Media reform in the United States?

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I have been mulling over Patrick Mattimore’s op-ed in China Daily, where he argues that a commercialized media cannot adequately serve the public interest, for some days now, and I thought I’d just put my two cents into the piggy bank. Original piece in italics.

When partisan American news sources, such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, behave unethically, it is no surprise. News Corp., which owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, recently gave $1 Million to the Republican Governors’ Association and a spokesperson for the company avowed that the gift would not influence the company’s coverage of political campaigns. That’s probably true. Fox News has never been a fair and balanced source and contributing to Republican causes merely reinforces News Corp’s. lack of objectivity.

Fair enough, but at the same time, the author indicates that the political stance of the press companies he talks about seems to be relatively well known. In other words, any reader/viewer with half a brain will have at least some basis on which to interpret the reporting.

A more subtle question is whether US newspapers, which are often part of large conglomerates otherwise unrelated to reporting or critiquing the news, can behave objectively in serving the public’s interest, when challenged to make a profit.

Many points at once here. US newspapers are part of large conglomerates. Fine, but how does this relate to the question of being challenged to make a profit? I would say that independent newspapers, unless funded by the government, would still need to make a profit, or they will go bankrupt, right?

One recent example where the public’s interest has taken a backseat to corporation profit involves the Washington Post. An editorial in that newspaper criticized the US government’s proposal to crack down on “for-profit” colleges. The government’s proposed legislation would deny loans to students attending for-profit colleges where high percentages of borrowers fail to repay the loans. The US Government’s Accountability Office released a report in early August about its investigation of fifteen for-profit colleges. Undercover investigators, posing as students interested in enrolling at the for-profit colleges, found that recruiters at all 15 schools misled potential students about their programs’ cost, quality, duration, or the average salary of graduates. Only about 10 percent of the post-secondary student population attend for-profit colleges, but those students borrow roughly 25 percent of federally allocated student-loan funds and have much higher default rates on average than students attending non-profit colleges.The Washington Post’s editorial flies in the face of other liberal media, such as The New York Times. Those media have generally supported the Administration’s proposal. Some newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, have suggested that the proposed limits don’t go far enough. The Post’s editorial is baffling, until one considers that the most profitable part of the Washington Post Company is Kaplan Inc., which contributed 62 percent to the Company’s bottom line last quarter. Kaplan Inc.’s most profitable division was its for-profit college sector. The Post qualified its editorial by admitting its conflict of interest, but the fact that the newspaper is up-front about its stake in the debate does not make the editorial okay. That’s like having a mother of a child who is in a beauty contest admit that she is the parent of one of the contestants before she judges the contest. Being up-front does not eliminate bias and the Post should have taken a hands-off attitude to writing about this issue.

It may not eliminate bias, but it does provide transparency. The Post could have not written about it, true, but at least they are being honest. And let’s be honest ourselves. Bias, to a certain extent, is unavoidable, so disclosure is ever more important.

The legendary former chairman of the Washington Post Co., Katherine Graham, wrote that “media in the United States are essentially commercial ventures.” She’s right. American newspapers have always been beholden to commercial interests and about seventy to eighty percent of a typical American newspaper’s revenues are generated by advertising. Newspapers, however, must assiduously guard against allowing business interests to drive their journalism. The cost of maintaining a free press is that it remain independent. Mainstream US media, like the Post, dishonor themselves when they act as shills for their own corporate interests instead of putting the public’s interest first.

Again, are these two points related? Saying that American newspapers are driven by advertising, fine. Saying that there is a conflict of interest when newspapers report on matters relating to other companies within their larger conglomerates, fine. But does the latter point reinforce the former? Again, if all newspapers were independent companies, would they rely less on advertising? Might there not be other interests at stake in their reporting? And more important, what is THE public interest?

My personal point of view is that the current composition of media relatively accurately reflects the fact that the US is a pluralist nation, with different groups, different interests and therefore different audiences. The point is that there must be honesty about backgrounds and competition of ideas. The fact that there is competition will cause that there will tend to be a relative distribution of views. Newspapers truly going out of line may find themselves in court, being liable for slander, and what not. While the US media system may be far from “perfect” (a highly moral and normative word, to say the least) there is at least some measure of transparency, accountability and debate.

And why is this piece in China Daily, the well-known beacon of the independent press, completely unbeholden to editorial interference? If this is meant to be a contribution to a debate inside the United States, it should be published there. Otherwise it is simply a mobilizing piece meant to counter potential Chinese press freedom activists.

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