Are the media biased? Tuesday, Mar 31 2009 

This is a question that frequently pops up in discussions on the media. I believe the answer is yes, though for reasons that differ from most people’s perception of how the media are biased.

The media are a central part of democracy (which I discussed in an earlier post). The news media are a dominant source of information for most people within a democracy. Therefore, there are intrinsic ties between the media and democracy. The information that the news media provide shape much of how we perceive the world, our government, political candidates, various issues, etc. One could argue they set the agenda. In a truly free and democratic society, “the quality of a democracy depends on the information [the media] provide,” argues Justin Lewis.

It is therefore important to ask what kind of views the media represent. From this, we can gather whether the media are biased.

Economist and media analyst Edward S. Herman argues that “the mainstream media represent elite interests, and they serve those elite interests in a way that can be described as carrying out a propaganda function.” This leads me to the propaganda model, laid out by Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent. (The phrase “manufacturing consent,” by the way, comes from Walter Lippmann, a highly esteemed journalist and democratic theorist of the twentieth century, whom I cited in my earlier post on democracy. Once you understand Lippmann’s views of democracy, you can obviously see why he saw the media as a means to control public opinion, hence the title of his 1922 book, Public Opinion–what he calls “the manufacture of consent.”) The propaganda model is a theory on how the media operate within a free market society, such as the United States. The systematic biases found in the media are explained by certain economic conditions. More on this in a bit (though, I suggest you read Herman and Chomsky’s book).

Back now to the type of views the media represent. The constant iteration we hear is that the media are too liberal–that the media are biased and slanted toward the left. However, this strained argument has very little evidence to support itself. Conversely, as Dr. Lewis (and, of course, others) argues, the media tend to represent center to right views. Leftist views are typically not entertained. And there’s a mountain of evidence to support this.

But if we frame the question within the context that “the media are liberal,” then the question becomes whether the media are too liberal. Never mind that the media aren’t liberal at all. So it is convenient for people, particularly those on the right, to operate within this context. Of course, if we ask for evidence to support this view, those who champion it tend to simply fall flat on their face trying, because the opposite tends to be true. Rationally, what they would do is look at the output of the media (and not just simple anecdotal evidence) and try to discern from that whether there’s a systematic bias in the media. But they don’t do that. On the other hand, one particularly popular way to defend this view is to look at the journalists. Take, for example, this recent post by King Banaian, an economics professor at SCSU. Since, as Dr. Banaian contends, liberals tend to go into journalism more than conservatives do, this demonstrates that the media are biased towards the left. Essentially, how journalists vote determines the type of bias in the media. The fact of the matter is that even if 90% of journalists were sympathizers for the radical revolutionist Marxist party, this would prove nothing about the bias in the media’s output.

The relevant question is whether the media are free. And by this I mean whether their institutional structure allows for free expression of opinion. That today’s journalists are primarily from one part of the business party (Democratic rather than Republican) tells us very little. Of course, it’s the “owners, the advertisers, the news shapers, or the news makers who control the manufacture of news.” Dr. Lewis compares the argument of the journalists’ voting habits to the argument that “the workers on the factory floor decide what the car industry produces.” That’s nonsense, of course.

How then do we determine media bias? To do this, we look at the institutional structure of the media. In particular, the important aspects are the ownership, the funding, and the sources. From this, we get the propaganda model. In Manufacturing Consent, it is argued, “the primary function of the mass media in the United States is to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector.” Major decisions in our society and how it functions (production, investment, distribution, etc.) are made by relatively few giant businesses and conglomerates, which are in collusion with the government and own the media. (It’s not correct to say big business influences the media; the media are the big business.) The media are huge corporations. Take, for example, News Corp, Westinghouse or Viacom, Time Warner, or General Electric. Our dominant source of information is increasingly being controlled by fewer and fewer large multinational corporations. That is to say, competition and diversity in the media has diminished. “More channels are great, but when they’re all owned by the same people, cable doesn’t advance localism, editorial diversity and competition. And for those who believe the Internet alone will save us from this fate should realize the dominating Internet news sources are controlled by the same media giants who control radio, TV, newspapers, and cable,” say Michael Copps, FCC Chairman. Mark Miller compares this to a quote by Nazi Doctor Joseph Goebbels, who once stated, “A media system wants ostensible diversity that conceals an actual uniformity.”

Media corporations
(For more information, see this page by the Media Reform Information Center.)

That’s ownership. What about funding? The major source of funding for the media is advertising. During the mid-nineteenth century, the commercial media did not do nearly was a well as the popular press, which reflected public interests. The way to eliminate this was through the reliance on advertising and concentration of capital. Because the media are now large corporations, they work under the same free market principles of other corporations, namely maximizing profit via competitive pressures, which subverts the importance of the news product. Under the current structure, the media sell a product (the audience) to buyers (other businesses–the advertisers). The news is secondary, which is why we have been inundated by triviality and sensationalism that proliferates throughout the news media. If the media represent views that are contrary to the business proviso, they will be marginalized.

Herman and Chomsky also criticize the media’s reliance upon government sources such as the Pentagon and other sectors of the government. The media’s necessity for a continuous flow of news, they argue, can only be satisfied by the immense resources of governmental agencies and major businesses. In this way, we can say there is a symbiotic relationship between the media and authority establishments, namely the government.

Invariably, what one finds is that the media represents corporate and elite interests (much like the two factions of the Business Party, i.e. the Democrats and Republicans). They are, after all, products of large corporations. In this respect, one finds it very difficult to find, for example, principled opposition to the Iraq War or the unpopular Wall Street bailout. The media are biased by their very institutional structures that serve to propagate and disseminate corporatist interests.

Are corporations individuals? Thursday, Mar 26 2009 

This is an interesting question I had not thought about until I watched the documentary The Corporation, one of the most successful Canadian documentaries ever. (You can watch the whole documentary here on YouTube, provided by the makers of the film. In particular, see videos 1 and 2.) It was shown in my business ethics course.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, was a Reconstruction Amendment aimed at advancing the rights of blacks. One of the most important statements it makes is, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” So, fundamentally, at issue were civil rights and the citizenship of slaves and black people.

Naturally, we would expect that cases being brought to the courts on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment would be about the rights of blacks and their rights as citizens of this country, since that’s the purpose of the Amendment and why it was ratified. But this isn’t the case. According to Doug Hammerstrom, “Of the 150 cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment heard by the Supreme Court up to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 that established the legal standing of ‘separate but equal,’ 15 involved blacks and 135 involved business entities.” Backwardly, it was not the blacks who were winning their cases for a more a just and fair society wherein they could secure and protect their rights (they were, contrastingly, being systematically oppressed) as citizens, but the corporations who garnered individuality as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment. (See, for example, Supreme Court case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad.) There is robust scholarship on the issue of corporate personhood, which I have only begun to delve into.

Through a series of Supreme Court decisions, corporations became individuals, like you and I, who can carry many of the same functions, such as trade, buy, sell, sue, be sued, lobby, etc. This is a particularly important fact when it comes to liability. So, while corporations could now enjoy many of the same rights under the Constitution as any other person, they were not bound similar restraints, thanks to the many deregulation movements this led to. The ubiquitousness of the corporation in today’s society can be traced back to these decisions. We live in the corporate era, which is distinctly different from how business was previously regarded. With the corporation as a dominant institution in modern society, there are major moral implications to be considered. I would suggest you view the documentary I mentioned above for a discussion on these issues.

However, if we going to treat corporations as individuals, as people essentially, then we should also hold them to the same social and moral standards as we do flesh-and-blood people. Or, alternatively, we can change our perception of corporations. Perhaps, as others have suggested, they should not be thought of as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment, but perhaps as tools to promote the social good and needs, as they once were, being wholly accountable to the people. Unfortunately, the documentary does not elaborate on what the functions and properties they think the modern corporation should possess. I wish they did.

Update: Please see a relevant post regarding a Supreme Court decision on corporate personhood.

American democracy? Sunday, Mar 8 2009 

I would argue there are three broad levels of democracy. Two of them are widely recognized. Where does America stand?

The first broad level of democracy is referred to as electoral democracy. This type of democracy is typically defined procedurally. Thus, we say free and open elections constitute democracy. This specific process is democracy. This is how most people would probably define democracy, as it’s very much a pillar of American democracy. Ask pretty much any American, and they will probably explain it to you in this way. However, this is a very minimalistic definition of democracy. It fails to take into account the rights of people. If we simply define democracy as where there are fair and free elections, many questionable countries could be included as democratic. We already know there are countries that do hold elections, yet still systematically repress the population, are heavily corrupt, or are under the auspices of the military.

A new definition is therefore needed for democracy. The second broad level of democracy is called a liberal democracy (sometimes called a constitutional democracy). In her post to the SCSU Scholars blog here, Janet gets very confused over the relationship between rights and democracy. Her contention is that the United States is not a democracy, but instead a republic. This is a very egregious false dichotomy; the two are not mutually exclusive. The United States is both a constitutional republic and a representative liberal democracy. So, what’s a liberal democracy? It’s a form of democracy that, in addition to free and open elections, also protects the right of the people. It says that opposition parties should be able to run, a free press should be allowed, there should be civilian control over the military, minority rights are protected, and there is governmental accountability, among other things. This seems like a good definition for democracy. It is, after all, what American democracy constitutes. However, this widely held definition of democracy is lacking a very essential component, which is the will of the people.

The third broad level of democracy is participatory democracy. In this level of democracy, the electorate has a meaningful say in policy formulation. That is, the government is responsive to the people. Instead of spectators, the citizenry are participants in the democracy.

Unfortunately, the United States does not fall into the third category. While it does a good job at being a free and open society with fair and regular elections, we know it is not responsive to the public. Take, for example, when Dick Cheney was asked in 2008 about the massive unpopularity of the Iraq War. His response was, “So?” That’s your typical elite response. Right after this candid response by the Vice President, Dana Perino, the White House Press Secretary for George Bush, had this to say as to whether the American people should have input in decision-making: “You had your input. The American people have input every four years. That’s the way the system is set up.” And she’s right. Democracy is being defined as holding elections every few years but little more. The Iraq War is but one of many glaring examples of the government’s unresponsiveness to the will of the people. It’s easy to cite more, but I won’t bother wasting your time. For the basic description of this form of government, called a polyarchy (as opposed to true democracy), I defer you to the works of Robert Dahl, a highly eminent political theorist. The real question is, What is the foundation from which this American democracy was created and how do the American people feel about it?

The first question might not seem like an easy one, since it’s not generally taught in any civics course. First, a good characterization of this democracy is given by Walter Lippmann, a highly respected and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and democracy theorist of the 20th century (who was highly praised by the progressives of the era). Much of his views on this topic can be found in his 1922 book (Public Opinion) and his 1925 book (The Phantom Public), where he talks about manufacturing consent—propaganda, essentially—and the public’s role in democracy. Lippmann argues for an elite and bureaucratic ruling class, a vanguard as it were, consistent with the description given by Dahl. The notion of public involvement in governing is a “false ideal.” As such, the public, the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” must be relegated to being spectators rather than participants (who are instead the “responsible men”). Though, he recognized, this ignorant spectator class should occasionally “lend their weight” to a small choice of the “responsible men” (elections). This characterization is broadly consistent with how American democracy operates (as Dana Perino concurred in the above quote).

The framework for this democracy was given by James Madison, the Father of the U.S. Constitution. In his eyes, the government’s role was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” The majority, the public (or the “great beast” as Hamilton put it), must be restrained so as not to interfere with the “permanent interests of the country,” or what Madison calls the “landed proprietors.” Otherwise, he contended, “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place.” Madison therefore suggested the power be concentrated in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” the Senate, which “ought to come from, & represent, the Wealth of the nation.” So that’s the foundation upon which American democracy, very accurately and articulately described by Dahl and Lippmann and many others, is formulated. And it’s agreed that educated people like us are supposed to approve of and go along with it. But what does the American public think of this?

First of all, it’s very widely recognized how the government operates. The highly respected Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland did a survey in early 2008. They found that 80% of Americans see the government as being “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” and not “for the benefit of all the people.” What’s more, 94% percent of the people disagreed with how the government is run and said that the government should “pay attention to the views of the people” more than just every four years. An overwhelming majority of the American public argue for a form of participatory democracy, that is, a functioning democracy. We should be asking ourselves now why this is not happening.

An appeal to writers Thursday, Mar 5 2009 

Hi there. I’m making an appeal for writing contributors to this blog. I think more perspectives, dissenting or otherwise, would be especially helpful and worthwhile. This blog primarily focuses on political, economic, sociological, and SCSU events topics. If you would like to share your views on these topics, you are more than welcome to on this blog. Thanks. 🙂

Angela Davis Thursday, Mar 5 2009 

SCSU was lucky enough to host an internationally recognized figure and now scholar from the liberation and civil rights movements of 1960s and 70s. On Wednesday, March 4, Angela Davis gave a presentation to the packed Ritsche Auditorium on the topic of “Feminist Change: A New Era.”

A very interesting topic she touched on was what she called a “messiah complex,” especially as it relates to President Obama. Too often people view him as a heroic leader–a messiah as it were–but, in doing so, undermine the value of the community and community contribution to change. For example, when we speak about the Civil Rights Movement, we often bring up individuals’ names and cite them. But we forget about the individuals who, for example, participated in the bus boycotts; these were maids, housewives, cooks, students and the like. And it is these people that were the driving force, the foundation upon which institutional change was brought about. This was Davis’ argument, or at least how I perceived it. It’s an interesting perspective nevertheless.

She also mentioned that marriage is a racist, sexist, etc. exploitative institution based centrally on the distribution of property. I’m still rather baffled by these comments. If anyone has an explanation, I’d love to hear it.

I also think she makes good points about President Obama and how many perceive him within the context of race, especially as being the first black president of the United States. She brings up points about the paradox of struggling against the state whilst having this black president who she perceives to have fought against the state, but cites it as a productive thing to do nonetheless. She also criticized the president for thing he has not said, namely about prison reform (abolition), fixing the education system, commitments against profiling, police abuse, etc.

In all, I thought it was a wonderful speech that I hope in the very least provided a new perspective for the SCSU and surrounding community. I think there are some meaningful things we could take from her speech, even if we don’t all agree with her personal ideology or scholarship.

Economic growth and tax rates. Tuesday, Mar 3 2009 

Professor King Banaian of the SCSU Economics Department has an interesting post on his blog, here. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has tables of value added taxes in effect in OECD countries. King’s contention is that if we go ahead with planned tax rate hikes that could possibly put our top marginal rate at 50%, we’d be near the same rates as Italy and France, which are ranked low for 1988-2007 average GDP growth rates. Do the tax rates have any bearing on OECD GDP growth rates averaged over the past 20 years? The data does not make a compelling case for this argument: data3

The x-axis represents the OECD rank in economic growth. If the tax rates decided the growth rate, the higher ranked countries (1, 2, 3, etc.) on the left would have the lowest tax rates, and the lower ranked countries (28, 27, 26, etc.) on the right would have the highest tax rates. That’s not the case. (Or is my analysis of the data incorrect?)

Update: And here’s the graph not made at 2 AM, with regression line. Unfortunately, I can’t get WordPress not to crop. Hmm..

Posting Sunday, Mar 1 2009 

Activity here might be a little slower in the coming days as Midterms come around the corner. 🙂