Disclosure Could Revolutionize The News Business
Today’s Troubled Media News Model Is Fixable
Why are the political affiliations of members of the news media not disclosed in an straightforward manner when their regular assignment is political reporting? As journalists, they routinely expect and demand transparency. So logically, why are they above this same level of personal scrutiny?
I’ve discussed this issue with people on all sides of the political spectrum. Most think my [later to be explained] solution is good, but unlikely. Those who disagree tend to not see the link between a good newsperson’s personal politics and the quality of their reporting. The inherent problem with this response is it’s ignoring a reporters working environment. If 90% of the news staff, from top down in the news organization is politically affiliated with same political organization, how can their work be fair and balanced? Essentially, the “because their professionals” answer is a nod for the current dysfunctional status quo. Importantly, this does not engender trust.
According to Gallup research, confidence in the media has declined from 70% in the late 1970’s to the low 30% range today. Respondents indicate that their #1 (47%) news source is TV with the internet/social media ranking a very distant #2 (26%). So, the credibility of TV news really matters. Their erosion in public trust isn’t healthy and appears to be best described as a two-sided standoff with no resolution in sight. Both sides have morphed into a media business model that addresses only their selected audience’s single-minded manipulated expectations.
I contend that the premise that Americans distrust the media is wrongly stated. Case in point: Do most right or left leaning audiences trust their primary media choice? They obviously do. Otherwise, why would the mainstream media ratings not be plummeting in line with the declining trend in perceived media trust? For me, this disconnect explains why we have not witnessed a wholesale public revolt about this issue. Americans trust their media choice; they just don’t trust the other side’s alleged truth tellers. This bifurcated media construct mirrors the far right/left tribal cohorts and unfortunately the division is widening. When we can’t agree on facts, how do we have a civil debate?
The traditional role of media is to provide a fair and balanced presentation of new or continuing events/issues to inform and educate their audience. The slow slide in media credibility can be traced to the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to remove the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This 1949 congressional act was created at the advent of the TV age and required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues in a fair, equitable and balanced manner. It also required contrasting viewpoints be aired. The Reagan administration based their decision to repeal it on government overreach pertaining to the First Amendment.
Roughly 15–20 years later, networks altered their business practice as it relates to political targeting. A few basics. If TV programming is to succeed, it always requires a detailed media plan targeting an intended audience profile. This allows advertisers to customize their media plans to effectively reach their targeted consumer. The demographic criteria all media sources and advertisers traditionally used to effectively develop a credible profile were age, income and race. This business model originated in the 1950’s, prior to the addition of the Internet, social media and Fox News.
Why is Fox News so important? The explosion of cable options is a 1990’s phenomenon that provided viewers of all ages many new choices. Sports (ESPN), business (CNBC) and kids (Disney) are examples of laser-targeted 24/7 programing. They don’t have an underlying political agenda. It’s all about presenting predictable and high quality product. So, targeting works.
Conversely, Fox News was founded in 1996 with an overt agenda — to provide conservative viewers with fair and balanced content. Their founder, Rupert Murdoch, strongly felt that the major mainstream media (i.e. ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN) were programming with a liberal agenda. The traditional media business model gradually shifted from targeting viewers using traditional demographics (i.e. age, gender, etc.) to include political ideology. Fox News entered the media mix with deep pockets and on an above the table political agenda. Fox’s entry had a profound impact on the entire industry.
Viewers don’t know to what degree political ideology drives the network’s current targeting strategy. But, we do know that the Fox network eclipsed both ABC and NBC in 2002. Their momentum continued and in 2005, they overtook CBS as well. They were the #1 American TV network. Meanwhile, primarily due to the success of past evening host Bill O’Reilly and now Sean Hannity, Fox’s news division was also the leader. As of October 2018, Adweek reports that Fox has been the leading cable news network for 28 consecutive months. It also beat CNN and MSNBC combined in total viewers for 202 months according to Nielsen Media Research.
I believe this competitive shift caused the mainstream networks to resort to an all out attack on Fox and, at the same time, dial up political dogma to lock-in their current viewers. This competitive strategy was especially essential in their lucrative news divisions. The more they dialed into the left, the more it worked and stabilized their market share losses. This dynamic eventually resulted in our current media divide. Both sides are locked into a no back down position.
According to a 2017 Gallup annual tracking survey, 36% considered themselves conservative and 25% liberal. The conservative response has remained unchanged over the 25 years since the survey began. The liberal response has increased from 17% in 1992. Fox’s firm lock on conservative viewers combined with the mainstream networks lack of credibility with the right makes their targeting decision straightforward. The more liberal based mainstream networks have no choice but to go after the liberal viewer. Do the math. A single network (Fox) targeting 36% of the audience compared to at least 6 networks targeting 25%. Those major mainstream players must revert to constant vitriol to have any chance of developing and retaining a loyal relationship with a piece of their slowly growing liberal audience.
The combined conservative and liberal audience makes up roughly 60% of viewers. So, who are the remaining 40%? This large audience is now aptly titled “the silent majority”. These are frustrated moderates that currently choose not to express themselves publically on political issues. The air is too toxic. They’re the polar opposite of the “noisy minority” who are far left and right fringe who are very angry, primarily view life through a political prism and are uncompromising regarding their viewpoints. I also believe they’re the group properly described as distrusting the media. These frustrated moderates represent an excellent target for a credible news source.
Regardless of which media option you watch, their staffing and recruitment practices are grounded in politics. That’s unfortunately how they all define themselves today. Do your own research on the both their on-air commentators and the “experts” they include on the panel discussions. They’re not balanced. They exemplify “groupthink”, which prizes only unity of thought versus spirited and objective debate. Many viewers have succumbed to their creation of, virtual groupthink in which they’re passive participants. They’re all guilty of the same behavior and, as long as their singular fixation on politics remains their defining competency, nothing will change. The unfortunate, but the often noted and implicit assumption is that we’ve become addicted to our own self-reinforced opinions.
So, is this fixable? Like most broken demand-supply situations, I’m optimistic that free market innovation will come to the rescue. The majority of viewers want balance. Maybe the solution will be the formation of a new division of one of the current networks, similar to NBC’s 1996 launch of MSNBC. Disney, the current owner of ABC and ESPN, could create a news division that would freely compete with their own media asset on the basis of creative destruction. For instance, Disney allows ESPN and ABC to freely compete in the sports market today. Or, more likely and more impactful, a wealthy philanthropic non-medium associated political moderate or corporation could do a Murdoch-like start-up creating a totally new format for news presentation. Mark Cuban comes to mind.
Imagine this. Your favorite Sunday morning TV news program adds a panel box in the right corner of the screen that provides viewers with disclosure information on the political affiliations of both the moderator and their panel of “experts”. Likewise, the person being interviewed is treated with the same scrutiny. All on-air participants would receive the same third party vetting. No one would be exempt. Currently, the only time the media practices a working example for this idea is for elected officials where their elected or aspirational title discloses their political bias.
Am I dreaming? Maybe, but it’s an idea with an applicable precedent. Let me provide an analogous aside. The 42% collapse of the internet-driven stock market in the early 2000’s resulted in a well-deserved credibility crisis. The investment industry rose to the opportunity to correct their loss of trust because they recognized their #1 asset was credibility, not advice. No one listens to someone’s advice if they don’t trust them. Significant changes were enacted requiring the full disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest that either their firm and/or family members had regarding the securities that they recommended and/or holding. Conflict misrepresentation is treated seriously. Penalties include losing their industry license to practice, as well, as criminal consequences. Most importantly, lost reputation is huge. And, they have been effectively enforced.
Imagine credible well-spoken on-air talent having their political leanings fully disclosed as they speak. If there were multiple speakers, full disclosure would require balance. This new media model would have a singular agenda, to provide a fair and balanced presentation. Also, their recruiting criteria would place a high importance on the job candidate’s formal debate expertise. Screaming down someone who is opposed to your views exemplifies bullying versus genuine debate. The network would present a real life model on how we should confront each other on contentious issues.
If the market reception to this new network were successful, today’s current media news players would likely morph into capable competition and the todays politically manipulative style would slowly become a bygone era. Politically based agendas using fact twisting and narratives built on false premises couldn’t survive if a credible news source was available to a large and fertile audience like the frustrated moderates.
The newspaper industry might follow this same approach if the TV news model proved successful. Currently, many papers use a form of disclosure in their Op-ed section. They provide the authors organization affiliation and career background, which in most cases, helps the reader to deduce the writers political leanings. It’s not great, but it’s a start. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times all have long time liberal reputations. Disclosure could dispel this perception if their staff writer’s political affiliation were disclosed. Likewise, radio networks with liberal reputations, like PBS, could also benefit from full disclosure.
As stated earlier, the investment industry smartly recognized their problem and successfully addressed it. Their professional standards are at an all-time high. Because it is much larger and diversified sector than the media news business, there is a reason to be hopeful.
There’s no doubt about the quality and size of the potential addressable viewing audience that would be attracted to a fair and balanced news product. As for the “noisy minority”, they will remain content with their current mainstream media options, which will likely fulfill the role of a dwindling televised tabloid version of the National Enquirer magazine. They prefer the current highly partisan single-sided tribal pile on.
I’m wishful for the return of professional journalism.
One last point, the education industry has a similar situation. Public school teacher unions almost always engender long held Democratic loyalty. Like the highly skewed newsroom discussed above, their objectivity has to be suspect in most social study curriculum. Ditto for postgraduate private and public colleges and universities. Friedich Nietzsche, a noteworthy German philosopher, correctly stated, “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently”. Today’s “snowflake” culture epitomizes the problem. A fertile subject for another day.
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