Profiting off Mistrust: the Highs and Lows of News Media

by kay zare. december 2016.

Americans’ trust in media is at historic lows, yet profits for many cable and network news stations have reached record highs. Is this a market failure or the press we deserve?

Blaming the media has long been a favorite American pastime, but the most recent Gallop national survey — showing trust in the press at an all time low for the second time in three years — at 32% — indicates a problem greater than the tidal regularity of campaign season rhetoric and points to an urgent need to review the state of journalism in America.

Commercial media, operating on a for-profit model, are the dominant force in the American press. Despite the exponential growth of channels and platforms for distributing content, over 90% of all mass media (film, books, music, newspapers, magazines and television) are produced by just six corporate sources, down from fifty in 1980. While much ink has been spilled foretelling the death of television in the internet age, commercial tv broadcasting still accounts for the most common source of news for Americans. Television is very much alive and successfully competing for the attention of a sizable, albeit shrinking audience — and more importantly, still leading the national discussion.

The most viewed event in the 2015 campaign was the first Republican debate, attracting nearly 24 million viewers (about seven percent of the population) — vastly more than comparable primary debate turnout in recent years. The first general election debate broke over 80 million in viewers. Most of the attention has centered around the bombastic campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump: Every program that Trump has appeared on has benefitted financially — the Fox News and CNN debates were the most watched in each of those network’s histories, late-night talk show hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel each scored their most watched shows ever with Trump as a guest; Saturday Night Live, despite the controversy and protest, considered the decision to invite Trump as the week’s celebrity guest ratings gold.

A study by Tyndall Report, a media research group, illustrates the preference for spectacle goes beyond cable news and late night entertainment. In 2015, among the big three network stations — ABC, NBC & CBS — Trump’s campaign received 234 minutes of on air reporting compared to ten minutes during the same period for Bernie Sanders, a snub referred to by his supporters as the “Bernie blackout.”

The campaigns themselves are a sort of free market enterprise in the press’ view — a great deal of time and energy focused on who raised the most money, which traditionally has been required to fund staff and outreach, but most importantly to purchase advertising to brand their campaign, repeat their catchphrases, attack opponents and get their message out to as many voters as possible. It is here where the conflicts between commercial tv news and capital intensive campaigns become most vivid.

The comparison between Bernie Sanders and Trump are especially fitting, not with regard to the substance of their messages, but because as each candidate offered a similar narrative to news stations — running “outsider” campaigns while having the most enthusiastic turnout at public events of their opponents. It is hard to deny that Sanders events were the most photogenic — a seeming goldmine for the press to endlessly ride.

As far as ratings and advertising revenue go, Trump was a blessing to the business of news. To its substance, he has been a revealing case study on the contradictions of profit and public interest.

Presently, competition between commercial media outlets has come in the form of news broadcasts increasingly favoring spectacle over substance. Over the last decade, numerous layoffs and closures of foreign bureaus and investigative wings at newspapers, network and cable stations have been replaced by entertainment news, self-help and human interest stories. The Tyndall report shows a precipitous drop in coverage of domestic and foreign issues, nearly half of what it was as recently as the 1980s, while coverage of crime has increased 4-fold, despite a continued and steady decline in crime during the intervening decades.

The media itself, no monolith, has shown signs of discontent and self reflection, with some attempts to reign in the spectacle with fact-checks and assertive journalism.

But the tidal shift in the coverage of Trump from fawning self interested curiosity to righteous condemnation only had the effect of reinforcing the mistrust for media already present — left, center and right.

For politicians in this climate of public mistrust, however, lambasting the press has evolved from a caricatured verbal tick into a winning public relations strategy, and somehow in spite of constant lamenting, the business of news is thriving.

A study by the non-profit, non-partisan group Free Press, conducted by media scholars from NYU, asserts that America journalism is experiencing a “classic case of market failure,” a problem America is uniquely vulnerable to because of its disproportionate reliance on commercial media and chronically underfunded public broadcasting.

For some social critics and scholars the growing chorus of complaints point to a shift in the press’ purpose. The commercial model of media underpinning a democratic state relies on one fundamental propellant: the desire of the citizenry to obtain critical, objective reporting. The press in theory supplies information to satiate the demand citizens have for such information, and in turn make a reasonable profit from the investment of time and resources. Today, major media companies see little correlation between quality investigative journalism and higher profits. Trump has merely brought that harsh reality to the forefront.

On most given nights the combined viewership of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg, and Fox Business attracts about six-million viewers, nearly all of their revenue coming from two sources: subscription fees and advertising. Half of all revenue are paid monthly by the 100 million cable subscribers in America, of whom 94 million are not watching, but indirectly fund through their cable providers. The most expensive of these networks is Fox News at $1.09 per month per subscriber, up 574% from $0.19 in 2003. These “subscription fees” are paid through by consumers who buy bundled cable tv packages, over which they have no choice to refuse any particular station. For several years Fox’s highest rated program has been the O’Reilly Factor, drawing an average of 3 million viewers nightly. Yet, the continuing paradox is that the 97-million people who don’t watch are contractually coerced into paying half the station’s budget — a sort of cable box socialism that allows stations like Fox to survive.

The ability of cable news to set the political agenda stems from its twenty-four hour stream, a power lacking in their network counterparts. Cable news is in no way required to provide relevant news in the public’s interest. Research into any of the major cable networks reveals that each boasts it targets content towards a professional, affluent demographic — essentially cultivating stories for a niche audience — an editorial decision they are allowed to make because cable television is a paid for service — and not a product of public airwaves. This stands in contrast to the major networks, where historically broadcasting licenses were distributed on the premise that broadcaster’s would perform a public service by delivering news in the public’s interest. Yet even these limited regulations have been severely weakened since the Reagan era — notably scrapping the Fairness Doctrine, perhaps the most important and effective regulatory tool in broadcast journalism. As stations, sites and content multiplied, American media has increasingly relied on profitability to determine the value of journalism, at the expense of public trust. Much of this blame can be laid at the feet of the Clinton Administration, when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed, quickening the pace of corporate takeovers exponentially while ridding government of the regulatory power to check powerful monopolies and ensuring diverse ownership and representation.

On a recent shareholder call, CBS President Les Moonves, who famously stated in 2012 that “Superpacs may be bad for American, but they’re good for CBS,” expressed an equally macabre apathy for what most Americans consider a pillar of democracy. On the rise of Trump and the coming flood of campaign money into network coffers, Moonves expressed gratitude for the unfolding spectacle and bitter politics with praise: “Thank god,” he exclaimed, “the rancor has already begun.”

The disconnect between the public’s perception of the press and Moonves’ glee at the windfall profits of campaign advertising could hardly be greater. “This is fun, watching this,” he went on, grateful for the very spectacle of xenophobia and bitterness he has helped cultivate, “let them spend money on us.”

Moonves and CBS are not alone. His is a position echoed by every major media executive in America where subscription fees and advertising drive revenue and define survival. In a market flooded with cheap content, blogs, pundits and public relations talking heads, traditional media outlets have jettisoned the most expensive parts of their enterprise: investigative bureaus and long form reporting in favor of opinion content and press releases. Political advertising, since the 2010 Citizens United v FEC ruling, accounts for one of the fastest growing segments of television revenue. The current estimate is that campaigns will spend $5 billion on advertisements this year, mainly on television. CNN has already recorded one billion dollars in profits for just 2016 alone — a record high for the entire 36 years CNN has existed. Fox News during that same period made even more — $1.67 billion. Perhaps in that context one can understand Moonves’ willingness to view the presidential campaign more as entertaining television than a core exercise of democratic participation.

Jeff Zucker, head of CNN, tortured the English language long enough to spit out a meager attempt at self reflection: “If we made a mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months…unedited and just let them run…and I think in hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have done that, as much.” Any more qualifiers in that sentence and it might not qualify as a thought. In truth, it is the bare minimum to stay above the markets — which broadly demanded some sort of apology — some sort they got. But the underlying meaning of Moonves’ brazen honesty and Zucker’s feigned introspection reveal the true motives behind the commercial model and it’s inability to self correct — it doesn’t see the problem.

From a market perspective, empty spectacle is a sound approach. If viewers tune in at significant rates and media companies profit handsomely from the content they provide, the system appears to be working. The message that Americans don’t trust the news or that they have legitimate concerns about the substance and quality of reporting is not being received because it carries no penalty, only financial reward. As fewer companies control larger swathes of broadcasting, increasingly uniform in ownership by class, race and gender, this contradiction comes into sharper focus — the nation itself becoming more diverse while media ownership narrows and reaps greater profits from shrinking competition without adapting to a new world. While there has been much hand wringing about the media in this election cycle, these lamentations will have little impact. Corporations respond to profits, not pleas for decency. Given the astronomical profits cable and network news have been raking in this election season, the quality of news reporting is almost certain to maintain its mediocrity indefinitely.

Currently, most mainstream outlets are in the process of blaming everyone but themselves — in unison pointing to the “fake news” proliferation on social media as a scapegoat — willfully ignorant to the fact that the remedy for “fake news” is a trusted and honest press. In truth, fake news is not a shocking betrayal of media principles, it is the logical end point of for-profit news — not a disease in its own right, but a symptom of an almost purely commercial media system that prioritizes profit above all else.

Blaming the press alone is too easy, and misses the other half of the problem. In the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates, over 66 million viewers tuned it to watch, a full third of the nation. Fifty-two years later, with the country’s population almost double, and the nation’s first black President running for re-election, about the same amount of viewers tuned in for the 2012 Presidential debates, a full fifty percent drop in overall viewership. Overall citizen engagement with politics has diminished significantly in the intervening decades, a truth echoed by the generally low voter turnout in American elections; 63% in 1960, 53% in 2012. In the 1980’s, an era of loosening government regulations, the press increasingly shrugged away from its role as agitator for the public interest while agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, whose purpose it was to regulate the ownership and diversity of news, propelled by lobbying efforts of big media, began to argue it was no longer necessary to regulate as fiercely because the competitive nature of broadcast news would encourage and self-regulate in favor of good journalism. This turned out not to be the case.

At this juncture, a serious discussion hinges on one question: is the profit-driven, commercial model of news capable of reporting in the public’s interest?

The research has nuance, but a common thread links the most informed societies: robust and well funded public broadcasting. Examining 14 industrialized democracies, a Free Press report showed the most qualitatively informed societies boasted strong public media, funded at rates up to 33-times that of the United States. The research demonstrates how strong public press inoculates societies against a devolving commercial model and even compels better commercial media coverage. The public model’s power stems from an understanding of the market system: that the prioritization of profit, incentive towards spectacle, and disdain for serious, costly investigation undermines an inherent good: informing the public in the public’s own interest, whether or not they want it.

Without a common, free, and trusted source of news, the form of the press is preserved, while its function is repurposed by a handful of owners. Mass media in the twentieth century performed the role of the great socializer. In the post-War era, episodes of “I Love Lucy” would draw weekly viewers of fifty-million, thirty-percent of the population performing the same ritual act in unison on a weekly basis. In that same era of burgeoning video, a few trusted (and highly regulated) networks were obliged to provide news in the public’s interest in exchange for broadcast licenses. The same is not true now. In the twenty-first century, mass media, aided by the FCC and encouraged by a disinterested public, empowered the mechanisms of centrifugal force and technological development, are pulling groups into divergent streams of reality that overlap less frequently. For American journalism the results have been bleak.

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