Bashing the media


If there is one subject on which America is not divided, it’s the media. Whether it’s politics or sports. Whether someone is for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders. No matter what the subject. The consensus is the media are the bad guys.

I guess it’s self-serving for me to defend the media. I have no exaggerated feelings about the impact of a columnist for a weekly newspaper. You shouldn’t either. My livelihood does not depend upon my writing this column. Rather than having an axe to grind, if I have a bias in favor of the media, it’s more the size of a penknife with an exceedingly dull edge. So here goes.

In a sense, the term “media” is a terribly inexact noun to describe the myriad sources of information available to the public today. From the South Philly Review to the New York Times and the blogs on the Internet, from WPHL-17 to Fox News and CNN to the major television networks, there are far too many differences to paint the media with the same broad brush. Gone are the days when there were multiple print media outlets in many towns and cities. Even the number of independently owned radio and TV outlets has shrunk. The influence once enjoyed by the news anchors of the three major networks has all but disappeared with the rise of 24-hour cable news. At one time, network news operated independently of the entertainment division. No longer. The need for network news to make a profit has affected the coverage of news in a profound way, most, if not all, of it negative. Once a major influence on public opinion, many magazines are no longer even in business.

The Federal Communications Commission no longer operates under a “Fairness Doctrine” requiring a radio or TV station to air both sides of an issue. The public can now get its news and information almost entirely with just one point of view. Conservatives who long complained about media bias (and still do) now have Fox News and numerous talk radio stations. Liberals have not fared as well in the competitive environment, but do have MSNBC. Many folks live in a bubble where they have only their own views reinforced. When the public is exposed to other viewpoints, many of them complain about the lack of perceived fairness. People, to a large extent, have been conditioned to hearing and seeing only what corroborates their own view of the world.

I have learned that, in my own case, readers often don’t distinguish between opinion pieces and objective news stories. They complain that this column reflects only one point of view, which is true. The point of view expressed in the column is my own and only my own. You may or may not agree with that point of view, but neither I nor my newspaper makes any claim that the viewpoint is anything but my own.

Expecting one’s own point of view always to be reinforced and confusing the role of a columnist with that of an objective reporter are a couple of the reasons for the constant media bashing. The current political campaign may elevate media bashing to the status of an Olympic sport. You can hardly get through one of Trump’s speeches without him taking off after the media. Most of the media are “dishonest,” he charges. Trump’s test for media dishonesty seems to be whether he is asked a tough question from a reporter. Indeed, Trump goes so far as to complain that the TV cameras refuse to show the size of his crowd (or maybe the size of his hands). Ironically, he would not have come close to winning the Republican nomination without extensive media coverage. Because of the free coverage, he didn’t have to spend much money on TV ads. The other 16 Republican hopefuls for the presidential nomination were bitter about the way they had difficulty getting their message heard. But Trump isn’t the only political candidate to use the media as a scapegoat.

Sanders complained long and loud that the media was biased toward Hillary Clinton. Some supporters railed against the “corporate” media, such as the New York Times and Washington Post. That didn’t stop some Clinton supporters from complaining that Hillary got too much media scrutiny.

This is not to say that there isn’t some truth in all of these claims. Trump did get an inordinate amount of coverage, but that’s because he was more adept at drawing viewers. Without him, the viewership for the Republican debates would’ve been lower than that of reruns of “Law & Order.” Sanders didn’t get much coverage early on because he wasn’t viewed as a serious contender. But once he began to draw large crowds, the coverage was there. Most of it positive. Clinton did get tougher coverage, but it was largely because she entered the race with a controversial track record formed over more than 20 years in the spotlight.

Why should anyone be concerned about the media getting slammed? Why should we indulge the media’s thin skin? Because those who insist that the media regurgitate only their own viewpoint diminish the media’s own credibility. When they diminish the media’s credibility, they allow a Donald Trump to revoke the credentials of the Washington Post to cover his appearances. In effect, we make possible the loss of a free press.

That’s why. ■