Let's settle once and for all if there is bias in the media? YES! Politicians have historically complained about it. John Adams even locked up editors who wrote stories he didn't like. But is it worse today than 30 or 40 years ago? Yes, again for a number of reasons.
Media bias is as old as this country. After the first printing press arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, newspapers started springing up. Mostly they were broadsheets, printed on front and back, with an assortment of news, gossip, ads and opinions. In 1729, Benjamin Franklin bought the Pennsylvania Gazette and peppered its pages with news, a few ads and opinions he inserted under aliases, like Poor Richard. Readers generally knew the political or philosophical leanings and often there were two or more papers from which you could choose. Their numbers started dwindling as printing and distribution costs, along with competition, made profitability difficult.
When I first entered the broadcast profession in the mid-1960s there was less bias. Since we in the U.S. believe the public owns the airways, stations were licensed and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. There were strict limits to the number of AM, FM and TV stations an entity could own, especially in a single market. We didn't want a concentration of media ownership. Part of the "contract" licensees assumed was the Fairness Doctrine, which said that if a broadcaster took a particular position on an issue, it must grant equal time to parties wishing to take opposing views.
President Reagan de-regulated broadcasting, increasing the numbers of stations that could be owned by a single entity. He then eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The Bush administration removed the barriers that prohibited a single owner from having two television stations in a market. Restrictions on the number of radio stations an owner could have in a market were virtually eliminated.
Back in the 60's news consisted of the "five w's and 1 h": who, what, when, where, why and how of a story. As Dragnet's Joe Friday used to say, "just the facts, ma'am." Opinions were relegated to on-air or print editorials.
News became a large profit center for broadcasters, as well as a lifeline for newspapers struggling to survive. And since Ted Turner turned on CNN in 1980, the 24 hour a day competition from cable outlets has become fierce. The fight to get more eyeballs and ears, thus more revenues, has tempted media sources to sometimes sensationalize that news.
Another big factor is fewer owners — mostly larger corporations — replacing local ownership. With fewer ownership voices there is less balance. Social media hasn't helped. It is a conflagration of opinions, some factual but mostly not, since there is little fact-checking or vetting. People can now self-select their news. Sadly, too many take what they receive on the Internet or cable as truth, even if it comes with a big helping of opinion.
Media bias is alive and well in North Carolina and the nation. What can be done about it? Media ownership needs to do the heavy lifting in restoring public trust. It begins with more vetting of stories, better editorial controls and a return to the 5 w's and 1 h.
But citizens also have a big role in removing bias. Every time you watch the news or read a publication you are voting. Your vote translates to more revenues for the media. By not watching or reading biased news sources you are sending a message. If enough stop reading or watching, revenues will dictate that the media either changes or goes out of business.
As Thomas Jefferson said, "An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight."
Do you want to get rid of bias?
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN
, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30pm, Sundays 12:30pm and UNC North Carolina Channel Fridays at 10:00pm, Saturdays at 4:00pm and Sundays at 10:00am
. Contact Tom at NC Spin.