My Observations on the Media: Bias and Selection

The other evening, while I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, one of my favorite political TV programs, I suddenly came to a rather simple but nonetheless intriguing conclusion. I decided to follow up on my intrigue by fleshing out my thoughts in writing.

I have long maintained that no corporate media source has an actual ideological bias or perspective. They simply have an allegiance to some particular political party (i.e., in the United States, the Democratic Party or the Republican Party), some corporate interest, some particular powerful figure(s), or some combination of those. In other words, for example, the so-called "neoconservatism" of Fox News is a means to a particular end, and not an end in itself; and the same goes for MSNBC and its supposed "progressivism."

But as someone with a strong distaste of the two-party system, my realization tonight had to do with the difference between what might be called the faux progressivism of corporate MSNBC and what I would term a genuinely independent and uncompromised leftist perspective found in independent media such as Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman.

It is obvious where the differences lie between the structures of these programs. From the official Democracy Now! website:

Democracy Now! is funded entirely through contributions from listeners, viewers, and foundations. We do not accept advertisers, corporate underwriting, or government funding. This allows us to maintain our independence.

Meanwhile, programs such as The Rachel Maddow Show broadcast on corporate MSNBC obviously get their funding from advertising revenue, so whichever giant corporation is sponsoring MSNBC’s programming generally is paying the bills that keep progressives such as Rachel Maddow on national cable television (and don’t get me wrong; I do genuinely believe Dr. Maddow is a progressive and deeply admire her and her work).

But aside from those structural and organizational differences between the two programs, I believe it is important to examine the real substantive distinctions that arise between the actual methods by which the programs are produced.

I think the contrast is simply this: the corporate media, no matter how "liberal" or "conservative" it supposedly is, merely takes sides in a pre-selected debate. The overall framing of political issues is the same, whether you are watching, for example, the Fox News Channel or MSNBC, and whether you’re reading the New York Times or the New York Post. Moreover, the selection of the political issues to be covered in the first place is essentially identical. Thus, the only difference between what many people consider to be polar opposites is just that – taking opposite sides in every debate, in pure binary fashion. Anyone who dares to question this portrayal of the political landscape is relegated to being what the media (objectively, of course) reports as being "radical" or "looney" or "out there" or "dangerous" or "extremist." Etc.

On the other hand, the process used by the independent media, such as in the case of Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, is not to simply choose sides in a predetermined debate, but instead to reframe the entire political spectrum and select the issues the staff feels are important in the first place. By merely selecting different issues to report on, rather than taking sides on issues handed down to you via a corporate hierarchy, a much more genuine shift in perspective and ideology can be communicated without having to adhere strictly to any talking points or paying undue respect to baseless assumptions and untouchable subjects. When ideology is produced this way, it can be done without telling someone what to think and without putting a lot of effort into making up arguments to always justify your side. Instead, objective truths can simply be reported and the intellectual work can be left up to the viewer to infer the implications (it’s LITERALLY an honest rendition of "we report, you decide" that isn’t so laughable!).

It doesn’t take much while watching a segment of The Rachel Maddow Show or Countdown with Keith Olbermann to point out instances of the host doing all sorts of rhetorical and mental gymnastics just to demonstrate for the viewer why the host’s side is right and the other side is wrong. Contrarily, Amy Goodman almost completely leaves her opinion (as well as her emotions) out of the program, and all of the ideological perspective that can be gleaned from Democracy Now! is simply by virtue of the fact that they report on things no one else is reporting on (which is, of course, no mistake). It leaves the viewer with a much more accurate depiction of reality, as well as a sense of being truly informed rather than brainwashed (regardless of whether the viewer is brainwashed in a "good" or "bad" way).

The result of this is a system where the individual host or face of any given media program, or any individual journalist, is largely irrelevant. In the end, it doesn’t matter much that Rachel Maddow is a brilliant progressive who understands politics and public policy extremely well; she doesn’t write the scripts and there are some areas where she and her staff know they can’t go if they want to keep their jobs. Even if you deny any possible larger interpretations of the media, just the simple fact that MSNBC must drive up profits at all costs and keep viewership levels high is partially responsible for this. The reporting still has to follow the money. Even knowing just that alone, how could one ever expect a truly objective corporate media?

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