Brand Loyalty to Any One News Media Outlet Is Bad for Democracy's Diet
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
Brand loyalty is most often about choices consequential only to the consumer, whether choosing between Coke and Pepsi or Huggies and Pampers. But taken to the extreme, it can easily drift into vehement tribalism, a veritable national pastime of American consumerism in the age of an anonymized Internet. Scroll through certain forums or social media threads and you can find fanatics weaponizing differences in opinion about almost anything: products, services, sports teams, celebrity rivalries, and media content.
It's in the last category regarding news media in particular, where I've realized how important it is to diversify one's media consumption. Indulging further in the nutrition metaphor, it is impossible to achieve a healthy balanced diet by investing one's time in just one media outlet or a closed media ecosystem. There will always be editorial decisions about what gets published, how content is worded, and what audience is being catered to at best, pandered to at worst.
This is especially true in light of two factors: First, polarization in both right-wing and left-wing media is in need of mitigation, but that being said, there is an ongoing trend of asymmetric polarization where hard right conservatism has been disproportionately distorting the national dialogue away from the center; second, and arguably more significant than political biases, there is the stark fact that six corporations control the vast majority of media in the United States.
Addressing the first factor, I could give you a litany of examples of this asymmetric polarization on numerous political issues, but it's most appallingly summarized by Donald Trump's unprecedented subversion of the peaceful transition of power of the American presidency (and all his media and political enablers that got him there) that has culminated in Trump supporters raiding the Capitol Building to stop Congress from certifying Joseph Biden as the duly elected next President. This is after multiple failed lawsuits by the Trump campaign that disputed the election process in multiple key swing states presided over by judges that included many Republican-appointed judges, and after a failure to produce any credible evidence that the election was fraudulent.
By stark contrast in the 2016 election, then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as much as Republicans love to revile her (and frankly not my first-choice candidate but better by far than Trump), still conceded defeat within a day of the election results and made a concession speech asking her constituency to give Trump a chance to lead. A day after that on November 10th, 2016, outgoing President Barack Obama invited Trump to the White House in a time-honored tradition to symbolize a peaceful transition of power. Trump in the 2020 election, as fate would have it, lost by the same number of 74 electoral votes that Hillary had lost to Trump (Biden won 306 while Trump received 232; in 2016, Trump won 306 while Clinton received 232). So my main argument for the radicalization of the right boils down to this: the year 2016 ended in an invitation by a Democrat president to a president-elect Republican; 2020 ended in an insurrection fomented by a Republican president against the democratic process.
Like the political division writ large across the United States, this polarization has put pressures on the political fault lines that exist among my family, as I'm sure it has for so many families across the country. As dear as my family is to me, I'm often genuinely distressed at how fundamentally at odds our world views have become on some of society's most important issues. As a result, we've gotten into sporadic political firefights where I have been genuinely shocked to see the information gap that has widened between us. In this year's election, some of my family voted for Biden, some abstained from voting, some voted for Trump. All of us have professional degrees, upending the stereotypical iconography of the Trump supporter being a disgruntled, non-college educated, white working-class male.
Even before this latest riot by Trump supporters in the Capitol building, I had debated the demerits of Trump as a "law and order" president with the Trump supporters in my family. I made the case that Trump was more about optics than substance, even often undermining the rule of law with his own words and actions. I cited the example of Trump sanctioning federal officers to use tear gas and truncheons to forcefully disperse a group of peaceful protestors near the White House, all just to promote a nakedly cynical photo op of Trump propping up a bible in front of St. John's Church.
They hadn't heard of the incident and later countered, based on hearsay, that the tear gas had happened the day before Trump took his photo in front of St. John's Church. So without verifying the information, they ceremoniously concluded that Trump clearing out protestors was a distortion of the "lefty media." I quickly supplied an AP news link via texting to show this was unequivocally false. And knowing they would be inclined to dismiss the Associated Press article as having a left-leaning bias (although dismissing the credibility of AP's reporting, a nonprofit journalistic cooperative, would be tantamount to accusing a global news organization established back in 1846 with slander and journalistic malfeasance), I also followed it up with a relevant video link to The Telegraph, a right-leaning British newspaper who happened to have a reporter on site to record the incident.
I was alarmed by my family's cognitive disconnect for three reasons: First, they weren't even aware of the incident until I first brought it up; second, they had relied on what was hearsay from another person of like-minded political persuasion to refute the incident; third, the source of the hearsay claimed to have seen news footage stating the incident was fabricated by left-wing media, suggesting that person's news source had credibility issues given the reality of the event. With our disparate world views further exacerbated by a different information ecosystem they relied on, arguing with my pro-Trump or Trump-neutral family members was often emotionally and intellectually exhausting.
Like the parable of the three blind men trying to define what an elephant is by feeling its trunk, leg, and tail respectively, we all struggle to make sense of the world that overwhelms us with information. Just like anyone else, I am limited by my time, my opportunities, and the personal biases of my personally finite experience of the world, (and if I'm honest, my disposition on any given day) in terms of what I can investigate and absorb in terms of newsworthy events.
But I do my best to limit gaps in my knowledge by diversifying my media consumption with a mixture of print and visual media, including some media outlets that lean conservative, and yes, that includes even Fox News, as much as I distrust their prime time editorial branch (especially with Fox News's dramatic reversal on finally taking the Corona virus seriously in the early days of the pandemic). Sometimes it's a matter of trying to understand the major political debates from both sides, but as often as not it is monitoring the credibility of the journalism (or sometimes the more questionable, dark corners of the Internet) that the conservative members of my family regularly engage in.
Regardless of whether news media tilts left, right, or hews to the center, the one universal truth about media outlets is that they are businesses beholden to viewership numbers which correlates either to a subscription base, ad revenue, or both. And to cultivate loyalty, media will more often than not pander to rather than challenge the established views of their intended audience. This is especially true for those media outlets that push the extremes of their respective political ideologies.
Like any other commercial product or service that relies on mass consumer consumption, news outlets want to encourage brand loyalty and engage in the typical marketing practices of a business, i.e., creating a distinctive brand through a recognizable logo, the repetition of a resonant motto, tireless self-promotion, and increasingly, the cordoning off of accessible news sources by setting up pay walls.
The various mottos of news organizations are instructive as to how media outlets try to draw you into their ecosystem by waxing superlatives about their trustworthiness compared to their competitors. Over the years, Fox News has described itself as "Fair and Balanced," "Most Watched, Most Trusted," and most recently "Real News. Real Honest." CNN's main tagline is "The Most Trusted Name in News." On the newspaper side, The New York Times has arguably the most famous slogan with "All the News That's Fit to Print." The Wall Street Journal used "The Newspaper for the Investor" in the 1930s, but in the 1980s, perhaps as a reflection of the financial excesses of that decade, they changed the line to the uncharacteristically heady sounding "The Daily Diary of the American Dream." The Washington Post interestingly took a different tack in 2017, adopting the rather gothic declaration "Democracy dies in darkness," which seems to be more of an immunological response to Trump's truculent mendacity as opposed to more traditional overtures of journalistic equanimity. It would be interesting to see if that will be the ongoing subheading for the The Washington Post in a Biden presidency. In any case, the ultimate goal of this self-branding by these news outlets is to encourage or co-opt (depending on how charitable you feel) a solid consumer base of readers or viewers.
My second area of concern in our media consumption is the potential conflicts of interest that can arise given news organizations' relationships with their respective parent company or stakeholders. I mentioned there are just six corporations that control roughly 90% of media in the United States (but please note that the link to the info-graphic is dated where some CEOs have changed since its publication, i.e., Bob Chapek is now Disney's CEO, Jason Kilar is CEO of what's now called WarnerMedia, and Kenichiro Yoshida is currently CEO of SONY; and some companies have changed hands under these media conglomerates). And don't forget the consolidation of local news under a few media conglomerates such as Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose owners are openly Trump supporters, and Nextstar Media Group which has lobbied both sides of the political aisle. Despite being purveyors in local news, all are involved in influence peddling politics at the federal level in line with their respective agendas.
News organizations will claim journalistic independence from their parent companies, but I'd rather hedge my bets by diversifying my news coverage. If I'm to read something critical of The Walt Disney company, I'll always wonder if ABC News might pull some of its punches through editorial mitigation or even omissions. I'd have the same concerns about the Washington Post covering labor practices at Amazon, or the Wall Street Journal covering controversies within Fox News, or NBC covering consumers hatred of Comcast's cable service, or CNN covering TimeWarner Cable's low customer satisfaction ratings, and the list goes on.
And despite my serious misgivings about the permissive nature of government in both Democrat and Republican administrations to allow these huge corporate media conglomerates to become even larger, I am not saying "don't trust mainstream media." That is a lazy, throwaway phrase I absolutely loathe for its sheer unthinking response that abdicates the need for personally responsible reading, i.e., soberly assessing what constitutes credible sources of information, realizing the distinction between news and editorial content, determining if there is an underlying agenda, taking in multiple sources of information to offset the possibility of conflicts of interest, and then finally aggregating information for a reasonable assessment of any given newsworthy event. And realistically, what's the alternative to "mainstream media"? It's certainly not social media postings and partisan fringe websites with little to no journalistic training or editorial oversight whose agenda is about pandering to pre-existing convictions to a captive audience rather than informing a broader audience.
I strongly believe there are many hard-working journalists in news media who are dedicated to their mission of bringing truth to the public and keeping those in power accountable. I'm also well of aware of the fact that those journalists have bosses who in turn have bosses whose agendas don't always coincide with complete journalistic autonomy. We should be wary of the consolidation of our media choices into the hands of increasingly fewer corporations, but I also don't think we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. So this again brings me back to my earlier metaphor of the balanced diet, where you need diversify your intake, because not all your nutrients will come from a single source.
To help you properly judge what news sources to take in, you can use an organization like Medias Bias Fact Check (MBFC) to help you gage a news organization's political leanings which they place on a spectrum of their own rating system: Extreme Left, Left, Left-Center, Center, Right-Renter, Right, Extreme Right. They also rate each news organization's history of factual reporting on the following scale: Very High, High, Mostly Factual, Mixed, Low, Very Low. By way of example, MBFC rated CNN as having a left bias with a mixed rating in factual reporting and rated Fox News as having a right bias with a mixed rating in factual reporting. And for good measure, they provide profiles for each news organization, including information about funding, ownership, and analysis of their respective content. You can also get a list of organizations they have designated as "Least Biased," so you may even see your local news affiliate or news source listed there if you're lucky!
Once I've determined my go-to reliable news sources and want to find a way to aggregate them beyond the inefficiencies of an Internet search, I've found it helpful to use various apps that let me aggregate news sources according to my topical interests. If you have a PC, Windows has its own built-in news aggregator called "Microsoft News" that you can customize according to publications and topics of interest. One thing I like about this particular desktop app (which is also available on smartphones for iOS and Android) is that you can opt for a category devoted to Opinion columns from various news sources to compare and contrast different perspectives on a given issue. Flipboard is an app available on both iOS and Android that also lets you customize your news on your smartphone. And of course, you can use web portals like Google or Yahoo! to get news feed links from various sources. All of them have the limitation of hitting the same paywalls that a given publication might have, but even then many publications will at least give a limited allotment of free articles on a monthly basis. Of course you should support individual news organizations you trust with subscriptions, but per my overarching message, make sure they don't become the sole proprietor of what you learn about the world.
However, if paywalls prove too problematic and you still need another means to allay concerns about overt or covert conflicts of interests due to corporate ownership, you can supplement your media browsing with public news broadcasting such as PBS.org or NPR into the mix, which are non-profit media sources, and the BBC for good measure, whose main revenue comes from a TV license tax that all British citizens and even British companies who use BBC are required to pay, arguably making BBC News more accountable to the public good than most corporate-based news organizations. I realize that for conservatives, these news organizations are viewed with mistrust for a perceived left-leaning bias, but I'd welcome suggestions for any notable nonprofit media organizations with a center-right perspective, so long as they offer a clear charter of how their funding affects their journalistic practices, which the three aforementioned nonprofits do. To date, I haven't really been able to find a notable conservative nonprofit media organization (excepting newsletters from conservative thinktanks), and I suspect that relates to the conservative mindset that arguably leans towards profit-driven businesses.
But folks, regardless of your political affiliation, go forth and read both in breadth and in selectiveness. I'm not naïve enough to believe that people still won't read to their biases just by choosing a broader spectrum of media outlets, or that public interest will always overcome corporate self-interest, but at least we can reduce the chances of shouting past each other based on erroneous information or hyper-partisan editorializing, while still holding those in power accountable. As the unfortunate violence in the Capitol Hill Building has revealed, good citizenship demands an informed citizenship, and this means being a savvy and necessarily wary consumer of our media, because our democracy depends upon it.