How the Media Got That Way
For the Los Angeles Times, Ken’s review of the books The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of American Communications, by Paul Starr, and All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information Into News, by James T. Hamilton
BY KEN AULETTA
Neither Comcast and Disney, nor Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and DirecTV, nor AOL and Time Warner -- nor many of the recent media mergers that have flattened the media landscape -- play featured roles in Paul Starr's "The Creation of the Media" or James Hamilton's "All the News That's Fit to Sell." Yet each book provides a context to better understand the mania to merge. To proponents of these unions, an unfettered free marketplace assures competition, just as government regulations strangle progress. To opponents, these companies are merely masking their true intent, which is to take the risk out of capitalism by eliminating competition.
But these two books demonstrate that U.S. media have had two powerful and largely silent partners, first government and now advertisers. Starr, a Princeton sociologist who won a Pulitzer Prize two decades ago for his history of the medical profession ("The Social Transformation of American Medicine"), goes back centuries to the origins of the media in America. In the early days of the republic, media entrepreneurs were not independent of postal subsidies or government printing contracts, which were essential to shaping a free press. By investing in a more democratic public education system, the United States produced the world's most broadly educated, most affluent consumer market -- first for newspapers, then for books, magazines, telegraph, telephone, radio, film, television and the Internet. By rejecting Alexander Graham Bell's monopoly patent claims and by insisting on a competitive marketplace, U.S. courts and government regulators spurred investment in what by the early 20th century became the world's foremost telephone system. After the sinking of the Titanic, the federal government regulated the airwaves to assure that wireless communications were free of interference and to license the spectrum, which led to the Radio Act of 1912 and the birth of a competitive radio industry. And when a free radio marketplace became anarchic, the Radio Act of 1927 affirmed public ownership of the airwaves and enshrined the principle that in return for borrowing the public airwaves, licensees had "public trust" obligations. This legislation would, two decades later, serve to regulate broadcast television when the federal government compelled NBC in 1941 to divest a second network, giving rise to a third, ABC.
Hamilton, who teaches public policy at Duke University, focuses on television's silent partner, advertisers, and reveals with sometimes stupefying charts how the desperate hunt for the female and younger viewers coveted by advertisers has transformed, and cheapened, television news. The thesis of his book is that softer news -- more entertainment, more personalities, more sports, health news, music, graphics, human-interest stories like Michael Jackson or Martha Stewart -- are what younger and female viewers want. And since broadcast television has but one source of income, advertising, and since advertisers crave younger eyeballs and will pay more to reach them, news executives are lashed to deliver improved demographic and thus sales numbers.
Despite an annoying tendency to invoke in mantra-like fashion such phrases as "constitutive choices" (meaning constitutional choices), Starr's volume is more clearly written and more sweeping in its ambition. His thesis is that U.S. media's "hybrid of capitalism and democracy" -- more libertarian and entrepreneurial than government-supported telegraph, telephone or television monopolies in Europe, yet ever willing to assert a national interest -- was nurtured by our peculiar history. A free press was vital in the fight for independence from England and came to be seen as a bulwark against abusers of power, a protection encoded in the 1st Amendment. Suspicion of concentrated power provoked antitrust laws. A democratic aversion to Europe's tiered class structure generated support for public education and colleges. U.S. communication ventures were more innovative because government policy encouraged competition. By contrast, state ownership of the telegraph, telephone and much of broadcasting retarded their development in England, and the Soviet government, fearful that its citizens would talk to each other, invested not in new telephone networks but in another new one-way technology: loudspeakers.
Like teenagers, we tend to think no one has ever endured our experiences. No other era has ever had such rapid technological change, we say. Imagine: The PC and the fax did not exist before 1981, and only in the last decade have the Internet and cellphones burst on the scene. Yet as Starr casually notes, after its introduction in the early 1920s it took radio only two decades to overtake newspapers as the primary source of news for Americans, and by 1941 81% of U.S. homes had one. And as much influence as the Internet has had, only dot-com true believers would claim that it has jolted the way Americans live more than the telephone or television did.
History, including media history, does often repeat itself. Fox News, where partisan opinions often bleed into news coverage, alarms many journalists (as does the new Al Franken-supported "liberal" radio network that debuted March 31) who fear we are moving toward a European press model of media outlets identified with a party or ideology. Yet for their first 100 years, U.S. newspapers were usually narrowly focused mouthpieces for political parties. It wasn't until after the Civil War, when people clustered in cities and advertising became a second source of revenue for newspapers, that newspapers were liberated to chase a mass audience. The New Journalism we think of as a relatively modern invention by people who still practice their craft -- Lillian Ross, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese -- was actually a phrase coined in 1887 by Matthew Arnold, who denounced its too-personal tone, its push for more narrative writing.
Starr's panoramic media history abruptly ends in December 1941, which is a pity, since he does not analyze the rise of network and cable and direct broadcast satellite television, nor the PC and Internet and digital revolutions, nor the convergence of technologies, all of which have triggered a merger mania that has massed media power in fewer vertically integrated media companies and has provoked cries for government to intervene. While these media giants grow larger -- and this is a media paradox of our age that cries for Starr's cool intelligence -- they are menaced by technologies like the Internet that empower citizens to escape the clutches of both media gatekeepers and governments.
On the last page of his book, Starr predicts that history will repeat itself, that the American media will continue to seesaw between private ownership and government regulation. In a sense, Hamilton's book picks up where Starr's leaves off. His focus is on information and news, and he inspects the underside of the media competition that Starr's abstract model would see as a sign of robust health. Although there is more competition in television news -- local news has expanded and often carries stories before ABC, NBC and CBS networks do, and CNN has been joined by Fox, MSNBC, CNBC and CSPAN 1, 2 and 3, among others -- Hamilton proclaims "the death of hard news."
Hamilton shows that the old romantic notion of news, captured so eloquently by former CBS News President Richard Salant in a 1976 preface to the CBS News guidelines, is by now a relic. Salant wrote: "To the extent that radio and television are mass media of entertainment, it is entirely proper to give most of the people what most of them want most of the time. But we in broadcast journalism cannot, should not, and will not base our judgments on what we think viewers and listeners are 'most interested' in, or hinge our news judgment and our news treatment on our guesses as to what news the people want to hear or see...."
We spend too much time debating whether the media has a "liberal" or a "conservative" bias. Not that these are not important questions. They are. But Hamilton emphasizes a much more profound media bias, an economic bias coarsened by media mergers that usually place in charge of these companies managers who quantify news success by measures they can grasp -- ratings, circulation, profit margins and stock price. As pressures on news divisions to earn a profit intensified, and as the increasing variety of news choices pushed executives to shout louder to attract an audience, among the victims were news stories of an international, governmental or cerebral bent. News executives became terrified of boring their viewers, a reason sound bites got shorter.
"The market-driven nature of reporting," Hamilton writes, "leads to simple rules of thumb: Cover the horse race in politics; focus on the human impact of government policies; treat bad news more often than good news; and talk to your targeted audience." The usual five Ws for reporters -- Who, What, When, Where and Why -- were replaced, he says, by another five Ws from news executives who double as marketing executives: "Who cares about a particular piece of information? What are they willing to pay to find it? Where can media outlets or advertisers reach these people? When is it profitable to provide the information? Why is this profitable?" When executives ask these questions, news aims not to satisfy its "average" core 50-plus, mostly male audience but to chase after what Hamilton calls "marginal" younger and female viewers who don't regularly tune in. Using a variety of surveys and statistical charts of who watches what and how the news menu has been altered, Hamilton doesn't just assert the change; he proves it. (Had he surveyed most news magazines and newspapers, he could have made a comparable case.)
Hamilton does not demonize news/marketing executives. He demonstrates that younger audiences prefer sports to international news, health and lifestyle to government news, more conflict and less exposition. The bottom line is that news brims with conflict and the adversarial pose that substitutes for hard information. One now hears the same complaint from the Bush White House as from Nation magazine, that the media too often play a game of "Gotcha!" rather than honestly searching for information, and that this game is driven by a desperate hunt for ratings and circulation, which are synonyms for profits. The Bush White House would not call it a market-driven bias, for this might suggest socialist tendencies, but the diagnosis of what ails news has, at least in part, achieved a surprising consensus.
Of course, the consensus collapses over what to do about this. When one combines the Starr and Hamilton books, some partial answers do emerge. Pending before the federal courts and the executive and legislative branches are momentous questions regarding media ownership rules. How big should media companies be allowed to get before they are seen as violating the original Broadcast Act? It held that not only did broadcast licensees have a responsibility to advance the public interest but that government must strive to assure diversity of voices and local ownership. Since government intervention has sometimes been essential to assure competition and innovation, this suggests that when the largest cable company (Comcast) bids to acquire the second-largest media company (Disney), government has a legitimate stake in ascertaining that a victorious Comcast would not have too much market power, act as a gatekeeper and favor its own content with better channel positions, deny a channel slot to competitors or reduce both diversity and localism.
And since market-driven news dominates, an argument can be advanced to increase public subsidies for such news outlets as National Public Radio and PBS. This might assure that "hard news" could be more widely disseminated. It might also put peer pressure on journalists to reach higher. Perhaps some journalists will have to figuratively throw their bodies on the tracks to shame their bosses. Hamilton makes other suggestions in his book, including increasing postal subsidies for newspapers and magazines or decreasing the cost of news gathering by releasing more government information and documents. The larger point, however, is that an honest government referee is needed to clarify and enforce the rules of the game.
Even with the referee, however, journalists will have to learn to bridge the cultural divide between us and the people who sign our checks. The pressure from the top of these media giants is to push "synergy." Media moguls see "synergy" when the company's local news or network morning or magazine shows promote their entertainment division stars or shows. Journalists see this as "shilling." It is in their nature for business executives to extol elevated profit margins and stock prices, to promote "teamwork" and build durable "brands." Journalists, on the other hand, often think cost-cutting comes at the expense of news coverage, that journalism is not about "teamwork" but independence, and that a journalistic "brand" is not possible unless there is "credibility," which comes only from good, independent and often expensive journalism to support more bureaus in more cities and more painstaking investigative reporting.
This leaves journalists with a couple of challenges. The first is to learn a common language so that we might, gently, educate our naive bosses about journalism's unavoidable inefficiencies -- waiting for sources to return calls, making airport connections, finding second sources, arranging interviews and digging through documents. The second is for journalists who embrace the romantic notion that ours is a profession that citizens in a democracy rely on, to act more professionally and insist that journalism is not an instrument to sell advertising.