The first GOP debates of the 2016 election cycle aired about 12 hours ago (as of this writing) prompting much commentary, critique and Monday morning quarterbacking in the news and social media. Considering the FOX network’s moderating of the debate, and the recent retirement of Jon Stewart from his Daily Show comedy news program, I recall a shining moment of TV history that’s worth exploring.
In 2004 the CNN show “Crossfire” invited Stewart on the program. If you recall, Crossfire was a program hosted by a conservative and liberal commentator that would interview opposing guests in a head to head debate format. I recently re-watched the Stewart clip and was once again transfixed by his arguments calling the news media to account for their sins. He was right then and he’s still right.
The problem left unaddressed by Stewart, however, is the systemic bias inherent in today’s news media. The underlying political economy of cable news (and all screen-based news today) since the dismantling of The Fairness Doctrine in 1987 has been driven by one factor: The Audience Commodity.
This sleepy media theory became a significant piece of my graduate school research and has been recast in the era of online media and big data. The premise is simple: Commercial media commodifies audience member attention (viewing) into units of value that are sold to advertisers. Concurrent with the end of The Fairness Doctrine was the increasing commercialization of cable television (away from merely subscriber-paid content). Broadcasters eventually discovered that partisan political commentary could drive more viewership than balanced news and commentary as stipulated under the old FCC regulatory fairness regime. More viewership meant more profits.
Back before the repeal of The Fairness Doctrine, the broadcasting industry lobbied heavily for years for its removal, seeing it as a burden to good journalism by being compelled to grant equal time for every opposing viewpoint. They even enlisted storied news anchor, Walter Cronkite to testify before congress:
It is only natural that station management should become timid, and newsmen should sidestep controversial subjects rather than face the annoyance of such criticism. – Walter Cronkite
While the news media industry had a strong journalistic argument in the 1960s and 70s, they failed to envision the effects of complete removal of the regulation coupled with a commercial basis for journalism. While news broadcasters are now truly free from the burden of special interests, they carry the heavier burden of shareholder profitability underneath the structures of large media conglomeration.
What Stewart missed in 2004 is this systemic and largely unseen bias of commercial media—a bias toward news programming that drives the most profits. It’s the same economics that drives the junk food and fast food industry in an age of epidemic obesity. People like it—love it, even if it’s slowly killing them. Partisan news commentary clearly drives ratings.
Journalism at it’s best, works squarely against this commodification to bring the audience the nutrients and vitamins that people need in their media diet. The trouble is, this drives no profits in the commercial media environment.
Stewart’s overall commentary is dead on with regard to the biasing effects of present system:
It’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America. – Jon Stewart
We need journalism that makes us eat our vegetables. We need a reformed fairness doctrine that promotes a healthy media diet and produces a positive political discourse and citizenry, and we need a motivation for balanced journalism that either enhances profitability or operates apart from the overarching profit element. There’s no easy fix, but this is a troubling and persistent problem we need to tackle.
We face enormous challenges as a nation, but our current media conditioning is not unlike an overweight and sedentary couch potato trying to run a marathon. It won’t end well.