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Media Bias

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Teacher/Instructor Chuck Raznikov
Chuck Raznikov

U.C.Berkeley
Teaching at a top-ranked high school in SF

He has been a teacher at Lo High School - a top-ranked high school in San Francisco - for over 20 years.

Just on the other side of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, lies highway US 80. It runs from Oakland to Sacramento to the Nevada boarder. Many years ago a woman used to travel on that road on a everyday basis. She’d commute to work to San Francisco. She occasionally saw these very strange buses. They didn’t have a destination, they had darkened windows. There were no passengers on the buses and it made her wonder what’s going on in those buses. Once a week, twice a week, she saw the buses. And then one time she had to take public transportation to work. Now she’s up a little bit higher in a bus and she looks across and she sees one of the strange buses. And she looks in the windows of the buses and she realizes that those buses are full of caskets. They’re men coming home from the Vietnam War. It makes me wonder, why is it that we don’t see the caskets? Why is it that we don't seeing the horrors and images of war? What is the responsibility of the media to cover that?

Okay welcome back. In this episode we’re going to talk about the media. We’re going to ask ourselves a few questions. First, just a brief background, we’re going to talk about how people get their news and how that’s changing. Beyond that, we’re going to ask the question is the media biased? In what ways? We’ll take a liberal point of view, we’ll take a conservative point of view. Then, we’re actually going to do what we call a case study. We’ll take a question or a question that is similar to the one that the College Board has asked, and we’ll try to mock up an answer, so that you can get an idea of what the College Board is looking for. In the end, you should have a core of everything about the media you’ll be expected to know.

While you’re listening to this ask yourself, how you get your primary source of information? Is it the same as your parents and your grandparents did? 30 years, ago most people in America got their information from newspapers. You waited for the paper to come in the morning, you sat down with your breakfast and your cup of coffee and that’s how you got your news over time. Maybe it took you a half an hour, an hour on the weekends even longer to read the newspaper. That’s no longer true.

15 years ago, the answer was television and television news became king. The networks spent more money on news, there were more news services that were reporting the news, more people working in media. Folks got their news on television. Now things have began to shift to the younger generation. People getting faster news, immediate news online, on the internet. We’ll take a look at a liberal view. We’ll take a look at a conservative view.

While the news media claims or professes that their goal is to be unbiased, liberals typically ask the question 'who owns media'? For television for example, let’s take a look at the major networks. NBC is owned by General Electric. CBS, Westinghouse. ABC, Disney. All of them very conservative, but none of them are as conservative as Fox News owned by Rupert Murdoch, who’s probably just a little bit more conservative than Dick Cheney for example. Clear channel, 12 to 1300 radio stations in America. You’ll hear Rush Limbaugh on most of them but I doubt you’ll hear the Dixie Chicks, if you know what I mean. That’s a liberal point of view and they will ask the question, if people are owned by conservative forces. And these people by the way they’ve got two nuclear contractors in that group, General Electric and Westinghouse and three of those groups who gave heavily to the George Bush presidential campaigns.

They’ll say, can they possibly be unbiased when they come from that background? Conservatives will look at it in a different way. They look at newspapers for starters. The two most important newspapers in America, The New York Times, The Washington Post. Not only have they been managed by liberals and democrats, but it’s pretty clear that they’ve supported liberals and democratic candidates consistently over your lifetime and mine.

MSNBC hired Keith Olbermann several years back. And on his show, and on his news show that’s on Monday through Friday, he’s openly affectionate for Barrack Obama, and has disdain on a daily basis for John McCain. Is that a liberal bias? Well here’s what news producers know, they know two things. One let’s do a little bit of quick math. Evening news programs at one time or one hour, now they are half an hour, if we’re talking television. Of that half hour 12 minutes of that is commercials, news programs make money because they have a very targeted and limited audience.

You’ve got 18 minutes you need at least 3 minutes of introduction and feel good stuff. We’re a happy family, we’re going to have a happy story at the end. We’re down to 15 minutes of news, maybe six stories and the news stories are going to be about two minutes of peace. Can you do a complex news story in two minutes? Well the answer is clearly no. But that’s not a problem, because Americans don’t want complex news stories. That’s what the polls say. They want to be told what is true in general. They don’t want to know about the intricacies of the mortgage crisis. They might want to know what it’s like for someone who’s suffered and had a personal interview though, that sort of thing. News to many people is like fast food. They want it served up, they want it tasty and they want to have some fries with that.

News producers know something else about Americans, that we’re very ethnocentric. Last year in 2007, only about one out of every 225 people in this country, travelled abroad. That’s less than one half of one percent. And in general we’re not that interested in life abroad. Could people find where Darfur is? Could they find where Afghanistan or Kabul is? Polls show that 90% of the American people could not find the Sudan or Afghanistan on a map, let alone be interested in the events that happened somewhere else in the world. If I’m a news producer and my job is to get people to watch my station, as opposed to the other station, I’m going to be tempted to give people what they want.

We’re going to talk about this case study. Years ago, the College Board asked a questions something to the effect that said, how do candidates for political office use the media, and how does the media in turn use candidates? In order to do that, let’s set up a fictional candidate.

I live in California, and California has undergone tremendous changes in the last 20 to 30 years demographically. In Southern California, in the area of Disney land, which I visited as a child, it used to be very conservative, but now things have changed. There are more Latinos living in Orange County and whereas a conservative congress man Bob Dornan served for many years, called B one Bob by many, because he never met a defense project that he didn’t like. He lost his re-election sit several years ago to a Latina, Loretta Sanchez. Imagine that in Orange County California, so things have began to change.

We’re going to construct a candidate to run for office. And we’re going to talk and focus on how a candidate would specifically try to use the media. The first thing we’re going to do is try to stage the news, control the news cycle. A former press secretary for Ronald Reagan when he was president, once admonished the media. He said,” You don’t tell us how to stage the news and we won't tell you how to report the news.” Think about that and he was serious about that. So let’s talk about how a young candidate could stage the news. We’ll call our candidate for congress somewhere in Southern California, Terry Ramirez. And even though she doesn’t look 25 you know that she must be 25 in order to run for the house.

So what’s the first thing we’re going to do? We’re going to start with news releases. News releases are perfect for the passive reporter. We’re going to hire PR directors. We’re going to have several of them if we can. So we’ve got to have some money in order to do that. She knows that government has many PR directors, in fact, there are many thousands of people selling public relations for the Pentagon for example.

The next thing she’s going to do is start to get known, to hold press conferences. Sanchez is going to have a press conference and she’s going to say things like, gas prices, well they’re terrible. Oil profits that’s terrible. Wild fires, that’s terrible. Those are the problems. What do we need? We need new leadership. Who’s the new leadership? Well I am. You want to check out our energy policy at next week’s media event.

Now she’s going to have a media event. She wants to develop an energy policy. Think about where you would want that media event to be held. If she wants to talk about the dangers of offshore oil, maybe she’s going to go to the coastline and put her feet into the sand and make sure they get into the oil sludge in the murk. If she wants to talk advancing the environment, maybe she’ll go to a pristine seashore park, in order to hold this media event. The media is called. It gets on the television news, she’s got some free advertising. In this way, Terry Ramirez is effectively using the media. She wants to talk about her new jobs program, how about at a union factory that may be in danger of closing. Want to talk about schools, let’s go to an inner city school that is just starting to turn around, you get the idea. Those are ways that candidates can use the media.

Now let’s turn it around. How does media use candidates? We talked about what the interest of media is. Of course it is to make profits, and in order to make profits I need advertising. In order to get the advertising on the top dollars, my ratings have to be better than somebody else’s and somebody else’s, you’ve got that part.

First off all, media is likely to boil things down into its lowest common denominator. Knowing that Americans don’t have much of a stomach for complex issues, they’re going to find what’s titillating and interesting and they’re going to run with it as long as they possibly can. Take the Obama story with Reverend Wright. Somebody found some clips of Obama’s pastor, from several years ago. Of all of the sermons, whether Obama was in church or not at that time, and found a couple of clips that could be offensive. Spread it on the internet, send it to Fox News and then the mainstream media picks it up. If I don’t pick it up and somebody else has got it, and they’re watching it somewhere else and Fox News is very popular then, I’m loosing out. I better get that story on.

How many days is that a story? One day, people still want two days, three days, four days, five days. Is that a bigger story than something happened at the same time when Mr. McCain was in Iraq and got confused about Shia and Suni Muslims? Well it is because that’s what sells. I could give the best political speech of all time, but as you recall in a news broadcast, there may only be a minute or two for it and a lot of that is going to be the commentator talking about the event. And so the news media sometimes will take a quick clip or a sound bite.

I’ve been to many particular events where there’s a political event going on, the media come, they get right underneath the speaker, they take a picture, they put out their microphones, they get a quick sound bite, they’re gone before the speech or the event is even 1/3 over. Because, they’ve got everything they need, and they need to get back to their studio, to cut the footage and get it on the news. That’s taking a sound bite. They are using, using, using.

Then, some people say that media can in fact really impact an election and who gets money, by covering something from just from the front. We call that horse race coverage. In an election, if you're in first place, if the polls show you’re leading, you’re going to get more coverage than anybody else. If you’re in second or third not as much. If you’re in fourth place, nobody is going to come to your event. Nobody is going to cover you. Can you name the democratic candidates for president, or the republic candidates for president who didn’t get much love after the first few primaries and carcasses? It’s getting harder and harder to do.

These are the ways that the media is going to use the candidates themselves. They’re going to boil it down to the lowest common denominator, they’re going to take sound-bites and they’re going to do horse race coverage. Those are the kind of things that you could use in order to answer that question. We’ll be back just a second for the wrap up.

What do we absolutely need to know about the media? First of all, we need to know a little bit about how people get their news and how things are changing. You also want to be able to answer this question in what ways may the media be biased, both the liberal point of view, the conservative point of view. But also in what they cover and what they choose not to cover. Now you also have some tools to be able to say how politicians use the media and how media uses politicians.

In closing let’s go back to that opening story and the woman who saw the caskets in the bus. Do you have a much better idea at this point about why the media doesn’t show the horrors of war? I sure hope so. I’ll leave you with a question. Wouldn’t it be interesting if media actually got in that 18 wheeled truck and looked at things from a much different point of view? See you on the other side in episode six about elections.