Propaganda Platforms: TV News & Opinion
William L. Kovacs
George Orwell described political language as “designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Judging from the programing provided by television news and opinion shows (“TV news”), Orwell perfectly captures the symbiotic relationship between politicians and TV news. Both entities need each other to be relevant to the public.
Notwithstanding their need to be relevant, the relationship harms the American people by excluding them from the policy-making process. Citizens can elect or defeat politicians because of their policies. Lobbyists who influence the political process must register their relationship by disclosing their contacts with government officials and money spent to influence them.
The politician/TV news relationship, however, operates in secret. TV news acts as if it is exempt from the reporting requirements of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (“LDA”) based on an outdated belief that TV news gathers and disseminates news and information to the public.
Present-day TV news cares little about democracy, facts, or fairness. It will do “…whatever is necessary to make the electorate vote the way [they] want them to. They’re [the electorate] just the masses — a means to an end.” Today TV news delivers the propaganda of political parties to the public.
It is no longer possible for the average person to listen to “news” and determine what is true. The only common denominator is that TV news uses the talking points of their favored political party. This fact clearly shows up in polls. The studies on media bias, e.g., ABC, CBS & NBC newscasts, have a 96% negative spin on President Trump. PolitiFact’s Fox’s files find statements on Fox to be True, 10%; Mostly True, 11%; Half True, 19%; Mostly False, 21%; False, 21%, or Pants on Fire, 10%.
57% of Republicans trust Fox News. Most Democrats, however, trust the main-stream media, i.e., Washington Post (65%), CNN (64%), The New York Times (63%), and MSNBC (59%). Examples of “shading the facts” could go for hundreds of pages. A press scholar notes that Fox, MSNBC, and CNN “are building their networks on outrage.” He concludes, “…it’s increasingly rare to find independent voices providing news in a dispassionate way. It just doesn’t fit into the business model…”
The hosts of TV news vigorously promote these separate realities by bouncing from fact, to opinion with some verifiable facts, to non-verifiable opinions, to outright propaganda.
Verifying this conclusion can be done in several ways! Spend an hour switching between television shows that promote Democratic, progressive policies, and shows promoting Republican, conservative policies.
Read “AllSides” on how to spot the eleven types of media bias, e.g., spin, unsubstantiated claims, sensationalism, etc. It also gives examples of each type of bias and the words reflecting it, e.g., dodged, mocked, dangerous, chaotic.
Or just listen to the biased terms describing candidates. One “reporter” described the presidential candidates as one “normal” and one “abnormal.”
It goes beyond talking points. One author writes that a Fox host and the president work together on a regular basis, e.g., the commentator has a direct phone line to the White House. Trump actively tweets out the host’s comments to provide additional support for the government’s policies. Another Fox commentator lobbies on television for policy outcomes such as the release of investigative memoranda.
Conversely, the DNC colluded with CNN in devising questions…to be asked of Mr. Trump in an upcoming… television interview.
In 1995 when TV news functioned as quality news organizations operating under strict ethical standards of truthfulness, accuracy, independence, balance, fairness, and accountability, it was appropriate to exempt them from the LDA. Today, however, the significant media bias, the frequent informal contacts between TV news and politicians, demonstrates TV news is lobbying for the political agenda it supports. Politicians gain from the relationship by exhausting public exposure of the policies they and TV support.
Can such TV news bias be legally considered lobbying? Unless exempt, the LDA designates a person having two contacts with government officials and spending twenty percent of their time (including research and background needed) advocating for or against federal legislation, regulations, executive orders, or nominees, to be lobbying. These TV news personalities, including staff, easily meet the twenty percent threshold through regular communications with government officials on issues the TV news seeks to promote.
The LDA exemption for “media organizations” is for gathering and disseminating news and information to the public. This is where the meaning of words matters.
“News” is a report of recent events or previously unknown information.
“Information” is the communication of knowledge or intelligence obtained from an investigation or study.
“Propaganda” is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.
Propaganda is used to manipulate particular facts to achieve a political goal. Information and news are to inform the public of facts and new information. These are completely different objectives that determine whether an activity is lobbying or information distribution.
Professional journalists follow the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The code has four principles: Seek Truth and Report it, Minimize Harm, Act Independently, and be Accountable and Transparent.
TV news personalities are sensational, emotional, big on conclusions, but extremely short on transparency, accountability, and verification. Properly characterized, these personalities produce “Advocacy Journalism,” a genre of journalism that “intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose.
The “media organizations” that are clearly exempt from the LDA are those that follow the classic tenants of journalism, i.e., straightforward presentation of accurate facts, minimal interpretation, and avoidance of overt bias. Both sides of the story are fairly represented.
By not following the journalist code of ethics, this advocacy journalism is not gathering or disseminating news or information for the public, which is required for the LDA exemption to apply. Rather they are advocating, with their political supporters, for a specific action to be taken in support of, or against government policy.
Requiring these advocacy journalists to register as lobbyists does not restrict their free speech; it merely requires that they inform the public of the policies they are advocating and the cost of their efforts. Democracy demands an educated electorate, not a manipulated electorate.
A recent example of TV news functioning as a political advocate is its continuous allegations that Russia helped the president win his 2016 election. TV news promoted nightly the investigation of the president by a special counsel. The investigation did not find the evidence needed to accuse the president of a crime. Subsequently, the TV news promoted the impeachment of the president; but the president was acquitted after a trial by the Senate.
TV news knew the Steele dossier given to the FISA court was false, but it continued to push it as if true. TV news strongly urged new investigations of the president as soon as one investigation ended, without any new facts. This is pure advocacy that is covered by our lobbying laws. TV news has sufficient contacts with government officials and spends twenty percent of its time advocating for or against federal policy. This is lobbying, not the reporting of news.
How do we deal with a media that seeks to implement its policy objectives through unfair and many times, false representations to the public?
A very simple solution is to require TV news, when acting beyond news gathering and reporting facts, to register as lobbyists on those issues in which it fails to comply with the Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. By having TV news advocates register as lobbyists, we will know on what issues it is trying to manipulate us.