The media and “objectivity”

Chomsky — the same one behind “Manufacturing Consent”, an excellent analysis of newspaper and TV journalism in the pre-Internet era — walks us through a structural analysis of modern media here:

There is a concept of “objectivity” to which journalists are supposed to adhere: report honestly what is “within the Beltway” — that is, what is considered acceptable by major power centers, state and private. Departing from that framework is “biased.” There are to be sure exceptions, but there extensive documentation showing that this framework is upheld with quite impressive consistency. It can be changed in so many ways.

He suggests one way to get out of this structural “objectivity bias” — something that Jay Rosen refers to as “the view from nowhere” — is to change its underlying incentive scheme.

One is by development of independent media that are not constrained by the institutional structure of major media — corporations selling a product (audiences) to other businesses (advertisers), with very close linkage to the state, itself very much an instrument of private power. More fundamentally, the whole framework can be shifted by activist popular movements that influence the entire culture and the nature of the institutions within it.

In other words, so long as the audience is the product (via advertising), you’ll have journalistic “objectivity” being closely identified not with “truth seeking”, but instead with “audience and advertiser pleasing”. In his prior work, Chomsky referred to the process by which the media was manipulated as “filters” and “flak”.

The advertising filter means that no content may appear which would cause a massive loss in advertising revenue; a simple recent example would be a tech site choosing not to write about the Sony hacking scandal, because Sony is a major advertiser to that site. Meanwhile, a good example of flak is the recent Gawker/Hogan trial: future media institutions may be disinclined to write highly negative things about rich and powerful celebrities, because the reaction might be a (successful) lawsuit regarding privacy invasions. Meanwhile, the press won’t have a problem taking down a private citizen with limited resources, because the “flak” potential is low.

The point of these biases isn’t that they form some sort of vast media conspiracy of evil individual actors — instead, it’s simply that they are systemic biases that permeate the media system, often without the actors fully realizing (or perhaps not fully internalizing) they are operating under those biases.

Chomsky continues:

On some issues — typically not those affecting class structure — this has happened [(that is, a move to independent information systems)], in some cases quite dramatically: women’s rights, civil rights more generally, opposition to aggression, concern for the environment, and much else. But on issues related to economic and political power, the framework remains rigid and narrow.

It is also quite interesting to reflect on the success of “financial media”, that is, media which serves as its primary audience the actors in the corporate financial system. A detailed analysis of financial corruption in Bloomberg, FT, The Wall Street Journal, etc. may be possible, but it’s almost certainly difficult, given the structures of “filters” and “flak” surrounding those companies’ underlying business models.

Meanwhile, the world desperately needs information exposing financial corruption (see e.g. the recent Panama Papers), but strong media institutions dedicated to this are few and far between. Why? The advertising system and attention model of the web makes structural economic criticism one of the most difficult kinds of content to execute at scale.

That said, we see glimmers of hope that independent media built atop the low cost structure of the Internet could actually succeed in this regard — see, for example, the independent subscriber-focused sites The Baffler and The American Prospect. But it will have to be a shift to reader-focused business models, rather than advertiser-focused ones, that lets those actors escape some of the filters and flak of the propaganda model.

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