Editorialising the News 

1 July 2007 tbs.pm/2157

In a recent entry on EMC’s Mediablog, Ian Beaumont scratched the surface of a growing trend. Now, Ian digs deeper – and gets angrier.

I have a confession to make. I would call myself something of a news junkie. I regularly have one of the 24 hour news channels on in the background, and I download lots of news podcasts from different broadcasters all over the world. The reason for this is simple: it gives me a wide variety of different perspectives on the news, and on how the media itself reports the news.

But I do have another motive for my possible over-consumption of news programming. It gives me a better chance to separate the facts of a news item from any unintentional or deliberate bias that might be injected into a story, and also allows me to eliminate the ‘tabloid’ hype and clichés that are used to ‘sell’ you the story. It gives me a purer, more factual perspective on the news, and it has shown up a trend that started in newspapers, but is showing through in broadcasting and the new media.

I call it “Politicising” or “Editorialising” the story. Like so many trends, this one seemed to start in the United States a number of years ago, quite probably around the time when the media regulator there, the Federal Communications Commission, decided to do away with an ‘equal time’ rule, which allowed aggrieved parties equal time to respond. This rule was done away with in 1985, during the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan.

Now let me get one thing straight. You had conservative talk show hosts prior to 1985, and they did not give equal time to all issues, but there was far less difference between perspectives than there is now. But in 1994, the political world in the USA was turned upside down by the election of a Republican Congress, under the political leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrinch Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom Delay aka “The Hammer”.

In 1995, this triumvirate of Republican leaders managed to get not only Conservative radio talk show hosts, but Conservative newspaper editors to all speak with one voice rather than many voices, in opposition to the Democratic President, Bill Clinton. Clinton was incredibly popular with both Democrats and Independents, but Republicans hated him, with a greater vengeance than had ever been seen against any Democrat before.

It was around this time that the Republican message about the so-called ‘Liberal Media’ first became really widely known, and even slightly considered to be even possibly accurate. In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News Channel to be a conservative news network, as opposed to CNN, which got labelled the Clinton News Network by some conservatives. It was the first time that the news itself was becoming well and truly politicised in the broadcast medium.

Until this time, in broadcast news at least, the news was the news and that was it. You may have had bulletins created for a younger audience for example, but targeting the news with a particular political bias was regarded as an absolute no-no. However, conservatives felt that the mainstream media, or as conservative radio talk show host Rush Limburger Limbaugh calls them, the ‘drive-by media’, were not being critical enough of the Clinton administration, hence the idea that the mainstream media had a liberal bias. Of course, few anticipated the story that was going to engulf the news media in 1998.

Before news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Republicans had been so desperate to pin anything on Bill Clinton, that they were practically begging the media, especially Fox News, to throw them even a small bone to gnaw on. But when the story broke in January 1998, both Republicans and the media realised that they hadn’t been given a small bone to gnaw on, but a huge, meaty, 8 course feast to gorge on – and gorge on it they did!

For over a year, the media became more and more divided over the Lewinsky scandal, and whilst Republicans did not get the impeachment that they wanted, the real result of this effort came in 2000, with the most politically divisive election that there had ever been between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W Bush. It ended in the ‘hanging chads’ debacle in Florida, and a win for George W Bush, a win that Fox News had declared on the night, only to have to retract it later the same night.

What had really been happening was that the conservative media had been moving further and further away from the rest of the media. But that seemed to be over, on September 11th 2001.

Almost every media outlet around the world was united in shock and outrage at the deliberate crashing of two planes into the World Trade Center in New York City. This single act managed to do what had hitherto seemed impossible, uniting the conservative and mainstream media in the US. For about 2 years, these two arms of the media would act as one.

However, a new media form, which had been coming together since 1994, would be partially responsible for the re-separation of the conservative and mainstream media: the weblog, aka blog. Bloggers had been around for quite a few years, but in 2002, this new internet media format, which had been used for years as a rebroadcast, and latterly a new broadcast medium, suddenly started to make itself widely known on both the US and world stage.

This new medium has become as politically divided as the rest of the media, and in some ways is still finding its feet. Some proposals to regulate the format, such as a Blogger’s Code Of Conduct, have been regarded by some political bloggers as tantamount to censorship.

Blogging grew from being a text-only medium, to an audio and then video medium. Blogs can be exclusively text, exclusively audio, exclusively video, or any combination of all three. Some bloggers have crossed over into other media, such as Michelle Malkin and Ariana Huffington. But there are many more out there for whom the blog is perhaps as close to fame as they will ever come.

With blogs being liberal, conservative, and all political points in-between, we have seen the development of true ‘liberal media’. Liberal Blogs now sit alongside the liberal talk radio network Air America Radio and Sirius Left on sateliite radio and liberal newspapers as being the real ‘liberal media’. Conservative media is representated by conservative newspapers and blogs, conservative talk radio, and of course, the ever-controversial Fox News Channel.

The rest of the news media, mainly radio news and most TV news, including the public /public-service media, try to maintain going down the political centre, even if they cannot claim to be unbiased. But of course, the politically biased dislike any media that do not agree with them.

There are a number of blogs that attack the public media for not being biased in their direction. Most are politically conservative, but one, surprisingly perhaps, is Liberal.

Today, through ‘user-generated content’, such as blogs, podcasts, public access TV channels, and Current TV, there are millions of voices out there. And while some have suggested that this would lead to democratization of the media, it could be argued instead that something like the opposite is happening – something that none of us ever dared imagine. We are seeing the news media as a whole, and individual news stories, used as political pawns, rather than as something that we use to base solutions on. This process of politicisation is only going to get worse, until the media get their act together en masse, stop trying to promote political viewpoints, and go back to doing what they do best: just reporting the facts and getting to ‘the truth’.

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