By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com; February 26, 2021)
It is reasonable to think some news stories should be considered more important than others. And though one person might have a different ranking than another person, when those subjective rankings are combined across an entire society, the average ranking should reflect the relative importance of news stories within that society.
In reality, however, editors and journalists through their training and position possess disproportionate power in developing those rankings and, subsequently, are the ones who decide what news stories are ‘fit to print’ and make the nightly TV news. Nonetheless, if news organizations — which are mostly for-profit enterprises in the U.S. — want to be economically viable, a common assumption is that they will publish and broadcast the stories most important to the news-consuming public.
The above news-production model, of course, is a middle school civics class load of crap.
American news organizations long ago learned that it is more profitable to create compelling (i.e., commercially attractive) news narratives and to wedge daily events, when possible, into those narratives, not because news organizations aim to deceive the news-consuming public, but because they aim to make money. And, as we’ve all been taught since grade school, it is not a crime in this country to make money.
Politicians, understanding this dynamic, also learned how to exploit those narratives through the timing and targeted content of press conferences, news releases, interviews, and anonymous leaks. In the modern era, there has also been a loose confederation that has formed between senior U.S. government officials and the news media where individuals are allowed (perhaps enticed?) to move freely between them for employment opportunities.
To complete this iron triangle over the forces driving our daily news cycle are corporate lobbyists who, themselves, are often drawn from the news media and government sectors (and vice versa).
No crime is being committed in this process. It requires no conspiracy theory to explain what constitutes news on our nightly newscasts or makes headlines in our daily papers. It is merely the system we have all — passively or actively — accepted as an appropriate mechanism for what determines our news and information.
Joylessly, among the many problems inherent in our mainstream media system, is the fact that non-news — including straight up falsehoods and misinformation— is often commingled with genuine news, making one almost indistinguishable from the other.
This news-production system has been standardized across the news industry, independent of a news organization’s presumed objectivity, be it left-leaning, right-leaning, or “neutral.”
Here is but a recent example of that phenomenon…
Senator Ted Cruz versus New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
I must preface what I’m about to write with this comment: Texas Senator Ted Cruz ditching his constituents during a tragic natural disaster represented “extremely bad optics,” as some of his most ardent supporters have acknowledged. In the context of D.C. politics, it was legitimate news and, in my opinion, speaks volumes about his personal judgment.
[According to prediction markets, Cruz is running in 6th place for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, behind former President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, and former Vice President Mike Pence. IMHO, you can replace Donald Trump’s name with that of his son, Don Jr., who I believe will be the 2024 Republican nominee — but never count out Haley or my dark horse bet, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst.]
But did Cruz’ optic failure deserve being the top news story in the national news media for a good two to three days after the February 13–17 storm hit Texas and other parts of the American Midwest and South?
It is not like there lacked important stories to cover during this period:
(1) The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the push to roll out the vaccines could have justifiably topped every newscast in February…
(2) … if not for the Democrats’ attempt to impeach and convict Trump for inciting the January 6th riots,
(3) And when the Congress wasn’t obsessing over Trump’s trial, both chambers spent February haggling over whether to provide additional relief to Americans — beyond the $2,000 some received last year — to mitigate the financial stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
[Compare that to Canada where its citizens have been provided $500 per week for up to 26 weeks in cases where people have stopped working or had their income reduced by at least 50 percent due to COVID-19.]
(4) Also deserving top news consideration in February was a Biden administration announcement on February 5th to reverse a Trump administration decision that put Yemen’s Houthi military forces on our nation’s terrorist organization list,
(5) And then came the devastating mid-February ice storm that paralyzed Texas and killed at least 70 people.
If Figure 1 is any indication, the cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News) did their job fairly well in picking the most prominent stories in February. Trump’s Senate trial dominated cable news airtime in February, particularly on CNN and MSNBC, where each dedicated, on average, around 11 percent of daily airtime to the topic.
[Trump was acquitted by the Senate on February 13th.]
Figure 1: Cable News Airtime Volume for Selected Topics in February 2021
Combined, the three cable networks spent approximately 30 percent of February airtime on the Trump trial, with Fox News contributing just 7 percent to that total. President Joe Biden, likewise, earned a mere 17 percent of cable news airtime for the month.
Whether it was the best use of Congress’ time is debatable, but there is no denying the historical significance of the second Trump impeachment trial. However, by mid-February, the failure of the Senate to convict Trump faded as a story and was replaced by events related to the Texas ice storm (Feb. 13–17) and the ongoing difficulties getting the COVID-19 vaccine administered across the nation.
But it is Cruz’ ill-advised trip to Cancun during the Texas storm — the news of which broke on February 18th — that is most fascinating from a news-bias perspective.
And the Cruz story cannot be understood without reference to another political story that broke on February 11th: An aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, privately admitted the Cuomo administration delayed the release of data on COVID-19 deaths of long-term care facility residents because of fears of a federal investigation.
A quick summary:
In an understandable effort to relieve stresses on hospitals caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, New York (and other states) decided to move elderly patients hospitalized due to the coronavirus to nursing homes. In the earliest months of this pandemic, that decision was a policy debacle as nursing homes became killing fields for the virus. To this day, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are still in the Top 10 among U.S. states for the number of COVID-19 deaths per capita. [Will we ever know the names of the “experts” that thought this policy was a good idea? If the objectivity and integrity of our national news media is a factor, don’t count on it.]
If solar sail-traveling aliens from Proxima Centauri had observed and then been asked to judge what story deserved the most media attention in February — Senator Cruz going with his daughters to Cancun during an ice storm versus Governor Cuomo hiding the damage in human lives caused by one of his policies — I can’t imagine an intelligence species that wouldn’t believe the Cuomo story was the most important.
Consider these facts..
At most, hundreds died in Texas due to policy failures almost entirely unrelated to any specific decision made by Senator Cruz, whose policy jurisdiction does not include executive powers in the state of Texas. In the moment, there was little Cruz could do to stave off the impact of the ice storm in Texas, other than making phone calls to energy executives and state bureaucrats and lighting a few fires under their butts, none of whom are accountable to him. But beyond that, there wasn’t much else for him to do.
In contrast, most likely thousands of elderly New Yorkers died because of an ill-considered policy to move elderly COVID patients from hospitals into nursing homes. My statistical estimate for New York puts the policy-related death toll around 9,400. Good intentions considered, the policy was a disaster and there is now evidence New York’s governor tried to minimize his possible accountability for that failure.
So which story do you think the cable news networks covered the most in February?
Combined, all three U.S. cable news networks gave both stories about the same amount of attention (see Figure 2) — 19 percent of daily airtime to the Cuomo story and 16 percent to the Cruz/Cancun story. [The burst of Cruz coverage around February 12th was related to the Trump Senate trial, not his Cancun trip.]
Figure 2: Cable News Daily Airtime on Cruz and Cuomo Stories
In comparison, online news stories seemed to focus more on Cruz’ Cancun trip than Cuomo’s deadly policy faux pas (see Figure 3). [Is it possible the political bias of high tech is influencing this result? Stop it! What are you? A Capitol-rampaging conspiracy theorist?]
Figure 3: Online News Coverage for Cruz and Cuomo Stories
But the most interesting feature of cable news coverage emerges when focusing on CNN and MSNBC’s coverage of the two stories. Their partisan bias is irrefutable. Both networks all but ignored the Cuomo story through February 22nd (and this has continued through February 26th, according to data from The GDELT Project), but as for Cruz’ Father-Daughters trip? A national scandal!
Figure 4: CNN and MSNBC Daily Airtime on Cruz and Cuomo Stories
How disconnected from reality must a news organization be to think Cruz’ poorly thought out indiscretion compares to Cuomo’s failure as governor to protect his state’s most vulnerable citizens?
Perhaps it is a mistake to consider the cable news networks separately. Maybe the Republican-bias inherent in Fox News coverage serves as a necessary balance to the other major cable news networks?
I would be happy with that fact if it weren’t clear from audience data that most people watching CNN or MSNBC are not also watching Fox News (and vice versa). In my opinion, if people are not honestly and consistently exposed to multiple points of view, how can they possibly develop independent opinions of their own?
But could that independent information function be provided by “neutral” news sources, as implied to exist according to this essay’s headline graphic (developed by Ad Fontes Media founder Vanessa Ortero)? Could the Bloomberg, AP and Reuters news services be that critical component to building a well-informed public?
Unfortunately, my preliminary analysis of AP, Reuters and Bloomberg content suggests they aren’t that much different from CNN and MSNBC in their story selection.
If I were doing the labeling for Otero’s media bias graphic, the label “neutral” would be replaced by the word “status quo.”
Our profit-motivated mainstream media does little more than trump up (pardon the pun) superficial controversies that do nothing to challenge the status quo.
Hence, the phony Cruz/Cancun outrage.
In the process, the American people — apart from the political and economic elite who benefit from a hopelessly divided populace — are getting screwed.
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