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Trust in News Media Falls to New Low. Why that's really bad.

2009 September 16
by Steve Lawson

Of all the news the New York Times found fit to print on Sunday, this headline really jumped out at me!

Trust in News Media Falls to New Low in Pew Survey.

This headline tells a couple of stories, and illustrates more than just the polarization of America.  It’s  a lesson in how consolidation of media ownership has actually hurt the media business.  This lack of trust isn’t trivial.  I believe this slanting of news causes great challenges to our democracy.

Social Media works because the thoughts of a collective, or a community aren’t typically all wrong.  Misinformation on the social web is typically corrected by others in the group with better, more relevant data.  That collective voice (with a lot of constructive arguments along the way) usually leads us to the truth.  The real truth.  You know; the truth that’s . . . well . . . actually true.  You can read more about this collaborative method of sharing information on the researching with wikipedia page.

According to the NYT article:

“In this year’s survey, 63 percent of respondents said news articles were often inaccurate and only 29 percent said the media generally “get the facts straight” — the worst marks Pew has recorded — compared with 53 percent and 39 percent in 2007.

Seventy-four percent said news organizations favored one side or another in reporting on political and social issues, and the same percentage said the media were often influenced by powerful interests. Those, too, are the worst marks recorded in Pew surveys.”

These findings scare the hell out of me, but they don’t  surprise me at all.

Here’s why they don’t surprise me:

  1. In 1987, after an incredible amount of lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters, large broadcasters and other lobbying groups, The Federal Communications Commission and Congress eliminated the Fairness Doctrine which was enacted by the FCC in 1949, and required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was (in the commissions view) honest equitable and balanced.
  2. In 1996, after much lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters and the biggest broadcast companies, the FCC and Congress did away with rules limiting how many radio and TV stations could be owned by one company.

I will preface my comments with a fact that’s not discussed much anymore and is poo-pood all too often- especially by broadcast licensees and their lobbyists.  That fact?

We, the American people, own the airwaves.

That’s a really important fact so please excuse me as I shout, “WE OWN THE AIRWAVES!!!!!!!”

Before 1987, broadcasters were licensed to serve their communities and operate radio and TV stations in the Public Interest.  These broadcast licenses were not automatically renewed.  In fact, in order to get a new license, or renew a license, licensees had to research their community (seeking input from community leaders and the general public) to ascertain the issues confronting that community in order to provide the FCC with a plan for addressing those community issues in a fair and balanced way.

Since the mid 1980’s, Congress and the FCC have rescinded most of the rules that protected the industry from itself and gave us (the citizens who actually  own the airwaves)  a voice in the license renewal process.

This is an important fact, as today the renewal process demands little more than for the broadcaster to mail a post card to the FCC with a nominal fee.

Instead of granting licenses to serve the public interest, the radio consolidators and their lobbying groups convinced Congress and the FCC to just grant them licenses to print money.  Well, not exactly in those words but that was the subtext of all the lobbying.  And until the recent financial meltdown and the arrival of a plethora of new communication channels (courtesy of the internet and an assortment of mobile devices), that worked out pretty well for the broadcasters.  From 1996 until about two years ago, these big radio and TV groups printed a lot of money.

Radio groups had figured it all out.  Once they had that pesky Fairness Doctrine out-of-the-way and were no longer being forced to offer balanced coverage, they could focus on select, very targeted audience segments.  The audience that would drive the most revenue.

HMMM.  So who would that audience be????

After a careful analysis it was noted that conservative males loved to listen to and talk about their beliefs.  This group also had the most disposable income, making them very desirable to advertisers.  And that was a very comfortable audience for the radio operators, as they (corporate management, station management etc) tend to wealthy, white, conservative and Republican.

The “HOT Talk” format was created to cash in on those who most resembled themselves.

HOT Talk, a totally unbalanced and extremely biased format, was embraced, as calculated, by this wealthy, conservative audience. This led to huge ratings for those stations and major profits for the corporations that owned them.

The proliferation of those stations made big stars out of the likes of Rush Limbaugh who continue to preach directly to their choir.  No balance; just big checks (ka-ching) to the program syndicators and the BIG media companies.  They rant and their followers roll.

TV followed with their news products. Not so much the major networks or their affiliates (I’m not sure why), but the cable networks like FOX NEWS on the right and now MSNBC (on the left – but at least with insightful commentary from conservative Pat Buchanan).

Interestingly, the Pew Study found that:

“Partisan differences in views of Fox News have increased substantially since 2007. Today, a large majority of Republicans view Fox News positively (72%), compared with just 43% of Democrats. In 2007, 73% of Republicans and 61% of Democrats viewed Fox News favorably. Three-quarters (75%) of Democrats assess CNN favorably, while just 44% of Republicans do so, which is little changed from two years ago. MSNBC also rates substantially higher among Democrats (60%) than among Republicans (34%).”

There are many more conservative talk radio stations than there are liberal talk stations. In fact, Air America, the only  liberal radio network (They call it “progressive talk”) had a hard time finding enough audience to succeed.


I guess Conservatives really like to hear their own opinions  screamed over and over and maybe liberals are busy listening to classic rock??

The average person on the street doesn’t differentiate between a talk show host and a news person.  And when many (not all) listeners/viewers see and hear showmen like Limbaugh, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and more spread the gospel as though it really was gospel we, as a country, start walking a slippery slope.  This passing off commentary as “the truth” is what has caused trust in the news media to fall.  And now you know why it doesn’t surprise me.

Why does it scare the hell out of me?

When people are exclusively exposed  to views they already embrace, and those beliefs and only those beliefs are reinforced day in and day out with no ready access to a rational and reasonable look at the opposing viewpoint, they begin to feel that everyone in America shares their beliefs and those few who don’t are just “not American”.  At the least they certainly aren’t “good” Americans.

America began as a melting pot.  Remember the words of Emma Lazarous, whose poem “The New Colossus” is engraved on the pedestal on which stands the Statue of Liberty?   Here’s a reminder:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

America is an amazing place where (historically) people of many nationalities and races came and continue to come together and after a generation or so meld well together as Americans.

Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Iranian Americans, African Americans, Japanese & Chinese Americans; all Americans.

Generations of early immigrants learned the English language and the American culture from watching Television.  In the 50’s Milton Berle, Danny Thomas, Jack Benny and George Burns taught them to laugh.  In the 60’s they learned about the “American Family” from Ward, June, Wally and Beaver Cleaver, Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed.  Children learned manners from a kind and gentle “Captain Kangaroo“.  Subsequent generations learned about bigotry from Archie and Edith Bunker, and real families on shows like Family, and Eight is Enough.

Our public airwaves were used responsibly by broadcasters; certainly to make money – by providing programming that could be embraced by the airwave owners; the American people.

In the early days of broadcasting (and up until the early 1980’s) broadcasters were bound by an unspoken code which was “don’t say anything to the American public that you wouldn’t say to your mother”.  In other words, you can be funny but don’t be crude.  Make a statement, but don’t make it hateful.  Above all else, treat people with respect.  And tell the truth. Especially if you are a news organization.

News reporters were governed by the mantra, “Dig, dig and then dig some more” until you are certain that you are reporting facts.  Facts that can be substantiated. Facts that will hold up under careful scrutiny.  The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

We trusted our news presenters for good reason.  Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Harry Reasoner and their contemporaries were news professionals.  They, and their bosses cared about only one thing.  Credibility.  Because they knew that without credibility, there would be no trust.

When an independent panel found that the illustrious CBS news anchor Dan Rather, his producer Mary Mapes and three top CBS News executives had made misleading statements and “failed miserably” to verify the authenticity of documents presented in a 60 Minutes Story critical of George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard less than two months before the 2004 Presidential Election,, Mapes was fired and the three executives quit CBS under pressure.  Rather was removed from the nightly news desk and soon retired from CBS in disgrace.

That’s how important truth, integrity and credibility were (and hopefully still are) to CBS.

The preamble to the United States Constitution reads:  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

When the FCC and Congress allowed broadcasters to profit by using the public airwaves (our airwaves) to push a popular agenda, and by popular I mean the one that generated the most money for radio and TV station owners, they spit in the eyes of our founding fathers and did great harm to domestic tranquility, the general welfare and the blessings of liberty.

How? By suppressing the opposing viewpoint.  By slanting the truth to suit their own welfare rather than the general welfare.

Those who oppose the return of the Fairness Doctrine and/or any other broadcast industry regulation claim that there is no longer a need for fairness rules because there are now a multitude of information outlets.

The public, they say, has numerous choices of newspapers, magazines, blogs, cable networks, satellite networks, internet video etc.

And to them I say, “If that’s how you feel, you certainly don’t need OUR airwaves to further your agenda”.  Why don’t you connect with your tribe online and leave those worthless radio and TV licenses to someone who will use them in the public interest to offer honest, equitable and balanced coverage of those controversial issues that affect all Americans?

The media giants that were created in 1996 are now suffering from their own short term shrewdness. They decimated a once vibrant source of information that served all Americans.  They worked the system for short term financial rewards.  And the net result?  Americans no longer trust the news media.  How long can a business survive with no trust?

I’ve discussed in previous blogs the fundamental rules of Social Media.  Tell the truth.  Be honest.  Be transparent in everything that you do.  Because growing a community takes trust and there is no trust where there is no truth.

In today’s interconnected web 2.0 world the consumer always finds the truth and that truth leads them to businesses they trust.

Without trust, businesses fail.

Here’s “Fair and Balanced” coverage from Fox News.  What do you think?


This video was posted to You Tube in October, 2004.  The following is a description of the video from its  You Tube video page.

“Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky demolish one of the central tenets of our political culture, the idea of the “liberal media.” Instead, utilizing a systematic model based on massive empirical research, they reveal the manner in which the news media are so subordinated to corporate and conservative interests that their function can only be described as that of “elite propaganda.”


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