By Thom Hartmann
The media recently was all over Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib for calling Donald Trump a “m@therf*cker” in the context of wanting to impeach him. It got lots and lots of coverage, over a period of several days, while the really big work the Democrats were doing in the House is largely ignored, along with most other consequential issues of the day.
Ever since the media began, in a big way in the 1980s, to ignore actual news and go for highly dumbed-down or even salacious stories, many of us who work in the media have been astonished by this behavior by the network and cable news organizations and the major newspapers.
They used to report the details of policy proposals in great detail (see this report from the 1970s about Richard Nixon’s proposal for universal health care, comparing his with Ted Kennedy’s, for example). But since the Reagan era, the networks have largely kept their coverage exclusively to personality, scandal, and horse race.
Why would that be? Why, since the late 1980s, has the “news” lost any semblance of actual news and detail, and degenerated into a cleaned-up version of the National Enquirer?
For example, on January 3, the House of Representatives passed one of the most sweeping political reform bills since the Nixon era, including automatic voter registration, 15 days of nationwide early voting, and an end to gerrymandering. Not to mention a totally revolutionary code of ethics for the Supreme Court.
But was there any coverage of these details—or even of the bill itself—in the media? Even though there’s no way it would pass the Senate, it’s worthy of discussion and debate.
This is just one example of dozens of events that happen every day and are completely ignored by the media in favor of “who’s up and who’s down” horse-race reporting, and gotcha or scandal coverage.
Watch a few hours of national cable TV media, and—outside of a very few shows—odds are you won’t hear any detail of actual policy whatsoever. Every issue is instead framed in the horse-race format of “who’s going to win this fight”— leaving Americans uninformed about the consequences to themselves of the issues being fought over.
But the networks love scandal and conflict. So, to get issues on TV, maybe it’s time to make them obscene.
Imagine if the Democratic Party were to enlist a dozen or so members of Congress to go on national TV and say things like:
- “We’re going to stop that m@therf*cker Brian Kemp from blocking any more black people from registering to vote in Georgia!”
- “Those Republicans who are blocking early voting in Indiana are in for an ass-kicking!”
- “No more gerrymandering by those ratf*ckers!”
Alas, it’s just a dream.
Even if the Democrats did this, the only dimension of it that would get covered would be how much political damage (or benefit) the profanity may be doing to the politicians who are the source or butt of it, as happened with Representative Tlaib. In other words, they’d turn the issues aside and focus on the personalities and the horse race.
Which brings us back to the media refusing to actually discuss or inform the American public about actual issues.
Why would it be this way in 2019, when there’s such a demonstrable thirst for issues-based discussions, as we can see with the ratings of the few top cable network shows that actually do discuss issues and don’t spend half their hour with a “panel”?
Trying to figure out why this is, I’ve come up with four possible reasons (none of which are mutually exclusive; it may be all or a combination of them). Let me know on Twitter or call into my show if you have additions to the list.
1. The End of the Fairness Doctrine
In 1987, Ronald Reagan ordered his FCC to cease enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. This much-misunderstood regulation required radio and TV stations, in order to keep their licenses, to “pay” for their use of the public airwaves (the property of We the People) with actual news. It was called “broadcasting in the public interest.”
Because of the Fairness Doctrine, every one of the networks actually lost money on their news divisions, and those divisions operated entirely separately from the entertainment programming divisions of the networks.
CBS, ABC, and NBC had bureaus all around the world and employed an army of reporters. At the little radio station where I worked in Lansing, Michigan, in the 1970s (WITL), we had, as I recall, five people staffing the newsroom, and it was a firing offense if we were caught hanging out with the sales staff. While stations lost money on news, the payoff was the much larger sums they could earn with entertainment during the rest of the hour or day.
The Fairness Doctrine also encouraged a discussion of the issues of the day with the “balanced commentary” (probably not the official name; it’s what we called it in the ’70s) requirement. This did not say that if a station carried an hour of Limbaugh, they’d have to balance it with an hour of Hartmann. “Entertainment” programming (see Joe Pyne, William F. Buckley, etc., etc.) could have any tilt it wanted.
But when a station ran an editorial on the air that conveyed the opinion of the station’s owners, they then had to allow a member of the community to come on the air and present a balancing and different perspective. If this provision was still in the regulations, every time Sinclair Broadcast Group requires their local stations to air their “must-carry” right-wing editorials, they’d have to follow them with a left-wing perspective rebutting their points.
2. The Rise of “Reality TV”
Reality TV grew out of the twin writers’ strikes of 1988 and 2001. In each case, the networks had to figure out a way to offer compelling programming with shows that didn’t require union writers. In 1988, they mostly did documentaries on policing like “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted”; in 2001 they rolled out the full-blown reality programming we know today, starting with “Survivor.”
The networks learned two big lessons from this. The first was that “reality” programming actually pulled an audience, and thus was profitable. Extremely profitable, in that it didn’t require union writers and generally didn’t even require union actors.
The second was that it was incredibly cheap to produce.
If you tuned into TV prior to the Reaganification of the news, you may still have heard “experts” discussing things, but there were several differences. First, they were usually actual experts on actual issues that were before Congress. Second, they were a very, very small part of the overall program.
In the years since the rise of reality TV, the news networks have discovered that it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to have four or five or six “pundits” join a host for an hour and “discuss” the issues of the day than it is to pay for actual salaried reporters and news bureaus around the nation and the world.
So every hour, at least on the low-budget or weak-talent shows (notice what a contrast the Maddow show is to this truism), plan on hearing a half-dozen very, very familiar talking heads discussing ad nauseam the same four or five stories all day long. (One wonders why the networks don’t encourage their talent to do more of the kind of in-depth reporting and analysis found on Rachel’s show, particularly since it’s profitable and draws killer ratings. Perhaps the answer is found in reasons three and four.)
Guests like you see on the panels that fill daytime news programming start out working for free, and if they become an “analyst,” “contributor” or some other title for the network are paid between $500 and $2,500 an appearance. In a world where on-air personalities often start with seven-figure salaries, this is incredibly cheap programming.
Even cheaper for the networks is to have politicians on as guests—they show up for free!—which may be why they’re almost never held to account in any serious way. After all, if you piss off a politician on your network and they refuse to ever come back on the air, you’ve lost another bit of “free” talent. And if you piss off an entire political party, and your programming model doesn’t work without “balance,” you’re really screwed.
There’s a reason people all over America are screaming at their TVs every Sunday morning: the majority of guests are conservatives or Republicans, and much of what they offer as “fact” or “opinion” is merely lies and propaganda. Which leads us to number three.
3. Media Corporations Are Corporations, Too
It’s easy to postulate that the absolute lack of coverage of the death, at GOP hands, of net neutrality is because two of the big three cable TV networks are (or soon will be) owned by internet service providers (NBC/MSNBC is owned by Comcast, AT&T is trying to buy CNN), and other big corporations see all sorts of financial advantage if they can use their financial and programming muscle to dominate a newly sliced-and-diced corporatized internet.
Consider: When was the last time you heard an intelligent discussion on TV about taxing the rich? Or holding corporations accountable when they break the law? Or how destructive oligopolies and monopolies are to workers? Or how big pharma scams us about their R&D expenses and price fixing, buying up generic companies, etc.? The list could go on for pages.
Back in the day, the big joke in corporate America was, “You know it’s going to be a bad day when you get to work in the morning and there’s a ‘60 Minutes’ news truck outside the building.” The last time this was seriously considered was in the late 1980s, as in this article about “60 Minutes” doing an exposé of the meat industry. Now, not so much.
The simple fact is that TV “news” organizations are now for-profit operations, and, lacking regulation like the Fairness Doctrine, thus have the same natural and inherent biases toward protecting corporate power and privilege, and the wealth and privilege of their management and largest shareholders.
They also derive the bulk of their money from two sources—billionaire-funded political campaigns (have you noticed how there’s no in-depth coverage of the political spending of the Kochs, Adelsons, and Mercers of the world?), and giant transnational corporate advertisers.
All those campaign ads represent hundreds of millions of dollars going right into the pockets of the networks and their affiliates, along with other corporate advertising revenue. Lacking a regulation like the Fairness Doctrine to require actual “programming in the true public interest news,” who’d bite those hands that feed them?
4. Corporations Like Republicans
The final possibility that occurs to me (and others in media with whom I’ve discussed this over the years) is that the large TV and radio news operations simply like what the GOP stands for. They also know that if GOP policies were widely understood, the Republican Party would fade into the kind of powerless obscurity it enjoyed for most of the FDR-to-Reagan era, when working people’s salaries were growing faster than management and the middle class was solid and stable.
TV networks don’t like unions or uppity workers or regulation any more than any other billion-dollar corporation. They’d prefer the salaries of their senior corporate management weren’t debated (or even known). They prefer to live in today’s semi-monopolistic system where they’re only minimally held accountable, and want to keep it that way.
This is the core of GOP ideology that media shares: Cut taxes on rich people, kill off the unions, cut welfare so more of that money can go to rich people’s tax cuts, deregulate big corporations so they can act without regard to the public good, and subsidize big corporations with government funds whenever and wherever possible.
But if any of these issues were ever explicitly discussed on TV, all hell would break loose. Can you imagine if Bill Kristol or Rick Santorum or any of the other dozens of right-wing trolls who inhabit cable TV were ever asked about their actual positions on policy?
Should we sell off (privatize) Social Security to the big New York banks as the GOP has wanted to do since the 1930s? Should we end Medicare and Medicaid and turn everybody over to the tender mercies of the insurance industry? Should we stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry? What should we do about the audit that found $21 trillion (yes, with a T) missing from the Pentagon? How do we break the stranglehold monopolistic drug corporations have on the pricing of our pharmaceuticals?
Similarly, the networks are equally terrified of having actual progressives on to discuss actual progressive issues—because the majority of American voters largely supports these issues and, if well informed, will start to vote out Republicans and vote in progressive Democrats.
Imagine how things would go down if the networks started having actual discussions and debates about free college education, free national health care, the environmental impact of big oil, how well publicly owned utilities and internet services (like Chattanooga) work?
The simple reality is that the media oligopoly and the GOP work hand-in-glove, and the Democrats (and particularly the progressives) have been locked out since the Reagan era.
The solutions to these problems are not particularly complex, although the GOP will fight them tooth-and-nail.
Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, put back into place ownership rules, and break up the big media monopolies so there’s a diversity of voices across America. Overrule the Supreme Court’s (by legislation or constitutional amendment) Citizens United (and similar) ruling to regulate money in politics, diminishing the power of big corporations and billionaires (and foreign governments).
In other words, restore to America a rational media landscape.
Today, you can drive from coast to coast and never miss a moment of Hannity or Limbaugh on the radio, so complete and widespread is the nation’s network of corporate-owned radio stations that will only carry right-wing talk. You’ll be hard-pressed, outside of a few major cities, to find any progressive or even moderate talk programming.
This has corrupted America’s politics and led to a nation divided.
We can do better.Φ
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is a Project Censored Award-winning New York Times best-selling author, and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk program The Thom Hartmann Show. www.thomhartmann.com His most recent books are Rebooting the American Dream: 11 Ways to Rebuild Our Country and an updated edition of Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became “People” – And How You Can Fight Back. This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.