Political news media has evolved from a system of viewer trust and ethical reporting, to one dominated by unbridled competition and abandonment of conventional journalistic practices. What began as a single objective broadcast, has spiraled into literally hundreds of channels, all vying for the same information and audience attention. In the race to air breaking news before all other competitors, the bedrock of values that once characterized political journalism is eroding. Vetting sources, avoiding conflicts of interest, and presenting objective factual data have been sacrificed in an effort to increase ratings and profits. News is a business after all.
The following article comments on the damage caused by both NPR and CNN’s incorrect broadcasts that claimed Congresswoman Giffords had been killed instead of badly wounded. The author of the piece asserts that the competition, “the rush to get it first” led NPR to air the story without first investigating the source.
If mediated forms of communication are how most Americans get their information about political events, then there should be a universal standard for what constitutes a legitimate source, commentary, or when necessary, opinion.
This recently created political news media realm brings to mind Horkheimer and Adorno’s culture industry. The culture industry promotes capitalist ideals and the mediated news culture pushes political agendas; but capitalism and politics are unavoidably tethered. Behind every political move is an interest, behind every interest is an entity seeking control, and in today’s world that entity is a capitalist structure, most often a corporation.
The culture industry allows consumers less and less agency to formulate their own meanings. The same can be said about information relayed on broadcast news programs. When things are reported as fact, and reinforced as fact, little room is reserved for consumer investigation. The public sphere only exists to those privileged enough to be inside it. If the news is capable of getting information wrong, how can an ordinary citizen, with relatively no access to direct sources, ever uncover the truth? This leads one to the conclusion that certain broadcast stations are purposely leading viewers astray.
While Horkheimer and Adorno hypothesize that the culture industry is a homogenizing force, creating little variance through repeated formulas, I believe that political news media, in terms of ideological purpose, has become a divisive force. It further fragments the consumers, effectively creating an “us” and a “them.”
There are viewers who exclusively watch one channel, listen to one radio station, read one newspaper, and base their entire ideology off the information presented in those specific channels. The lack of an agreed upon informational authority forces viewers into choosing the media outlet that best reinforces their beliefs, incorrect though their information may be. American media consumers are coerced into narrowcasting as a result of the hyper-fragmented and partisan media universe of today’s United States.
However, news outlets are becoming more similar in one major way. Their quest for viewer domination. While political ideologies vary from channel to channel, need for an audience does not. Outlets follow trends of the popular, with each different program using the same structures and swooshing graphics. Homogenization may not be the original goal, but it’s the dangerous collateral damage of network competition.