“An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic,” Thomas Jefferson said in 1812.
In order for our political system to work at all, we must have an educated and engaged population. Unfortunately, we have neither of those.
The engagement issue is a whole can of worms for another day. Voter turnout is abysmal and deeply unsettling, especially in America. However, the much larger issue is that of education.
The foremost problem in American politics (as well as culture) is the ignorance with which people vote. This is not a knock against schooling; although perhaps better formal education would help. No, the media and its twisted commitments is the enemy of our democracy.
All media is biased, just as all opinions are. This is evident for op-ed pieces like the one being read right now, but it is just as true for “factual” reporting, as well. What media groups put into print, and more importantly, do not put into print is determined by the biases of the people working and funding that group. Similarly, what is signal boosted through social media or user interface or whatever is also picked not at random, but according to bias. Even tone within articles or headlines can have a huge effect on how news is perceived.
This is not a bad thing, or at least it is not a particularly interesting problem. After all, there is not really a solution; any automated system still inherits the biases of its developers, and even if we could somehow report all news objectively and fairly, people will still prioritize in their own reading. A much more interesting idea is investigating the source of this bias in our current system.
To that end, we see the insidious nature of American media: It is almost entirely commodified. Mass media corporations rely on advertisements and sponsorships to survive. As such, keeping large, wealthy benefactors happy is the key to continued success and growth. CNN and Fox News didn’t become household names by their commitment to reporting the facts. They got there by appealing to private interests while remaining tame enough to gain an audience.
This isn’t to put down all journalists. But even assuming there are honest people in a media group, the management of these companies can strangle truth. Look at how the Stormy Daniels case was killed ahead of the 2016 elections. This happened because higher-ups at Fox wanted to aid Trump; why wouldn’t big-money executives want to help the candidate that would be best for big money?
Some may look at this and say, “Well at least we have NPR.” It is considered one of the most trustworthy news sources, after all. However, the National Public Radio is not so safe from corporate bias either. Of course, a federally funded group has the interest of the federal government in mind, which can be bad when the government is the problem, but NPR isn’t even federally funded that much anymore. In 2012, just over 10% of revenue for NPR came from the U.S. government. (https://web.archive.org/web/20140301170647/http://www.cpb.org/stations/reports/revenue/2012PublicBroadcastingRevenue.pdf) Is it any surprise that NPR was accused of bias toward big business?
The level to which mainstream media must bend over backwards to corporate interests is destroying this country. When the world is interconnected as it is now, media is critical to having any sense of scale about the world. When people must budget their time so tightly to fit the modern world, trustworthy media is vital. With all of this power, the way that wealthy, large companies are able to distort the way we perceive the world is sickening.
What is the answer? How can we move towards impartiality? Again, we can never truly reach an unbiased media, but we can at least tweak where these biases come from. A transparent, publicly funded, robust media group is a good first step. This needs to be paired with a transparent government beholden to the public as well, but we won’t be able to get that without some media cooperation. If we cannot take the bias out of facts, we can at least make the bias be in the interest of the people.
Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.