On Nov. 5, Keith Olbermann was indefinitely suspended from his job hosting Countdown with Keith Olbermann following the disclosure that he had donated to three different Democratic congressional campaigns. While many saw his suspension as a political ploy, it raised a question that has been on everyone’s minds as of late:
Where do you draw the line between journalist and political operative?
Rachel Maddow was right to point out that Fox News blatantly operates as a propaganda machine for the right, noting that they “raise money for Republican candidates. They endorse them explicitly, they use their Fox News profile to headline fundraisers…there are multiple people being paid by Fox News now to essentially run for office as Republican candidates.”
The President of Fox, Roger Ailes, served as a media consultant for three different Republican presidents. Fox News’ parent company Newscorp donated $1 Million to the Republican Governors’s Association, and Fox News employs Republicans who have been disgraced by scandals as pundits, most notably Karl Rove and Ollie North.
But beyond the blatant, unabashed political grandstanding of Fox News, the line between pundits, journalists and political operatives grows more blurry, and there exists media bias on the left as well. National Public Radio came under fire recently for its firing of Juan Williams for his claim that Muslims at airports make him nervous, and while his comments certainly were Islamophobic, did they really warrant him losing his job? Furthermore, while no one can debate the right-of-center mentality of Fox News, can anyone really call the Huffington Post’s political coverage fair and balanced?
The bottom line is, the rules have changed. In 1989 the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which held that holders of broadcast licenses had to give equal coverage to opposing opinions on controversial topics. With the Fairness Doctrine being a thing of the past and the Internet becoming more and more prevalent in media, the gloves have come off.
Far from being discouraged from disclosing their political opinions, journalists and pundits today are encouraged to become partisan. Olbermann’s suspension wasn’t surprising because he had donated money to political campaigns; it was surprising because NBC had held him to a standard of objectivity as a person in the media — a standard of objectivity that almost seems archaic in 2010.
So the question remains, where do we go from here? Does society need unbiased news coverage, if it has ever existed? Does the partisan divide growing wider and wider in media mean we as a society will become more fractured? If every news outlet has a bias, how do we know what to believe?
While telling people how and what they can report in the news raises all sorts of First Amendment questions, there is one area that can be addressed: the growing trend of corporate ownership of media. As of 2006, a vast majority of media in the United States is controlled by only eight different corporations: Disney, AOL-Time Warner, Viacom, General Electric, News Corporation, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google.
The consolidation of corporations in media concentrates too much power in the field of communication into the hands of a small number of individuals. In order to have a successful national dialogue, we as a society need a diverse field of media outlets controlled by a variety of actors, and the best way to do this is to end the corporate cartel’s stranglehold on media.