The problem with for-profit media and politics

They are an inherent, inextricable conflict of interest.

Posted by LM on March 14, 2020

For quite some time now I've slowly become aware of a new thorn in the side of liberal politics. Well, new to my awareness at least. For-profit media, especially in political reporting. I was reminded of this on Super Tuesday, when Joe Biden continued momentum from his strong showing in the South Carolina primary and powered to a swift comeback with the moderate lane finally all to himself (if he becomes the nominee and defeats Trump, I expect endorser Jim Clyburn will be remembered as the man who saved America from itself, but that's another story).

My news choice is PBS Newshour, a non-profit, non-partisan evening news show serving the public daily. But I flipped to MSNBC on YouTube to check out their reporting, and found myself frankly disgusted after just a few minutes. Reporter Steve Kornacki was standing at what looked like an ESPN-style scoreboard with his sleeves rolled up, and I could almost swear I saw him sweating. He was nearly ranting about the incoming results and swiping through maps, graphics and figures as he talked us up like a football coach addressing his team at halftime. I could hardly believe it. Is this what election night on cable news is always like?

I used to have cable back in the day and vaguely remember it being a little sensationalized, but I remain astonished at the brazen lack of social responsibility in what I saw. It was almost as if the network took pride in treating viewers like mere audience members rather than voters who can make a difference.

This is wrong.

After many months of thinking, and observing too many other clear examples to keep count, I have concluded for-profit media and politics are an inherent, inextricable conflict of interest. In our current culture especially, with guardrails off everywhere and the cold pursuit of profit colder than ever, it seems impossible - under this model - not to blantantly tell viewers what they should think.

In my own experience, I have come to value watching the Newshour (as well as consuming BBC World News and NPR) because I have learned their approach - plain, Cronkite-like reporting of the news without exaggeration to induce my entertainment brain to return and improve their ratings - allows me room to think for myself. By design or not, they encourage how to think instead of telling what to think. And I find that space gives me mental clarity to evaluate what I see/hear for myself, allowing me to write what I do and arrive at conclusions like this one.

It's not just MSNBC. It's any for-profit reporting to various degree. You can tell if their website ends in ".com," or if their YouTube clips force you to watch an ad at the beginning (I love getting straight to a Newshour clip without the annoyance of an ad; it's the little things that make a regular day just a bit better).

The reality is this thorn sticks in all our sides. As any rag magazine can attest, bad news is what sells. Good news is neutral while bad news is assertive and even confirming. And so in the world of for-profit political reporting, there is an emphasis on coverage of Republicans to the detriment of Democrats (and to the detriment of voters on both sides). As a Democratic voter I want to know, daily, what good things my representatives are supposedly doing for me and my interests, but I cannot get a bead on that thanks to outsized coverage of the big, bad Republicans. After all, which is sexier: a Democratic governor expanding Medicaid in his state, or the latest anti-abortion measure intended to draw a SCOTUS challenge to overturn Roe? Yeah. That's why Medicaid expansion doesn't float to the top of your unfiltered news feed.

This imbalance, by the way, is what the right sees and decries as an attack on their side. When they see outsized negative reporting on Republicans, they blame the "liberal media," or the "mainstream media," or "political bias." That's inaccurate. What they're seeing really comes from the for-profit media.

If you regularly consume cable news and find yourself ready to change channels after five minutes, I would recommend trying the alternatives I've mentioned. It might feel odd or old-fashioned at first, but you might come to like news that embraces you as a viewer rather than barks at you like a play-by-play announcer.

As of today the next Democratic debate, a one-on-one with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders hosted by CNN and Univision, is still scheduled for tomorrow, Sunday, March 15th at 8 PM EST. Due to the coronavirus pandemic there will be no studio audience, and like columnist Mark Shields, empty chairs make me very happy. There will be less pressure to "perform," by the candidates and hopefully by the moderators, and it might result in a sober conversation resembling the non-profit interests that are the true components of our politics. My personal hope is underdog Sanders will be measured, and use this time to solidly make a case to Biden - which in truth would really be a nationally-televised message from actual Americans to the Democratic establishment. With a smaller for-profit influence on the evening, it could potentially have startling clarity.

For-profit media
2020 election
2020 primaries
Mark Shields