Today’s news media are businesses. To survive, they must generate audiences large and suitable enough to attract advertising dollars. They do this by publishing or airing according to a schedule, rather than as needed, and by giving the market what it wants to consume. This last point is crucial. Any sense of mission—be it watchdog or other—is subject to market demands. A mission at odds with ratings will necessitate either compromising the mission in order to survive, or going out of business. (Unless, of course, a news medium happens to have unlimited funds of its own, profitability be damned. Last count, not too many were in this category.)
Which means that, despite what you’d like to think, chances are your (or, in fairness, my) favorite news source isn’t your favorite because it’s unbiased and balanced. And it may not be as committed to your point of view as it would have you think. More likely, enough people see the world your way to make it profitable for that news source to give you the news the way you are most apt to embrace it. If you and the masses who think like you suddenly and permanently change your perspective, you can bet your favorite news source will adapt rather than fight you.
These days, the effects of markets on the news media are hard to miss. The low cost of distributing information via the Internet has taken its toll on costlier media, to wit, broadcast and print. With viewers and subscribers down, ad revenues have dropped. Thus these media have been forced to make cuts. And what do they cut first? Not advice, sports or entertainment. These still draw. No, they cut investigative reporting—because the public doesn’t demand sound information. Illustrations abound. Half of U.S. citizens still believe that Saddam Hussein was a coconspirator in the 9/11 attacks. Most cannot name even three of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. But, take heart. Most people can name all five members of the cartoon-family Simpsons.
Thus at a time when information is at its most accessible, we risk being at our most uninformed.
The business model of today’s media is to find out what we want—and give it to us. The media have strayed so far from their original mission that today many in our society actually decry the watchdog function. Consider the acrimony with which many spit out the term liberal media. Whether or not you embrace liberal policy—another matter altogether—you should thank your lucky stars for liberal media, because they dare to challenge the status quo. Without the liberal media, the American Revolution might not have happened. Slavery in the U.S. might have gone on interminably. Blacks and women might still be denied the right to vote. Hitler might be living in cozy retirement.
We need not be helpless. In the immortal and recent words of scientist and author Michael Shermer, “I am a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.” If you want to know, do your homework! Don’t cede your mind to sources and commentators who feed you what you already believe. Consult lots of sources. Check their sources. Examine various points of view as expressed by those who hold them, not as reported by their opponents. Set aside emotion and bias as you ferret out and weigh facts for yourself. Do so and you will vastly increase your odds of arriving at an informed rather than a manipulated conclusion. It’s not foolproof. But it beats remaining a slave to a market-driven point of view.