Does the media serve democracy or undermine it?

With media being big business, Gavin Tracey questions whether the press can serve democracy in the way it thinks it already does.

The media has long seen itself as a bastion of freedom and democracy. Romanticisation of journalism has long been a running theme in media, with the elevation of events such as Watergate leading journalists to be placed upon a pedestal, the self appointed defenders of democracy and transparency. Now, in the age of Trump, large swaths of the US media landscape have rebranded themselves as guardians of freedom and decency, part of the #resistance. The Washington Post’s new slogan reads “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, and other outlets from the New York Times and CNN have made their ideological position clear. Does this image, largely one of their own creations, hold up to scrutiny? Can we rely on the press to serve democracy?

An understanding of how the media functions dispels these myths entirely. For as long as there has been a press, there have been those with vast amounts of wealth and power who have ensured that they are insulated from scrutiny and real opposition. Media outlets for the most part are owned by incredibly wealthy individuals, and newspapers, more so than most business, are the property and plaything of media dynasties.

The New York Times has been owned by Ochs-Sulzberger family for over 100 years. The Washington Post is owned by the world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos. The media empire of Rupert Murdoch and his sons is perhaps most notorious, both incredibly powerful, and not hesitant in the least to exert that power and influence editorial content. The most powerful media organisations are owned by the mega wealthy, whose political and ideological goals are fundamentally opposed to that of the population at large.

Even if one ignores the fact that media outlets are, by and large, the playthings of grossly wealthy sons of tyrannical media barons, one may still posit the argument that the journalists and broadcasters working for them are committed to serving the people. Ignoring the more obvious cases, like Tucker Carlson’s comments about his boss Rupert Murdoch: “I’m 100 percent his bitch” - journalists as a group are incredibly ideologically homogeneous. They are hired on this basis, and no major news corporation will hire anyone who falls outside these narrow parameters. It is a point made most by right-wing demagogues, but it is true nonetheless - the media is run by elites, whose interests are often diametrically opposed to most people. They maintain a veneer of impartiality, while for the most part remaining blind to their own ideological bias.

Journalism, as we know it today, serves only to uphold the status quo, never to truly challenge those in positions of power. In order to make a name for themselves, most journalists will have to develop a more than cozy relationship with politicians, if they want to stand any chance of landing big stories or getting “scoops”. Thus any savvy politician will use this close relationship to suit their own ends, leaking information and giving tips that will hurt their political rivals. The journalist will be rewarded, the politician will benefit, and nothing will really change for the population at large. There is no better example than this than the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, whereby the US government would leak stories to large newspapers like the New York Times in order to justify the move. Governments have always used tactics like this in order to manufacture consent for policies that invariably do far more harm than good. Those who go against this system are left out of the loop, and thus unable to work.

By and large, the media has consistently failed to actually do their job and interrogate those running for office and those who hold it. They focus on statistics and polls, on the image and branding of a particular candidate, how they think a certain message will “play” with voters. They quantify and divide the country and population into unique voter blocks, and spend much of their time speculating over the outcomes of elections and important votes. While this can be important, it should not be the sole role played by the media. Very little time is given to actual policy and governance issues. Politics, for most of the pundit class, has little to do with actually governing the lives of millions of people, seeing it more as a sport, and that it is their job to serve as a commentator.

These failures have had massively detrimental effects to democratic institutions. The British press is perhaps the most pertinent example of how the press can fail to serve the people. In the run up to the 2017 General Election in the UK, and ever since, the press have consistently misrepresented and attacked the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. A report by the London School of Economics demonstrated how the media have consistently and unfairly attacked Corbyn over often trivial or vastly overblown issues. From trumped up antisemitism charges, to the often more ludacris depictions of him as a Soviet spy, the British press has demonstrated the fate that lies in store for any politician who seeks to undermine the political status quo. The same can be seen across the waters in the United States, with the relentless attacks against Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Any real challenge to the status quo and the press very quickly turns from a watchdog to an attack dog.

There are publications who are immune to these issues. Smaller publications, and college media have the editorial freedom to really examine issues that are most important to their readers. Student media, often funded by their respective students’ unions or by advertisers, are free to challenge both their Students’ Unions and University officials. Unless serious malpractice occurs, editors of college publications cannot be fired for editorial content. Most campus newspapers will devote an entire special edition to elections, with coverage mainly restricted to policy proposals and substantive issues that are pertinent. While the usual sort of rumour and gossip over who will run and who will not will, from time to time, eventually finds its way into print in student media, it remains for the most part insulated from this. This is largely because student journalism does not make money, thus, unlike larger media outlets, are not required to make a profit. The media will continue to fail democracy so long as it continues to be a way for the ultra-wealthy to accrue more wealth.