Mark Lloyd on Media Bias and the Future of the Freedom of the Press
This beautifully written testimony sums up the challenge and impetus for media reform.
This material was created by the Center for American Progress
Statement of Mark Lloyd
Senior Fellow Center for American Progress
May 24, 2005
[Congressional] Forum on "Media Bias and the Future of the Freedom of the Press"
I am former broadcast journalist. I worked at local stations and national networks, including NBC and CNN and then represented all sorts of communications companies as an attorney here in Washington. I spent two years teaching at MIT and am now teaching at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. I am a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
I want to thank the people’s congressman John Conyers and the rest of the public servants joining us today for holding this forum. The problem of media bias is not simply a matter of taste, it is a problem of life or death, of peace or war, of solving our problems or descending into confusion. There is no greater or more urgent problem facing America. So thank you again.
What is media bias? Bias is the ideological distortion of information. Is there media bias? Of course. Is it new? Of course not.
We have forgotten the yellow journalism that led us into war with Spain at the beginning of the 20th century. We have forgotten the media bias that led to the persecution of Paul Robeson and the promotion of Joe McCarthy. We have forgotten that most journalists supported the war in Vietnam for the vast majority of the time we were there, and ignored the problems of the ghettoes and barrios until the riots of the 1960's. No bias is not new.
Most of the critiques of media on the left or the right tend to focus on a perceived partisan bias. But the problem is much deeper than that. The problem of bias is built into our current system. Our communication system supports a vibrant commercial media but ignores the needs of a government of the people. The bias inherent in such a system promotes the agenda of corporations not citizens.
I think most Americans are right to expect news organizations to be fair, even-handed and respectful but persistent and tough with our public servants. I think most Americans are right to want news organizations to select news and to select the experts who speak about events or policies in a way that treats all reasonable sides fairly. This is an ideal, and however distant, I think this is an ideal that is right to strive for . . . it is a democratic ideal.
But our peculiar American system of communication says that whoever has the most money will be the loudest voice in the public debate. Is this the sort of system that leads to fairness?
The focus of my remarks today will be on what I think of as a core problem, not the speech that results because of that core problem. I will also propose that the solution to the problem of bad speech is not censorship but better speech.
The founders of our democracy would say that debate dominated by any one faction in our society is not sufficient to the needs of democracy. With our relatively recent focus on the first amendment to the constitution, we forget that even before it was amended the founders created a mechanism that supported the communication of all Americans . . . it was called the Post Office. The Post Office was the largest part of the federal republic under the founders. It was larger than the army or the treasury. It was larger and more robust than any other advanced nation in the world.
When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about democracy in America, newspapers were highly ideological, highly partisan and carried by the U.S. Post Office at a discount. Moreover, newspapers were delivered free to other newspaper publishers so that news could spread.
Newspaper distribution was subsidized by business and personal correspondence in Jefferson’s America. The founders established a system that promoted diverse communication as a way to check and balance different political factions. And they understood that merchants and bankers were a political faction.
It is true that we live in more complex times. And in many ways we live in times that are far more open and democratic than the time of the founders. But I think there are important lessons in the fact that the founders placed such importance on constructing a communications system that made truly diverse and equal political communication possible. Our current structure of communications is far off the democratic course established by the founders.
Before I am misunderstood, let me repeat that the one faction dominating our political conversation is not the radical right and it is certainly not the few remaining public figures willing to be called liberal. Multinational corporations dominate the political conversation in the U.S. today.
These multinational corporations are provided a tax structure that promotes their lifeblood . . . advertising. They are given free licenses to use the public airwaves. They are given access to our streets and alleys. And what is most important to Viacom, the News Corporation, General Electric, Disney, Comcast and, yes, even the New York Times is whether at the end of the quarter they turn a profit. That’s what counts.
If Americans do not understand one another because of the distortions or omissions in the news, NBC will not lose their access to public property. If Americans and countless civilians in other countries lose their lives because of the drumbeat for war, FOX will not be punished. The New York Times will not be held responsible for focusing on Whitewater and passing on lies about weapons of mass destruction.
Let me be clear that I believe in the importance of a competitive commercial press unrestrained by government. But we need more. We need a media responsible to promote democratic dialogue. We need media independent of corporations.
If we really want news we can trust, we must create a structure that makes it possible and we must pay for it. One way to do this is to require commercial media to pay full fare for their access to public resources and use that money to fully support public service media in the U.S. A modern equivalent of the post office would be independent from both partisan and corporate pressure, unlike our current structure. And, unlike our current structure, it must be truly accountable to local communities through democratic means.
I would say these steps were radical, if they were not consistent with the founders of our republic. And unless we take these steps, we can only expect a continuation of the sort of yellow journalism we are experiencing today.