Editorial: Media, divisiveness and the role we all play

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[Editor’s note: We strive to write editorials (or commentary) about issues directly facing Worcester. This one does not fit that category. However, just as digital media knows no geographical boundaries, the issues reflected in and faced by mass media know no bounds in their reach and effect on our communities, which makes topics like this, we think, relevant to us all.]

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

That was CBS CEO Les Moonves speaking last month at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco. He was asked about Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s effect on the market for advertising this year.

Les Moonves, head of CBS, with his wife, Julie Chen, a CBS television personality

Wikimedia Commons

Les Moonves, head of CBS, with his wife, Julie Chen, a CBS television personality

Moonves continued:

“The money’s rolling in and this is fun. … I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Lest anyone think the bull market for advertising is occurring in a vacuum, last week the New York Times reported that Trump has garnered nearly $1.9 billion in free media in his campaign.

Not to be outdone, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, a deeply polarizing figure in her own right, has earned $746 million in free media, more than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio combined.

Calling it free media is a misnomer, really. Media, and news media in particular, has become complicit in the politics of division, abdicating its duty to serve the public interest.

Journalists are skeptical by nature and cynical by choice, especially when it comes to how our colleagues perform their duties. In this regard, we hold that news media, far from being simply conditioned to respond when the bell of advertising has rung, has learned to ring that bell on its own.

There exists a shockingly straight line between media, especially digital media, and divisiveness.

Where once communities were defined by geography alone, digital media allows an unlimited number of communities to arise and affords the freedom to become members of any number of them.

At this point, group polarization is a near certainty.

(Group polarization “arises when members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ pre-deliberation tendency.”)

Given enough stimulus and the ability and predisposition to easily became a member of community based on shared beliefs, divisiveness is the inevitable result.

On Monday, March 21, the Christian Science Monitor published a piece headlined, “How does Trump get so much air time? Media ethics under fire.”

Aram Sinnreich, professor of communication at American University in Washington, said: “Despite recognizing that they’re violating their public service mandate, news organizations – for large structural reasons that have economic, policy, and technological origins – have an even more immediate mandate to grow audiences and advertising dollars and make more money.”

Rubio, in a press conference on March 12, said: “I hope the U.S. media begins to examine the role they’ve played in all this, because I can tell you that for months I’ve been giving speeches on public policy and nobody paid a lot of attention.

“The minute that I mentioned anything personal about Donald Trump, every network cut in live to my speeches, hoping I would say more of it — so then they could go on the air and say, that’s so sad.

“Subtitle: We’re going to keep giving it coverage to help our ratings. The media needs to begin to examine the role it’s played in creating this atmosphere. I know it’s good for ratings, but it’s really detrimental to our political culture, and to our country at large.”

While the role news media is playing in today’s political culture is lamentable, can it really be blamed? Eyeballs and page views are the coin of the realm in a media landscape overwhelmingly comprised of outlets supported by advertising, so we’re being fed that which we most readily consume.

So when we ask ourselves how the current state of news media came to be, it’s helpful to remember words written more than 400 years ago. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

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