I was watching mostly MSNBC and Comedy Central before the presidential election and so Trump’s victory caught me by surprise. I wondered what media the people who voted for Trump were watching and how our perceptions could be so different. I’ve written before about how media consolidation threatens our ability to make decisions in a democracy. We require a free, independent and unbiased media in order to be truly informed.
At the end of World War II, more than 80% of US newspapers were independently owned, but only 28% were by the late 1980s; 72% were owned by outside corporations and six corporations controlled most of the country’s 11,000 magazines. By 2006, only 8 giant media companies dominated the news and information media. They are:
- Disney (ABC, ESPN, Lifetime)
- AOL-Time Warner (HBO, TBS, Comedy Central, CNN)
- Viacom (CBS, Nickelodeon, MTV, CW)
- General Electric (NBC; MSNBC, Bravo, SciFi, History Channel, A&E)
- News Corporation (Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones)
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
The reason this matters is that it has long been assumed that the airwaves used for broadcasting radio and television belong to the public, as do the digital pathways. In 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created to regulate these public transmission highways, but in 1996, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the industry by easing ownership restrictions on how many media outlets one company could own. FCC regulations that required equal time for political debate, the “fairness doctrine,” were ended the following year. In addition, radio and television stations were no longer required to do any public service broadcasting.
THE FOX NEWS EFFECT
We can see stark evidence of the effects of this media conglomeration and loss of “fairness” by looking at the media impact on the recent US election. While people’s confidence in the mass media is at an all time low of 32%, there are significant differences among political parties.
- Democrats: 51%
- Independents: 30%
- Republicans 14%
Democrat’s trust in the media declined only slightly from last year when it was at 55%, but Republican’s trust in the media dropped sharply from 32% just a year ago to 14% this year. This is the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years. Despite this lack of trust, or perhaps because of it, cable news shows are increasingly popular. The O’Reilly Factor was the top program in cable news for the 14th year in a row, with an average of 2.8 million viewers in 2015. Here’s how this show and others rank with the 25 to 54 demographic.
- Megyn Kelly, Fox News 569,000 viewers
- Chris Hannity, Fox News, 564,000 viewers
- Bill O’Reilly, The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News
- Special Report with Bret Baier, Fox News
- Anderson Cooper 360, CNN, 384,000 viewers
- The Five, Fox News, 371,000 viewers
- On the Record with Bret Hume, Fox, 371,000 viewers
- Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, 361,000
- The O’Reilly Show late night replay, Fox, 341,000 viewers
- CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, CNN, 339,000 viewers
- Erin Burnett OutFront, CNN 326,000
- Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC, 301,000
- America’s Newsroom, FNC, 294,000
- Outnumbered, Fox, 284,000
- Shepard Smith Reporting, Fox News, 284,000
- Fox and Friends, Fox News, 278,000
- All in with Chris Hayes, MSNBC, 275,000
- Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, CNN, 275,000
- Happening Now, Fox News, 260,000
- Hardball with Chris Matthews, MSNBC, 244,000
According to The Hill, President Trump was a frequent guest on the Hannity and O’Reilly programs and Hannity joined him for at least one town hall a month in 2016. Trump refused nearly all other TV appearance requests, especially from MSNBC and CNN, and appeared almost exclusively on Fox News and Fox Business Network.
Did the association of President Trump as a candidate with Fox News influence the way people voted in any way? According to a study at Stanford University, the Fox News effect in presidential elections grew from 2000 to 2008 and cable news channels in general were responsible for about two-thirds of the increase in political polarization over this period. Other studies show that the Fox News effect:
- Boosted turnout for the GOP
- Pushed both Congressional Republicans and Democrats further to the right
- Had a significant effect on the presidential elections from 1996 to 2000
- Had an impact on GOP gains in the Senate
- Increased the likelihood of voting Republican
- Influenced 3% to 28% of its viewers to vote Republican
- Increased Republican vote share by 3.5% in 2004 election
- Increased Republican vote share by 6% in 2008 election
- Increased support for Republican policies
There is no corresponding effect of watching MSNBC. Fox News has three times the audience of MSNBC and its viewers are unlikely to seek news from other sources. The Fox News Effect increased Republican vote share by more than 3.5% in 2004 and more than 6% in 2008. One analysis estimated that 6% less votes for Democrats could erase a 12% Democratic lead in the popular vote.
According to a Pew Research Center analysis from 2014, 49% get their news from local news and 48% of those who have access to the internet get their news from Facebook. As you know, Facebook serves up posts to you based on your preferences so users are more likely to see posts that agree with their political views plus “fake news” sites were rampant on Facebook during the recent election campaign. Facebook was widely criticized for allowing this to happen and is now taking steps to change their Trending feature in response.
OPINION AS NEWS
The media has changed from one that was required to do public service and represent all points of view to one in which cable stations, especially Fox News, represent just one point of view. Opinion masquerades as news and fake news pages proliferate on social media. No wonder some people have come to believe that facts are relative.
WHAT CAN WE DO
What can we do to improve the media? In 2014 more than 200 civil society groups from 77 countries asked the United Nations to put governmental accountability and independent media at the center of future global development. Open Society Foundations says that in order for independent journalism to flourish, policy, law and regulation must acknowledge the need for journalism to be an independent force in society. Some of the ways of achieving this are:
- Increase channel diversity
- Improve market transparency
- Support new revenue models for independent journalism
- Increase civil society involvement in media and communication policy
- Protect the safety, security and sources of journalists
What this might look like is that news outlets in print, online, and on television would be non-profits rather than for profit corporations. This is the community radio model. In 2012, the Local Community Radio Act required the FCC to allow community groups and organizations to apply for licenses to operate noncommercial low-power FM radio stations on unoccupied parts of the dial. This could create thousands of new local radio stations. According to the bill’s sponsor, US Representative Mike Doyle:
This FCC action has the potential to dramatically expand the range of voices on FM radio and provide better coverage of community issues at a time of substantial media consolidation.
Non-profit media outlets, expanded community radio, and support for independent journalism are some ways that we can get better information as citizens. Here are some television and online news outlets that feature independent reporting:
- PBS News Hour
- Vice News Tonight
- BBC World News
- Center for Investigative Reporting
- The Economist (conservative)
- Common Dreams (progressive)
The 2016 Webby Award nominees for online news are
I am always looking for the best news sources. Let me know yours.
Peggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She founded Mothering.com in 1995 and was its editor-in chief until 2012. Peggy was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of three.