The Media

 Philosophy  Comments Off on The Media
Feb 192017

Before I muse about the media these days let me start with a little rant on the word “media.” The word “media” is a Latin plural (singular: medium), yet everyone insists on using it in the singular.  WHY ????? Is there some sort of monolith I am unaware of? The media are obviously multiplex: newspapers, radio, internet, television etc. – not to mention the various social media. I know I am fighting a losing battle here, but you’ll always find me using “media” with a plural verb.

The media are themselves in the media a lot these days because of the mindless ranting about them by Trump. Trump labels the media as “dishonest” by which he means “they don’t like me.” This is certainly true. I don’t like him either. I don’t like much of what is reported in the media either, nor how it is reported. Most especially the media are being outrageously dishonest (or, more accurately, disingenuous) when they make the claim that they have a journalistic obligation to report the facts as if they (the media) are the arbiters of truth. Poppycock. They are selling their point of view – literally.

Newspapers (in the modern sense) have been around since the 17th century. Prior to that, single sheets with limited circulation passed some news around, but usually not to the general public and usually heavily censored. In 1695 Britain relaxed censorship laws, and newspapers began to flourish in Britain and the colonies. They also began proliferating in other parts of the world, but it was not until the early 19th century, when high speed, double-sided printing was possible, that newspapers became a daily household item, and the age of mass media truly began.

The sad fact is that newspapers typically generate 70% to 80% of their revenue from advertising and the remaining fraction from sales.  To sell advertising effectively a newspaper has to have a large circulation. What’s more, to appeal to advertisers a newspaper needs a target audience so that it can attract advertisers who appeal to that audience. In consequence a newspaper’s content is slanted to the target audience.

Bias inevitably exists in reportage with or without the pressures of advertising revenues. The most obvious bias is the choice of what, and what not, to report, followed by how much attention to give to a story if it is reported. You can put a story on the front page with a screaming headline or bury it in the middle with a headline in a small font. Tabloids are famous for blaring false information on their front pages, and then printing retractions, following the threat of a libel suit, in tiny print at the bottom of a middle page. The decision of what to print and how to print it, though, is independent of the truth of the information in question. It is still blatant bias.

The second most obvious bias is the way in which a story is reported. Two newspapers can give different headlines to the same story: TRUMP HOLDS RAMBLING PRESS CONFERENCE vs TRUMP HONEST IN PRESS CONFERENCE. The headline intentionally prejudices the reader’s frame of reference in reading the article. These headlines might then be followed by substantially the same information but contextualized rather differently.

The simple fact is that there is no way to report the news in a neutral fashion. What information to report and how to report it does not require overt interpretation to be biased. In a way this is what Trump is getting at with his current war on the media (with the exception of those who like him). He is right in this regard although I don’t exactly applaud him for stating the obvious. His real beef is that the media have by and large turned against him and he doesn’t like it. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t like it either. What he doesn’t understand, and never will understand, is that they all turned against him for a reason.