Media Manipulation and American Politics
The proposition that the media has values that are democratic or close to democratic is highly dubious. There are a few major sources of news worldwide, and even “new media” as an alternative source of information usually leads to the same, elite and mainstream sources. The concentration of media power is inherently oligarchic, and its effect on political values is to continually promote a socially liberal agenda. This agenda deals with major areas of impact such as health care, race relations and gay rights. At least, these are the main areas of personal political identity are clearly seen.
In 1980, roughly 50 companies were in control of at least 90% of American media sources. Recently, it is down to 6. These are, as of December of 2011: General Electric, NewsCorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS. Thus, American media are oligarchic and show a definite trend to concentrate power and profit through the economies of scale. They are known collectively as the “Big Six.” Socially speaking, these firms are overwhelmingly liberal on most of the domestic and “lifestyle” issues (McChesney, 2011 and Heidman, 2011).
Concerning the Gay Rights agenda, to use one example, mass media support is overwhelming. In Philbin and Wilson (2012), the pro-gay slant of nearly all major networks is chronicled in detail. From August 1 to August 30 of 2012, all media stories from the three big television networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, were analyzed. In total, the pro-gay slant in these stories,, whether print or television, was about 4-1 or 65-18 out of 213 stories about the issue. The remainder were neutral. There were 65 pro-gay stories with 18 slanted with a anti-gay marriage bias (Philbin and Wilson, 2012).
The results are predictable, public perception of homosexuality has changed rapidly. In a 2012 Gallup poll, Most Americans estimate that about “25%” of America is homosexual. Of course, the correct answer is 3.5%. This strongly suggests that it is the result of bias and/or saturation coverage (ibid).
The National Cultural Values Survey was created by the Public relations firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates and was done in December of 2006. The company gathered data from 2,000 American adults, with 1,000 each from telephone interviews and the web. All told, about 68% believed that the American media is harming moral values with about 73% narrowing it to Entertainment media. Only 11% believed that the news media had a positive impact on values (MRC, 2007).
In addition, the study discovered that “the more a person watches television, the less likely he will be to accept responsibility for his own life and for his obligations to the people around him” and even more “The more a person watches television, the less committed he is to classical virtues such as honesty, reliability, and fairness.” Heavy viewers of television are more permissive on issues of sexual morality. Only 26% of heavy television watchers state that promiscuity is always wrong, while 32% of Americans of all kinds say it is morally wrong (ibid).
The point is that Americans see the media as creating this kind of attitude, and it is mildly confirmed by the results (with a 2% margin or error) for television watchers. Thus, the media does have an impact, most people agree, and that the impact is negative (ibid). That moral ideas are presented in a skewed way means that personal identity and priorities, politically speaking, are harmed greatly. False information or misleading phrasing can distort the consciousness of a citizenry quite rapidly.
Among elite media, fully 81% of professionals favor affirmative action in employment and academia. Even more between 90 and 97 percent of news media professionals have consistently deemed themselves pro-choice on the matter of abortion while Between 67 and 76 percent were opposed to prayer being permitted in public schools (Lichter, 1990). Thus, the bias in media presentations is fairly clear and well documented.
In Matthew Heidman’s (2011) book The Myth of Digital Democracy, the relation between the principles of the media and its impact on how individuals see politics and themselves is shown to be consistent with the above. One of the main findings of his book is that most “new media” news searches end up on one of the “Big Six” networks. Thus, concentrated ownership leads to the replication of oligarchy even when the medium changes. Hence, the hype attributed to the “diversity” from New Media is mythical (Hindman, 2011: 69). This is because the major conglomerates have bought their way to the top of the search engine heap. Everything from Facebook posts to search engine analysis, the American consumer goes to the Big Six regardless of the medium (Heidman, 2011: 79-80).
In 1992, the Rodney King incident was broadcast literally thousands of times on all major networks and repeated in all print papers. The Big Six edited the footage of the police beating king to only that point where the huge, muscular King is being clobbered by police. However, prior to that, he was violent, aggressive and totally immune to taser shots. This is because he was on PCP, a view only rarely seen in the media. Hence, by cutting out the earlier scenes of the confrontation between police and King, the entire reality of that night was skewed and manipulated (Puttington, 1998).
This footage, and only that, was broadcast beyond saturation levels. The result was an outrages black population thinking that King had been beaten for no good reason. Of course, having seen the initial confrontation, their views could only have changed. Even in the recent Ferguson shooting case, Brown’s size at 6’4” was rarely mentioned and the fact that officer Wilson had his eye punched out by the experienced fighter was censored altogether (for an example of incredible bias, cf Shoichet, 2014).
In both cases, the resultant violence is the direct result of media manipulation. Court testimony of black police at the scene in 1992 was blacked out. When Stacy Koon, one of the officers indicted because of King, released his version of events, Presumed Guilty, no mainstream publisher would touch it. It was practically a guaranteed best seller, but due to this pervasive bias bordering on the comic, it was only published by the conservative Regency-Gateway press and forgotten (Puttington, 1998).
Hence, in 1992, press coverage began with a deliberate manipulation of the video tape showing King’s arrest. Court testimony, including by black officers at the scene (but not n the video) were not mentioned at all. References to PCP, his massive strength and violence towards police were not mentioned. Similarity in the Brown case in Missouri, the constant drumbeat of “unarmed black male” depicted as a younger child and not as a violent thug, crated the rioting that, as of this writing, continues to go on. This is the direct result of the manipulation of the facts. To this day, it is extremely rare to find one that even knows the police point of view (Puttington, 1998 and Flaherty, 2012).
In the Trayvon martin case in 2013, The Today Show admitted to deliberately altering the voice recording of George Zimmerman, who was called “white”exclusively by the press when, in fact, he is Hispanic (Khuner, 2013). The doctored tape was heard to say: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” However, once the manipulation was finally revealed and the media discredited, the actual recording was: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” Dispatcher: “OK, and this guy–is he black, white or Hispanic?” Zimmerman: “He looks black.”
This is proof of the deliberate media creation of a story that never happened (Khuner, 2013). It was deliberately a means to inflame black opinion against whites. Zimmerman was not white. The tape of his voice was doctored, and yet, even with that, Trayvon Martin was seen overwhelmingly as innocent and Zimmerman as both “white” and “racist” (Hooks, 2013). The media completely destroyed the factual absorption of the situations depicted here in favor of sensationalism and the creation of a riot that did not need to happen in 1992, 2013 and 2014.
The impact of media bias and its collective effect on political consciousness and identity is negative. In Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (2009), the media’s role in the standardization and “dumbing down” of Americans on political issues is analyzed in depth. In a key passage, he writes:
Intellectuals can and should debate the best and worst books and ideas and personages, and they will scramble to affect policies in formation, but what upholds the entire activity resides beyond their circles. It grows on top of public sentiment, a widespread conviction that knowledge is as fundamental as individual freedoms. . . Laypersons, especially the young ones, must get the message: if you ignore the traditions that ground and ennoble our society, you are an incomplete person and a negligent citizen. This knowledge principle forms part of the democratic faith, and it survives only as long as a fair portion of the American people embraces it, not just intellectuals and experts (Bauerlein, 2009: 101).
The media bring issues and events to the public in two main ways. First, a consistent and focused approach in articles and other publications of a particular political issue. The second method is the fragmentary presentation of information, and is particularly prevalent on TV. It creates a number of difficulties for citizens and voters, since the fragmentation of information gives the appearance of versatility and efficiency among reporters. Only the consistent form of reporting and analysis provides any in depth focus. Fragmented media treatments provide s additional possibilities to manipulate the audience, focusing her attention on some aspects of the event and keeping silent or obscuring others (Lichter, 1990).
The power of the media is immense. Few deny this. It can be used to support the good, or it can be used to manipulate the public. The media should give the authorities public feedback as well as give the people information about the authorities. Making state action public, the chances for state violence against the citizens diminishes. However, in the case of Rodney King, the opposite was the case. The state seemed to be using violence illegitimately. Had the public, or even black America, been shown the entire tape, the possibility of mob violence would have clearly gone down.
Information, education and socialization are the three activities that allow the media to function as a critical voice. Their control function is based on the authority of public opinion, something that the state largely cannot do. Media can alter public opinion, states often cannot, or cannot as effectively. Media control is often used in a normative rather than a merely informational way. Media not only provides legal, but also moral judgment, concerning parties or events in a democratic society. In the implementation of their control function is to reflect, rather than create public opinion (Chomsky, 2011a).
Media power in the shaping of political, identities can be reduced to several important variables. First, the concept of agenda setting. Media elites seek out what they believe to be attractive or popular themes for the citizens. In accordance with this principle, most media reports concerning such issues as peace and war, crime, government action in major issues, or environmental disasters.
Second is that agenda setting does not exist on its own. The issues involved must have some idiosyncratic aspects that make it stand out and grab the attention of citizens. This means that themes of crisis: famine, war, extremely violent crimes, race and many others create a false picture of society. Due to this phenomenon, the media’s penchant to negative information and sensational facts. Sometimes this includes the ability to draw the attention of the population to messages not yet received mainstream treatment. This may be the most recent data on economic development, the number of unemployed, new political movements and their leaders, and so on.
Finally, the high social status of the characters involved is significant. The higher the status of the personage, the greater the presumed power of the person or institution. In virtue of this rule, the most prominent media targets are persons occupying the top places in the political, military, church or other hierarchies (for a general analysis of this, see Chomsky, 2011).
The media have their own goals that often at odds with the needs of society. The role of the media in politics is related to their influence on the various stages of the socialization process and the parties, factions and movements in the community. Noam Chomsky writes:
The goal is to undermine markets by creating uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices and the business world spends huge efforts on that. The same is true when the same industry, the PR industry, turns to undermining democracy. It wants to construct elections in which uninformed voters will make irrational choices. It’s pretty reasonable and it’s so evident you can hardly miss it. (Chomsky, 2011a)
This quote wraps this all together. Bias is the result of ownership structure, and this bias is what corresponds to the needs of this elite, not the public. Having important information means to have a great deal of power. Most importantly, it is prefaced on the ability to distinguish the important from the unimportant. This means that the media cannot reflect public opinion in that they decide what issues are important. Deciding the issues that might generate a certain opinion among voters is far more significant a power than just manipulating information. Modern media conglomerates do both.
The immediate possession of such norm-setting and issue-setting power is unfortunately the prerogative of the media. They not only collect information provided by news agencies and their own reporters, but they themselves produce it while at the same time perform as commentators as well as distributors.
Chomsky, N (April 2011a) The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival. Lecture at the The University of Toronto
Chomsky, N (2011) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Doubleday.
Philbin, M and P Wilson (2012) Civil Union: Networks Promoting Gay Agenda: MRC Culture Edition
Hindman, Matthew (2011) The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton University Press
McChesney, M (2009). Understanding the Media Reform Movement. Journal of Communication, 3: 47-53
The Media Assault on American Values. This Culture and Media Institute Special Report, 2007
Lichter, Robert (1990) The Media Elite: America’s New Power Brokers. Hastings House, 1990
Hooks, N (August 1, 2013) George Zimmerman, Media Bias and the Facts. Silver City Sun News
Khuner, J (July 12 2013) The Media Lynching of George Zimmerman. Washington Times
Flaherty, Colin (2012) “White Girl Bleed a Lot” The Return of Racial Violence and How the Media Ignore It. Independent Publishing Platform
Maxson, Cheryl, Karen Hennigan and David C. Sloane (2003) Factors That Influence Public Opinion of the Police. US Department of Justice: National Institute of Justice
Puttington, A. (1998) Looking for Brutality in all the Wrong Places. Weekly Standard.
Shoichet, C (August 13, 2014) Missouri teen shot by police was two days away from starting college. CNN