What’s the point of “the media?”

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newsweek.com

I’ve written an article on how information is politicized through the media. I’ve also done a write-up on why politicians lie (which is probably tied to media manipulation).

What I have not written about, however, is why the media exists at all. As in, what’s the point of the media, anyway?

I get the feeling these days that people are angry with “the media.” I quote it, because the phrase is repeated pretty consistently, but nobody really thinks about “the media” is, or what it is suppose to do.

Is the media only major networks? Is it boutique internet newsfeeds? Is it blogs? WHAT IS IT!? AND WHAT DO THEY WANT!?


DEFINE MEDIA!!!!

Well, literally ‘media’ is the plural of ‘medium.’

And what is a medium? An agency (or organization) that does something.

So, “the media” refers specifically to any agency that is capable of transmitting mass communication — and I’ll let the reader define how many people need to be reached before it’s labeled as mass communication.

Then, it stands that any “media” agent has a desired output, or outcome. THUS, the question: What do media outlets want!?

Well, I’ll try and answer 1) what the media is suppose to do, and 2) speculate what the media wants.

Note: Keep in mind that there is probably not any unified goal of a multiple media agencies. So I’m doubtful there is any conspiracy, because 1) people are lazy, 2) agencies are competing with one another, and 3) people don’t cooperate enough for a conspiracy theory to work in real life.


Functions of the media:

Firstly, the media is suppose to act as watchdogs over elected officials, government agencies, and really anybody with substantial power.

We hear about the CIA withholding information (this happens frequently), the IRS targeting specific groups, the VA ignoring patients, or the military covering up cases of rape.

How do we hear about these things? The media.

Similarly, the media is suppose to keep tabs on what elected officials are doing. So if Congressman X is texting nude selfies to his interns, and the intern is compelled to go to the local Tribune with that information, then the media should release that information for the wellbeing of the community at large.

How many businessmen have done shady things and been exposed? I remember a Google executive died of a drug overdose with a prostitute recently. Not to mention unethical companies like Enron, tobacco companies that whitewash anti-smoking research, or private contracting firms (Booz Allen) working with the government to collect private phone data en masse. So the media uncovers these things, and lets the general public know.

KEEP IN MIND: The public is only one component of society, and the public alone, contrary to popular belief, does NOT decide the fate of anything in America. Instead, you have government, business, wealthy classes, international players (including businesses), interest groups, nonprofits, and, yes, the public all making decisions. But, for the sake of public education, the media is suppose to report on abuses, and let the public have its say.


The second function of the media: To decide which issues are important, and which are less important.

And THIS FUNCTION, by the way, is what EVERYONE gets angry about.

As a broadcaster of information to thousands, or millions, of people, media outlets get to choose which issues they find important. And in the United States, media outlets are not government-owned, nor do they get government funding — except PBS (and media outlets report government information). SO, as a private entity, media outlets can choose anything they want to run as a top story.

This probably means they’ll run whatever gets enough clicks, what’s trending on social media, or some other metric because, as a business, the goal is profits. And if the media agency wants that almighty advertising money, the outlet better have readers; and to get readers, you run whatever is most-profitable. This is usually anything that is bloody, gross, highly controversial, unethical, shocking, celebrity in nature, or stories that scare people.

OK, I doubt profits are in mind all the time, because some of these outlets generate a ridiculous about of money.

Some outlets run what they finds important issues in the world. As private entities, profits are not the only interest of outlets, because, just like private citizens, it’s realistic to say that each outlet has interests.

There are obviously left-leaning outlets, and right-leaning ones. Because these entities are private, there are no rules stating they have to give airtime to both sides of an issue (which used to be a law).

If the media outlet is interested in political change, it can run stories that try and induce some outcome, or put pressure on powerholders to make some change.

— The Cecil the lion thing was an obvious attempt to bring illegal game hunting to the public’s attention. I’ve heard people ranting that this news just doesn’t matter. Well, that’s a lie. It obviously matters to major media outlets and social media enough to run pretty consistently. In theory, the hope is that stories like this will spur some action to make (presumably) positive change in the world.

The reality is that people are apathetic, and really don’t care about a lot of things other than income, vacation time, electronics, and, these days, social media. What the news does is try and generate some debate and controversy in order to change stuff.


Wait, what do media outlets want!?

So now the question: What do media outlets fundamentally want?

Well, I’m doubting that they are passive observers of national and international events. Also, practitioners of the news don’t explicitly call for action. Instead, these days, there is a very tight relationship between politics, news, and business. To be honest, it’s a mixed bag when you ask what media outlets want. Although, I’m pretty sure most journalists aim to make positive change in the world — but, in reality, it’s editors and managers (working for publishers or perhaps a board) who set the agenda, the story order, and decide what is important from what isn’t.

Similar to politicians (who want campaign money), media outlets may inherently prefer particular candidates, have an interest in targeted issues, or simply sell advertising space.

It’s no surprise to anyone that Fox News is explicitly conservative (they host Republican debates). Similarly, it’s no surprise that CNN is (a bit more subtly) left-leaning (they’re hosting the Democratic debates).

NOTE: The terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are largely constructed and defined by media outlets, and, I would say, are not accurate conceptions conservative nor liberal political philosophies.

At present, there is lots of Trump bashing by all (which I love), and it’s an obvious attempt to get rid of the guy as a candidate. Republicans are trying to improve their image with minorities and women, and obviously Trump doesn’t help that. Also, if Trump runs, he would just suck votes away from meaningful candidates on the Republican side. The Democratic party hasn’t said much about Trump (because they know he’s an idiot), but CNN runs plenty of stories making him look like an idiot.

Sometimes outlets want political change, but other times, the goal is to induce some social or attitude change.

The coverage of the shootings in Ferguson is a pretty obvious attempt to outrage the public about unfair policing. This, by the way, has happened for YEARS, but the media can honestly only play up a story when the story is special. There was something special about the Trayvon Martin case that the public took to, and that’s a cue for media outlets to play it up, investigate, educate, and hopefully spur some change.

So, sometimes, like with Cecil, the media waits for a good story to play up the issue — because they are great openers for further investigation.

And, all the time, media outlets want to make money. So, maybe something is really important, but profits are down and the publisher is mad. So, you have to generate some income with some good, old-fashioned controversy. So, que the ridiculous stories about how long presidents take vacation.

At the end of the day, media outlets want readership, profits, policy say, and change.

… it’s managing the circus (aka public).


What about OBJECTIVE JOURNALISM!?

I doubt such a thing has ever existed.

All this nostalgia about the heyday of objective journalism is probably just that; nostalgia.

I really don’t think journalism was objective during the Cold War; instead, it was all pro-America, anti-Soviet propaganda. During the 1990s, the media played up international cooperation and highlighted human rights abuses. During post-9/11, it emphasized nationalistic, American-centric sentiments again.

In reality, I’m really not thinking journalism has ever been disinterested. It can be subtle, under-the-radar, or covered up, but there is always some interest.

These days, instead of claiming objectiveness, media has embraced policy stances, and essentially sanctions and legitimizes their views.

I would say the best thing to happen to media is satirical news like The Onion, John Stewart, Oliver Nelson, and others who are both entertaining and logic warriors (pioneered by comedy giants at places like Saturday Night Live). They effectively explain issues by using extreme satire, and comment on hypocrisy. They are intelligent, insightful, and make sense of the world through their particular political lens. They hilariously expose the media, politics, business, and power.

So, is this better than the past America where nationalistic sentiments were high, the family was defined, and everyone knew their place?

Not sure, but I will say that there is far more input in politics than there was.

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5 thoughts on “What’s the point of “the media?”

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