accusations of conspiracy have become a daily news occurrence.
Making America Divided
Big Activism, no matter how well intended, isn’t just about carrying out a vision for a better world. It is about manufacturing the pace of change. The stakeholders are “them” — the collaboration between nonprofit and for-profit interest groups, of which journalists are increasingly a part — and the target is “us”. Even under the best of circumstances, this sets up the object of that influence — the public — to feel like pawns caught up in a war.
And arguably, we are.
Beyond hackneyed complaints of media bias, the increasing prevalence of partnerships between journalists and advocacy organizations helps explain why Digital Era media rarely touts its independence and objectivity. Career journalists come to understand, if they ascend to the national level, that the price of integration — collaboration — is an insidious, if not overt, loss of press freedom. While it could be said in the past that a free and robust Fourth Estate is an “equal opportunity informer” and an “equal opportunity offender” of those in power, what we see today is a news media that is increasingly unapologetic — to the point of refusing to retract demonstrably false stories — in the interest of towing their respective Right vs. Left partisan lines. It is no surprise, under such circumstances, why the love-hate reaction of the American people to one man — Donald Trump — also encapsulates so much of what is wrong with the media’s relationship with the public and, in turn, the public’s increasing cynicism towards the press.
When roughly half of the American people perceive a flawed but benevolent leader, it is in no small part attributable to the position staked out by their most favored news outlets. Likewise, when the other half of the American people perceive a malevolent national leader, it is in no small part attributable to the position staked out by their most favored news outlets. And so, while the most expedient explanation is that more Americans have become captive to partisan silos, it is rarely as simple as pinning the blame on any single public figure — even an opposing party leader.
Media coverage has far more impact in shaping the degree to which we feel a leader has sought to do good vs. evil than we generally acknowledge.
Digital Era media, rather than bridging divides or challenging assumptions, plays into entrenched differences. Why is this problematic? Because our assessment of the actions and intentions of public figures, news consumers, is only as good as the information we have by which to judge our leaders from behind a newspaper’s pages or a camera’s lens. When one part of the media reports no evil and the other reports no good, it demonstrates that our gatekeepers across the political spectrum have failed in their civic and professional duty to serve the public interest. Billionaire philanthropists with sociopolitical agendas, meanwhile, may not be personally involved in day-to-day newsroom operations, but through intermediary think-tank experts and nonprofit partnerships, a Big Activism-backed echo chamber is an all-too-real component of modern journalism. And that begs a question.
Isn’t it in the public interest for media professionals to disclose stakeholder alliances?
When a lockstep news narrative is demonstrably wrong, even by Google search standards, one can only conclude that the underlying message is contrived. No amount of persuasion by a politician or a party should account for this. If, however, political action committees, philanthropists, nonprofits and ideologically-driven journalists form collaborative networks, the resultant stakeholder journalism may very well account for the blatancy with which top news outlets cherry-pick facts and skewer critics for the sake of maintaining predictable, partisan narratives. So little daylight is left between professional journalists and the people and issues they cover at the national level that “Who’s pocket are they in?” may be the only reasonable question left.
And no, it is not a conspiracy to pose a question — unless it is a conspiracy to think.
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