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Measuring Media Fairness

A corollary of the fundamental idea of a free market is caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. I look at that from a slightly different angle than usual, not as an indictment of the free market, but rather as a statement of its driving force–the decisions of buyers. As a buyer, you vote every day on what will succeed and what will not.

Regarding the media, both Republicans and Democrats seem unwilling to accept this necessity, and to believe that it works. To their credit, the Republicans do not seem to be advocating new regulations at the moment; they are simply complaining as buyers that the product is not to their liking. Some Democrats, on the other hand, are calling for the fairness doctrine to be re-enacted especially to deal with talk radio, which is an area that tilts strongly to the right. This is one of the many reasons that, while I left the Republican party some years ago, I never became a Democrat. I do not think either party favors freedom in a reasonably consistent manner.

I might as well pick on two bloggers, though the information is all over the blogosphere right now. Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. wrote in his election Post Mortem that:

. . . In fact as a recent Pew Research Report showed, the only major network that showed any sense of balance was actually the nemesis of the left Fox News, which had equal percentage of negative stores on McCain and Obama, and slightly higher percentage of positive stores for Obama. On the other hand on MSNBC over 70 pecent of the McCain stories were negative, compared to only 14 percent for Obama.

On the Stones Cry Out blog, Doug wrote:

The adulation given to Barack Obama was far more than can be accounted for by his historic run for the Presidency. . . .

Now my gut feeling is that the coverage was not fair and even, but I have serious problems with the manner in which that fairness is being measured. Counting positive, negative, and neutral stories does not seem, without much broader context, to be a very accurate method. One would first have to establish a base as to what was the correct ratio, and I think it is very difficult to find an unbiased way of establishing that base.

My gut feeling depends on my idea of what fairness would be, what stories would be relevant and what would not be. I then compare that to the portion of the media to which I listen more, which is admittedly more left leaning (more MSNBC than Fox, for example, and no talk radio at all), and as a result I get the strong feeling that the sources I watched didn’t balance it out all that well. Most commonly, I watch via the internet clips of the stories I regard as relevant. After watching a number of shows from start to finish, I’m very much convinced these clips are the only way to go with news stories–then I get to set the ratio according to my prejudices!

The question is just what is the correct ratio of stories. Let me illustrate. If a reporter were writing about the Alaska senate race, in which one candidate was convicted of multiple felony counts and the other was, well, not so convicted, what is the proper ratio of stories? If we come back to the McCain/Obama race, another accusation is that the media favored process stories over substance (which is also my gut feeling).

Assuming for the moment that the numbers and my gut feeling are correct, out of those stories, what was the proper ratio? I would suggest that the Obama campaign provided much less “process” fodder than did the McCain campaign. Bluntly, I was interested in almost none of it, but that doesn’t answer the question about the ratio.

Besides talk radio we now have the blogosphere to try to bring various stories to our attention, but again, in most cases where I looked, while blogs bring in material that doesn’t make the mainstream media, very often it is less vetted, and less relevant than the mainstream media’s material. Since Republicans seem to have been on the short end of the stick, let me note that most of the stories of which they wanted to see more coverage, would have simply gotten me as a viewer to change the channel. I already knew about the abortion votes, Ayers, Rezko, and Wright during the primaries.

I was also uninterested in stories of book bannings at the Wasilla library, unless someone could produce something more than an alleged conversation. I wasn’t concerned about who prayed for Governor Palin in her church. I’ve had people lay hands on me and pray who hold views I would certainly oppose, and I’m sure it will happen again.

In other words, there was a great deal of material in the election that I found quite irrelevant. One thing of which I am quite certain is that two categories of stories got way more mention than they deserved: 1) Candidate associations, and 2) Political process.

But why was this? I’m going to suggest that very few voters are willing to watch through a serious dissection of the policies of one candidate or another. Republicans who have talked to me wonder how I could favor Obama over McCain. Invariably they will bring up several topics such as government spending, redistribution (the socialism charge), and freedom of speech (campaign finance being an example). Those issues were a wash as far as I was concerned.

The problem here is simple. The Republicans do not represent responsible fiscal policies. They do not oppose redistribution, and their candidate is one of the great proponents of campaign finance reform. A solid examination of the issues would bring all of those points out. One of my greatest objections to President-Elect Obama is the combination of his support for public financing of campaigns with his decision to opt out of the system. He practiced what I preach, but he didn’t practice what he preached.

But the specifics of such a discussion are not the most important thing here. There was information available on all of these things. People complained that they didn’t know what candidates, especially President-Elect Obama, stood for. I don’t believe we have any major reason to doubt the general outlines of the policies espoused by each candidate. You would have a hard time finding out, however, if your only source of information was television news.

And a note to my Republican friends (and enemies). If you think Joe the Plumber and the whole related discussion constituted discussion of the issues, you’re in trouble. But there were a bunch of people who wanted to watch that, so there it was.

Which is where I get back to the free market. I think the media, and the television media in particular, do a much better job of reflecting the votes of their customers than we give them credit for. Debating the fairness of the various outlets is an appropriate exercise in order to try to change the market share of the various outlets, but not in order to pretend that it is the fault of the media that one candidate loses or wins.

The media coverage is the fault of the market, and in this case I think the market is doing quite well. Barack Obama’s campaign with its internet driven fundraising, however, will point the way not only to a greater freedom in terms of political money, but also to a greater variety in the media. The weakness in the market is that minority positions can be driven out simply because they don’t have a large enough constituency–yet. That’s true of physical products as well. An inventor of a device that is only intended for a tiny percentage of people has to find the right outlet to reach those people who will listen.

On that basis third parties like the Libertarians or the Greens have much more to complain about. Or not. You can’t have market share until you have market share, just as you have to have money in order to make money.

I think it’s a good idea to look at media fairness, as long as it doesn’t turn into advocacy of government control, such as the fairness doctrine. It’s a good way to try to persuade people to vote with their channel changers–the one appropriate way in which to control expression.

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One Comment

  1. Larry B says:

    There’s a lot to agree with in this post.

    I agree most with the idea that the media is driven by the free market to show what it does. The news shows probably appear tilted in their content, but it all probably goes back to what advertising they can sell for the most profit based on the profile of their viewers. MSNBC -or maybe more specifically Keith Olberman – probably gets a specific set of advertisers to pay a premium for spots on his show because they know their audience leans more to the left (as a generality) and they have better success selling to that targeted market. If MSNBC decided to be “more balanced” then their advertising might shift and then they would be competing with somebody like Fox. They might then be less profitable.

    So in the end, the free market is driving what we see on the news. Advertising is one aspect of capitalism that leaves me a little queasy in the stomach. Advertising to create demand never factors in to a theoretical model of capitalism, but in application it exists.

    I’ve always tried to explain to my friends who don’t understand “right wing nutter radio” that it really has little to do with supporting a political philosophy and more to do with how well the advertisements during the shows increase sales. Rush Limbaugh ideas may have resonated with a lot of people, but he wouldn’t be where he was if he didn’t increase the sales (by a substantial amount) of the products he endorsed. He isn’t a great pundit – he’s a masterful pitchman.

    In an ideal world, we could get factual news with no commentary, but alas, that serves no advertising purpose.

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