Constituencies

The fortunes of those in the business of providing the news are of course directly related to the size of their audience. More readers, viewers or listeners means more ads sold. Higher circulation, ratings or traffic means higher ad rates. So it would seem like good business for a newspaper, Web site, TV or radio station in the business of providing news to give priority to the concerns of the largest potential constituencies for any given story.

But it doesn't quite work that way.

Consider, as a hypothetical case, news coverage of a particular credit card bank.* Such a story would have at least five distinct constituencies:

1. The bank's executives

2. The bank's shareholders

3. The bank's employees

4. Satisfied customers (those served by the bank), and

5. Dissatisfied customers (those screwed by the bank).

A reader's membership in one or another of these constituencies affects the way they will read news about the bank.

An article reporting disappointing financial news for the bank, for example, will be read as Bad News for members of all five constituencies, but for different reasons. Members of C1 and C2 will worry about their profits and bonuses; members of C3 will worry about their jobs; the dissatisfied customers of C5 will worry that the bank's financial pressures will result in them being squeezed with higher rates and additional fees; and the satisfied customers of C4 will worry that such possible increases in rates and fees will move them from C4 to C5.

This disappointing financial news may lead to further news of downsizing, or job cuts, at the bank. This may be seen as Good News for C1 and C2, who will see it as evidence that their profits and bonuses are being protected. But it is also, of course, very, very Bad News for the members of C3 who will find in this story evidence that their jobs/health insurance/ability to pay rent are in jeopardy.

These hypothetical stories may in turn be followed by the announcement that the bank may be offsetting some of the projected layoffs with rate and fee hikes. The folks in C3 will be relieved to read this piece of, for them, Good News. But the poor suckers in C5 and the dwindling numbers still precariously dwelling in C4 will see this as very Bad News indeed.

News that lawmakers are considering legislation to regulate the rates and fees charged by credit card banks will be viewed with fear and apprehension by members of C1 and C2, but with hopeful cheer by members of C4 and C5. (The members of C3, at least those able to read the corporate balance sheets detailing billions of dollars of questionable subprime loans, will read this news with a relief that they won't show lest some members of C1 happen to walk by their cubicles.)

The inevitable news that this legislation has been overwhelmingly defeated will seen as Very Good by the owners and executives and Very Bad by the customers.

What I find interesting, and troubling, is that while the various constituencies are listed here in roughly ascending order by size, they are also listed in roughly descending order according to the priority that their concerns are reflected in typical news coverage. Odd, that.

Why should this be? Why should the tiny constituency of C1 be granted so much more attention than the large and growing constituency of C5?

No mystery there, of course — it's just business.

Constituencies like C1 may be tiny in actual numbers, but they control a lot of money. Specifically, they control a lot of the advertising money that serves as the lifeblood of the news agencies.

This dynamic skews almost all American journalism. This is not an original observation — it is hardly even a controversial one.

The "business" sections of most newspapers and business segments of news broadcasts are structured for the concerns of executives and shareholders. Every day they provide news that is of vital importance to employees and customers, but those constituencies are forced to read between the lines for clues of how this news affects their concerns. They may represent the largest constituencies, but because they lack the financial clout of the smaller, wealthier constituencies, their concerns are underrepresented.

By this point you've probably guessed that my worry is not only about journalism, but also about democracy.

In our political system, constituencies like C1 are able to purchase the sympathetic attention of lawmakers and other politicians with campaign contributions in the same way that they purchase the sympathetic attention of newspapers with their advertising dollars. This is not healthy for either our political system or our newspapers. The sicknesses afflicting both are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

Neither a democracy nor a newspaper can fulfill its legitimate role while giving disproportionate attention small, moneyed constituencies and failing to attend to the competing concerns of the majority of their citizens and readers.

I'm not confident either one can survive as long as this is the case.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* This is a purely hypothetical case. I am certainly not thinking here of any particular credit card bank, nor of the kind of coverage that any particular newspaper provides of that bank. I am emphatically not thinking here of any particular credit card bank and the corresponding coverage in a particular newspaper that could, you know, hypothetically fire a particular employee for raising these kinds of questions.

  • Dave Lartigue

    “This dynamic skews almost all American journalism. This is not an original observation — it is hardly even a controversial one.”
    Ah, but it is! How often have you gotten into the old “The media is biased left!” “No, it’s biased right!” argument? How many times has someone (usually a “Reasonable Liberal”) decided to split the difference by saying, “what I think is, the media is biased towards its own interests, not those of a party, which is why both sides see it as biased against them!” And everyone sagely nods at this Rasonable Assumption.
    Except, of course, that no one ever takes it a step further. If the media’s interests are purely self-driven, and they’re a corporate entity (usually owned by even larger corporate entities), than their interest is the same as that of the Corporation’s, which means chances are, they favor the Right, since the Right loves Corporate America. This “compromise” is actually an admission of no, it actually DOES skew to the Right. (Which is obvious to all except the people who think that if someone isn’t agreeing to everything George Bush says without question, they’re clearly biased.)

  • Dave Lartigue

    “This dynamic skews almost all American journalism. This is not an original observation — it is hardly even a controversial one.”
    Ah, but it is! How often have you gotten into the old “The media is biased left!” “No, it’s biased right!” argument? How many times has someone (usually a “Reasonable Liberal”) decided to split the difference by saying, “what I think is, the media is biased towards its own interests, not those of a party, which is why both sides see it as biased against them!” And everyone sagely nods at this Rasonable Assumption.
    Except, of course, that no one ever takes it a step further. If the media’s interests are purely self-driven, and they’re a corporate entity (usually owned by even larger corporate entities), than their interest is the same as that of the Corporation’s, which means chances are, they favor the Right, since the Right loves Corporate America. This “compromise” is actually an admission of no, it actually DOES skew to the Right. (Which is obvious to all except the people who think that if someone isn’t agreeing to everything George Bush says without question, they’re clearly biased.)

  • Jay Denari

    Hi, Fred & Dave,
    Actually, Dave, it doesn’t so much skew Right as it skews to the authoritarian. While I don’t generally agree with so-called “libertarian” policies as they’re usually presented, I do agree with their idea that the real political spectrum isn’t Left/liberal-Right/conservative, it’s Libertarian(I’d call it more accurately Anarchist)-Authoritarian, since we can have Leftists and Rightists of both stripes.
    Fred, I almost entirely agree with your analysis, except that there’s also a 6th class of people affected: the public at large, since today’s economy is so intertwined that everyone is affected in some way by corporate malfeasance, so even people who have no direct contact with Bank X need to pay attention to what Bank X does.

  • Ray

    Even more accurate would be to say that the political spectrum has two axes – Propertarian/Redistributive and Individualist/Authoritarian. The four corners are anarchist, libertarian, fascist, and Communist. (there are plenty of political quizzes out there based on this schema)

  • Dave Lartigue

    Regardless, the point is, whatever political cartography you use, the position of Republicans who favor the interests of corporations above all and the position of media outlets who are big corporations or depend on big corporations for cash, who are self-interested above all, are going to lie pretty damn close to one another. And yet we continue to either buy the absurd “left-wing media” garbage or be “reasonable” and go for some kind of false compromise.

  • none

    Hmm, Senator, now candidate Joe “Scum” Biden (R-MBNA)?

  • Mark

    Hmm, Senator, now candidate, Joe “Scum” Biden (R-MBNA)?

  • Jay Denari

    Oh, I agree with you, Dave; corporate media is definitely not left-wing in the sense we both know you mean it. If anything, corp-media (esp. TV) does whatever it can to AVOID dealing with genuine political/social issues whenever it can, preferring to waste broadcast time with fluff stories and murders rather than real analysis of why those murders are happening…
    Mark… Biden’s a Democrat (unfortunately).


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