All media is biased. This is a claim that virtually every thinking person in living in the United States today now believes – and for good reason. And yet, whenever something as important and momentous as a presidential election cycle rolls around, we seem to ignore, downplay, or find a way to explain away this simple fact, especially when that bias supports the candidate or party of our choice. During this special time, our ability to think critically seems to diminish as our longing for tribalism increases, and a nationwide outbreak of amnesia begins to take hold. It’s quite a fascinating phenomenon, and one that makes for great theater that is both comedic and tragic.
However, if we can make a conscious effort to escape the carnivalesque nature of inter-party politics and corporate news outlets, we begin to understand a rather grotesque and disturbing reality that lies beneath. We become aware of the ways in which corporate media and special interest groups work in concert to manufacture, reproduce, and perpetuate a sensational, polarizing, and hostile political climate at the expense of actual discussion of important political issues.
Unfortunately, this awareness can be particularly difficult to obtain these days because the media is largely filtered through and dictated by corporations which have a vested interest in creating and disseminating certain messages which often necessitate the stretching or bending of truth and reality to suit their purposes. This results in a media landscape is so often void of meaningful conversations and content, that even when one happens to stumble upon something truthful, honest, or accurate, it is embroidered or surrounded by half-truths and misinformation.
To use what I think is an apt metaphor, navigating today’s media landscape is like walking through a dying forest which used to be healthy – historically filled with with innumerable trees, rocks, and animal life – but whose natural habitat has largely been replaced by holographic representations of what once was. In this sense, what appears at first to be a forest might only be a few trees, and what appears to be large rock might only be a grain of sand. This same idea of appearance versus reality, in my opinion, applies to the “truth” or “facts” put forth by corporate media outlets.
However, even if we are cognizant of his stark reality at first, it is often too easy to get comfortable with the landscape we have become accustomed to. It is too easy to begin to imagine the artificial forest as real, especially when it appears to be real in every possible way, and since its reach and appears all-encompassing, shutting out the larger, uglier reality that lies beyond its insular canopy. We might even grow so comfortable with this artificial forest it that we no longer consider the responsibility of distinguishing truth from fiction to be a worthwhile exercise. After all, isn’t “close enough” also “good enough” in the end? Don’t truisms function just as well as truths? Perhaps fiction is an acceptable substitute for fact after all. It may sound strange, and yet his is the toxic reality in which we find ourselves – one which is both alluring and terrifying, familiar yet alien.
To reference The Matrix, it seems to me that there are a variety of reasons why we might actually begin to prefer the blue pill to the red one: (1) Either we have forgotten the truth (2) have chosen to deny it, (3) no longer think it matters, or (4) have taught ourselves or been taught by others that we are powerless against its continued erosion. I’m actually inclined to think that most people suffer from the third and fourth aliments rather than the first or second.
Given these dire circumstances, the question remains: What are we to do? Well, short of throwing up our hands in a kind of fatalistic, post-modern acknowledgement of a hopeless predicament, I think it behooves us to come up with systematic ways to avoid these kinds of lapses into amnesia, denial, apathy, or downright cynicism, and to learn to navigate the mass media landscape in a way that is both healthy and critical.
Starting from the ground up, I think a fairly good guide for avoiding the pitfalls of corporate media can be found in philosophy – specifically in Descartes “A Method for Thinking Clearly and Distinctly” from Discourse on Method. In the essay, Descartes maps out his approach to critical thought in chronological order:
(1) Never anything at face value as true in order to avoid jumping to conclusions and making judgments.
(2) Divide problem(s) into multiple parts.
(3) Order ones thoughts, focusing first on the simple and gradually moving toward the complex.
(4) Undertake a comprehensive account or overview of the subject in question so that nothing is left out.
The beauty of Descartes’ approach is that it is a framework which can be applied to just about any situation which calls for critical thinking ranging from simple math equations to problems like solving world hunger. Unfortunately, its general usefulness is also its weakness. Therefore, in order to make Descartes’ general method more media-specific, I’d like to add a few more sub-steps to Descartes’ method which are specifically related to my own field of English Composition, but which I think are equally applicable to mass media:
(5) Ask who the author or speaker is, what their personal and public affiliations are, what their credentials are, and what their worldview and possible motivations are.
(6) Know the name and credibility/prestige of the publication as well as who owns or sponsors it.
(7) Be aware of what the author’s purpose is in writing/talking/showing a particular piece of information.
(8) Be aware of who the author’s intended or target audience is.
(9) Be aware of the genre or context of what is written or said.
(10) Be conscious of the words the author is choosing to use when writing or speaking, and pay attention to what sources of information the author cites or fails to cite.
Therefore, by combining Descartes method for thinking clearly and distinctly with the above rules, I believe that the confusing forest of corporate, mass media is far easier to navigate. Once we can reasonably map out whether or not something is true, understand the influence of someone’s underlying motivations and worldview, and analyze and evaluate what is being said with a critical lens, the rest of the process becomes much easier.
However, although this combined method is generally a good rule of thumb, even it doesn’t go far enough because it fails to take into account how media functions on a macro-level. This is where Media Influence concepts such as the “Hypodermic Needle Theory,” “Two-Step Flow Theory,” “framing,” “priming,” and “agenda-setting” come into play.
Two facts about mass media that I think most people accept nowadays is that (a) honest “watchdog journalism” that holds powerful people and institutions accountable has all but disappeared, and (b) media outlets don’t just relay bits of information to the public; rather, they are invested in creating stories or narratives – some overt and some covert, some positive and some negative – that readers or viewers are explicitly or implicitly asked to accept as true.
From my experience, most of these narratives form gradually, perhaps over a period of weeks or months, embedding themselves in public consciousness through repetition and suggestion. For example the creation and repetition of buzzwords and catchy phrases such as “war on terror” or “war on women” are accompanied by continued suggestion and repetition through showing carefully edited footage, cherry-picked bits of dialogue, scripted “discussions” among so-called “reporters” and their invited guests, as well as by the personal testimonies of “experts.” This, sadly, is a phenomenon which seems to permeate both sides of the political spectrum.
Although these are my own observations, I’m far from alone in this perception of mass media. Indeed, well-respected scholars such as Noam Chomsky have corroborated this kind of bizarre set-up which seems bent on pushing narratives rather than promoting facts. For instance, in the book, Manufacturing Consent, coauthored by Edward S. Herman, Chomsky puts forth his own theory that all current U.S. media is based on a model meant for propaganda rather than responsible dissemination of information:
This book centers in what we call a “propaganda model,” an analytical framework that attempts to explain the performance of the U.S. media in terms of the basic institutional structures and relationships within which they operate. It is our view that, among their other functions, the media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy (Introduction, xi.)
Thus, the real goal of the narrative is not to benefit, educate, or positively impact the reader or viewer, but to ensure that the interests of the corporations that construct them are well protected, and that their agendas are advanced. Chomsky also adds that, “This is normally not accomplished by crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalization of priorities and definitions of newsworthiness that conform to the institution’s policy” (Introduction, xi). In other words, the efforts of corporate news outlets to protect their owners and advance their agendas is a covert collaborative effort which relies on defining whether or not something is “newsworth[y].”
Moreover, this ability to decide whether an issue is important enough to be news, to how the issue should be approached and relayed, and to decided which stance or position should be taken on the part of the news outlet gets to the heart of what Robert M. Entman, professor of Media and Public Affairs, refers to as “framing,” “priming,” and “agenda setting” (164). In his essay, “Media Bias: Framing in the Distribution of Power,” Entman describes framing as “the process of culling a few elements of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that highlights connection among them to produce a particular interpretation” (164). This idea of framing is further driven by priming – a technique of presenting or labeling certain ideas as important – which, in turn, translates into the concept of agenda setting, the goal of which is to “spotlight societal conditions, world events, or character traits of candidate” in order to “encourage moral judgments and promote favored policies” (164). In this way, corporate mass media acts as a well-oiled machine which continually produces a manufactured, distorted, and misleading narratives about reality in order to further certain values, special interests, and policies.
Now that I’ve outlined and approach to critically examining media and have given a general description of its goals and machinations, I’d like to directly apply this knowledge to our present political conversation as means of illustrating the importance of applying a critical lens to media as well as the danger of buying into media narratives.
Such narratives, I argue, necessarily rely on previous unquestioned media narratives which have, through a process of accretion and solidification, created a kind of house-of-cards relationship in which the newest unsupported narratives at the top rely on the perpetuation of previous narratives at the bottom.
For instance, the latest divisive narrative that I’ve seen from media outlets on the left in this election season is one which suggests the refusal of people who support Bernie Sanders to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election is due to “white privilege.” Before we begin to debate about the truth of this claim, it’s important to realize the fact that this narrative rests on two other previous media narratives which have been gradually manufactured and disseminated through repetition and suggestion.
The first underlying narrative is the idea that Bernie Sanders supporters are, by definition, white, and presumably male. This notion, of course, is patently false, as plenty of women and minorities vote for him as well. However, it is important to realize that this narrative has been carefully constructed by media outlets by creating and repeating terms such as “Bernie Bros,” – implying a kind of male-centricity with misogynistic undertones – and by repeating ad nauseam the idea that Bernie Sanders has trouble with the “black vote,” or doesn’t do well with diverse sections of the United States, despite his winning the most racially diverse state in the union by a large margin in the primaries.
Similarly, the second underlying narrative on the left, with the same basis (or lack thereof) in fact, and with the same strategies of framing, priming, and agenda setting, is that Donald Trump is a misogynistic, xenophobic, racist, and that minorities, Muslims, and women should fear him and what misogynistic, xenophobic, or racist policies might emerge from his potential presidency. It also further implies that no women, Muslims, or minorities are voting for Donald Trump, and that no member of any of these groups could possibly have a legitimate reason for doing so. However, if one looks closely at the facts and overlooks the media frenzy, one finds that none of these claims really stand up to scrutiny.
Therefore, as you can see, the third narrative is only functional if we accept, without question, that the previous two narratives are true. However, if we go back and apply a critical, objective lens to both of these underlying narratives which precede the third, not only can we see how they are false-rendering the third one false as well – but we can also see how their earlier perpetuation has allowed them to gradually and silently become political “facts” or “truths” instead of claims in need of evidence and justification. In this way, important issues and legitimate voices are drowned out by the overflow of false mass media narratives, and the apparent political reality (as opposed to the real one) becomes unnecessarily distorted and polarized as a result, thus negatively impacting any attempt at an honest, fair, and balanced discussion of real political issues.
To cite another less recent example of false media narratives, one can also look to the Tea Party movement of 2009 and the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. While the Tea Party had legitimate grievances about state’s rights and the growing influence and power of the federal government, they were often portrayed by media on the left as uniformed, white, and racist. Similarly, the Occupy movement, which raised legitimate concerns about income inequality and power of Wall Street to unfairly influence the economy, was portrayed by media on the right as a gathering of young, lazy hippies looking for free government handouts.
Although there certainly exist real ideological barriers between people – Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals – it’s important to recognize that when we look to corporate media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, and FOX, that we are not getting the full picture. We are not getting reality, but only carefully filtered segments of it which serve the agendas of the people that own and control these media outlets. I, for one, believe that if we can come realize this important but disturbing fact as a nation, and can learn to think more critically about the ideas that confront us on a daily basis, the less polarizing and tribal our political conversations will become, and the more educated and responsible are citizenry will be.
Descartes, René, and F. Sutcliffe. Discourse on Method and the Meditations. Penguin UK, 1968.
Entman, Robert M. “Framing bias: Media in the distribution of power.”Journal of communication 57.1 (2007): 163-173.
Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. Random House, 2010.
The Hypodermic Needle Theory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qt5MjBlvGcY
The Two-Step Flow Theory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csGHExeP3uA