5 Ways to End Media Madness

The mucked up gears of representative Government need to turn again. In order for this to happen, several things must change. I've already discussed the tangled relationship between Lobbyists, the Corporate masters they serve and the Legislators they seek to sway. I've discussed the catastrophic results from the disastrous Citizens United SCOTUS case and how it opened the floodgates for billions of dollars in undisclosed campaign donor money. The corrupt relationships therein illustrate the need for Lobby reform and Campaign Finance reform, two of the biggest major domestic challenges facing our country.

Sometimes, though, just getting to the starting line in this race for reform is a challenge. How do we get people to even sign up for the race in the first place, whilst keeping them informed and constructively involved in the events unfolding around them? There is a third corrupt relationship preventing this from happening, a relationship that requires reform. It is at the heart of how citizens perceive the world. It's the relationship between all media - particularly mainstream media, news editors, producers, and journalists - and Corporations and Washington insiders and career politicians, lobbyists, donors, executives and legislators.

Much of mainstream media - sadly the source of many peoples' ideas about how the world works - now actively works against a functioning democracy. The following issues illustrate some of the biggest problems we face in trying to change how journalists and pundits operate. News organizations now operate solely from a for-profit business model and have eschewed many of the ethical models that once moored it in place.

1.  The media - mainstream in particular - can and must change. It must renew and increase its commitment to accurate and comprehensive reporting of issues. This is harder than it sounds, because we're worse off in this regard than ever. It may require a new way of looking at the for-profit model that drives mainstream journalism.

The good news here is that citizen reporting and social media have begun to usurp the old models, thus forcing them to change. You can, as a 'mere' citizen, choose to assemble and tune out en masse, or get sponsors and advertisers to pull support for programs, which is precisely how we crippled advertiser support for Rush Limbaugh's vitriolic, truth-less pontificating.  

2.  Mainstream media trends toward covering issues, candidates and stories that drive ratings. This is because a lot of mainstream news is geared towards making profit. Subsequently, mainstream news coverage of important issues becomes distorted and limited to issues that push peoples' emotion buttons rather than issues that keep them informed. This gives citizens a warped perspective about what is actually happening, and creates a false perception that all of politics and culture is a frantic, sweaty UFC Championship event. It doesn't have to be.

Same said media - mainstream and fringe - can combat this perception by diversifying the breadth of its reporting. In a way, this also requires us to re-think the way that networks stay profitable. I think we need to encourage experimentation with profit models and programming content. Again, we can look to social media, blogging, podcasting, and other alternative methods of presenting news for inspiration.

3.  Mainstream media must cease the practice of legitimizing and popularizing long discredited or fringe views. What passes for journalism currently now trends toward reducing complex issues to a series of talking points. The excuses given for simplification are 'time constraints' and fear of overloading viewers with too much information. Remarkable, then, that media's 'solution' toward avoiding overloading its viewers is to lob softballs at them to the point of outright misinforming them. We're in an age where fear of information and fear of confusing people keeps broadcasting from fulfilling its promise as an informational tool. Once, when broadcasting was in its infancy, television (and radio) was treated as such a potential tool. No longer.

The best example of how discredited views are over-represented is the 'perpetual horse race' phenomenon. If two or more ideas (or candidates representing those ideas) compete, it is in the best interests of the media to maintain viewership by placing those opposing forces on even ground for as long as possible. This sustains conflict and sustains viewer interest, but sacrifices the truth. If 78% of the populace believes one thing, and just over 20% of the populace embrace another discredited idea, the minority opinion is still granted equal representation, and therefore equal importance, and equal consideration. This has the effect, ultimately, of making unpopular or discredited views popular.

4.  Maybe the media needs to gtfo and stop enabling the three ring circus altogether. Stolid, so-called 'serious' programs (the Sunday morning talk shows being perhaps the worst among them) are a prime example. On-air personalities take the narratives handed to them like gifts from campaign offices, spin doctors and propaganda arms of Government, and do little in the way of critical analysis of these narratives. Instead, when the time for interviews comes around, the media plays by their rules.

Here's an example:

Step One - Spin room press release reads: Contrary to what you've heard, the earth is only about ten years old.

Step Two - Media reaction: STUNNER! EARTH IS ONLY TEN YEARS OLD!!!!*

(one news cycle elapses)

(another news cycle elapses...)

(...wait for it...)

*(according to spin room)

Step Three - Subsequent Interview

Question: "Some people are now saying that the earth is only ten years old. If this truly is the case, what does it mean for the future of humanity? Others argue the earth may be older. Are we ever going to reconcile these ideas? Is there room for compromise? Maybe, say - the earth is one hundred years old?"

Answer (from the very spin room that originated the premise in the first place): "You know, that's a good question. I think it's an issue that's certainly up for debate. I mean, the questions has been raised and it's an intriguing premise. I guess time will tell if it bears fruit, but I'm sure the speculation will continue."

What the media does, in essence, is enable the bullshit. It grasps it with both hands, eats it whole, then regurgitates it in some form without passing it through any sort of critical analysis. Opposing ideas are given equal time and equal measure regardless of whether the facts only bear out one theory over another. In mainstream media in general, the longer two opposing areas remain fixed and equivalent and pitched against one another, the longer viewers stay tuned, stay frustrated, and remain keyed into the product.

5. The fifth and final potential solution is for citizen activists (and especially netizens) to open others' eyes and ears to alternative sources of media outside of the beltway. Now granted, you'll find bias everywhere, but bias that isn't locked into institutions accepting their own corrupt premise are a good place to start. The best news of all is, if you plug yourself into a diverse range of news sources, ranging from mainstream entertainment, to NPR, to grassroots radio and blogging and everything in between, you are in the best possible position. You may be exposed on all sides by different degrees of bias (which is unavoidable), but by diversifying your access to information, you are doing yourself a huge favor.

If you have a diverse range of sources from where you get your news (and don't limit yourself to just right leaning Free Republic or left leaning Daily Kos), be sure to speak out - in a polite, non-condescending way - and push these sources for information on others. Do it through Twitter, or Facebook (as much as people hate politics on Facebook, I think it serves a purpose), or anywhere else you feel connects you with others in a seamless way. It's better than just sitting and accepting that the gears that make our Democracy work have broken. Let's all admit that they have, and let's set about getting to work.

While we're railing for this Media Reform, we should continue to make noise about Campaign Finance and Lobby Reform. These three elements - finance laws, lobbying oversight, and media reform - taken together and tackled, can potentially create a fairer, more reasoned, rational and informed society.


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