One way of understanding the route of bias in the media is to look at the funding model behind the outlet. If a media company is owned by a giant corporate conglomerate, the odds are that it won’t base much of its reporting on media consolidation. If a news network is owned by the Russian state, you can safely assume it won’t be doing much work on exposing the Kremlin’s human rights abuses.
This isn’t always the case, but organizations don’t tend to harm their own self-interest, for very obvious reasons.
The truth is all media is biased, no matter how independent its journalists are or how much their owners proclaim their creation will be untainted by their particular set of interests. This bias manifests itself various different ways, some of which are more obvious than others. Take for example Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze. Beck’s site is funded through advertising and caters to an audience of generally paranoid, religious, and undereducated white people (just trawl through the comments section for proof). The Blaze runs ads like this on a daily basis :
While we can’t be 100% sure that Beck and his team have designed editorial around selling gold and emergency food supplies, it’s safe to say it is almost definitely encouraged. The more paranoid the articles, the more engaged the readers will be with the ads if they think the federal reserve is about to collapse and Obama’s team of communist Muslims are about to wage war on America. The more interaction with the ads, the happier scam companies like Goldline are and the more they spend. With instantaneous-feedback technology, the team behind The Blaze knows exactly how well ads perform, and it isn’t difficult to imagine a direct correlation between articles on Fort Knox running out of gold and how many times Goldline ads are clicked on. A piece published last week on the site titled “‘Cataclysmic’: What You Probably Didn’t Know About Germany Getting Its Gold Back From the Federal Reserve” made the following claims:
What does Germany requesting the return of its gold from the Federal Reserve have to do with you? Glenn Beck argued on his radio and television programs Wednesday that if what he suspects is true, it could bring about an unprecedented financial crash on a global scale. His radio co-host Pat Gray described it as potentially “cataclysmic.”
“Subprime crisis, do you remember that?” Beck asked. “Imagine that crash on a global scale, and instead of houses it’s gold, which backs all of our money, and gold that is not really owned by anyone. Our money becomes worthless.”
Or in other words: Go and buy lots of gold.
BuzzFeed built a business around viral lists and silly photos – the more they do, the more page views they generate and the more advertising money they bring in. Of course advertisers aren’t forcing them to write about cats that look like Miley Cyrus in lieu of focusing on the more serious topics of the day, but when you’re in the business of generating page views, you inevitably go for the lowest-hanging fruit.
We can be pretty sure that The Blaze will continue promoting stories warning readers the economy is about to collapse and that BuzzFeed will continue publishing photos of cats. If they stop, so too will their ad revenue.
Which brings us to Glenn Greenwald and billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s new journalist venture ‘First Look Media’. Up until recently, we’ve only heard that there will be two businesses under the umbrella – a 501(c)(3) non-profit news and information website featuring the work Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jay Rosen, Dan Froomkin, Jeremy Scahill and other yet to be named journalists, and a for profit technology company that, as Jay Rosen described, will “consist of several legal entities.”
“One is a technology company, a business run for-profit, that will develop new media tools for First Look properties and other markets,” he continued. “First Look Media is adding to the picture another possible source of support: profits from a company specifically focused on technology for producing, distributing and consuming news, views and information.”
Unless I’m mistaken, Rosen must be talking about building a publishing platform like Word Press or Google’s ‘Blogger’ – a bit of a shock given the market is dominated by players like WordPress, Tumblr and Google’s Blogger platform. However, perhaps unwittingly, Greenwald revealed a little more about the for-profit entity in an email correspondence with a fan last week:
I am not a “partner” in the new entity in any legal or financial way. The journalism company that has been created is a non-profit and I own none of it, and that was the plan from the start. The tech company – created to build privacy technologies and other tools – is for-profit, and I own none of that.
‘Privacy technologies’ are completely different from technologies used for ‘producing, distributing and consuming news’. And from a business perspective, they would make much more sense given the audience journalists like Greenwald and Scahill attract. In The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer described the company as a ‘bespoke firm’ and a ‘symbiote’. “It’s a technology division feeding a media division, which then empowers the technology division,” he wrote. Bob Cesca was more explicit:
So basically it’s this: First Look Media will scare you into believing that the government is watching everything you do, then it’ll sell you software to protect yourself. This is not unlike MSNBC getting into the home security business then airing daily stories about how burglars and criminals are trying to break into your house — all the time. But don’t worry, here’s an MSNBC alarm system for $200. Order now!
Funding media in the 21st century is probably one of the biggest challenges society faces. Having a lively, free, and provocative press is absolutely crucial when it comes to keeping power structures in society accountable, and that means media companies MUST have ways of keeping themselves afloat. The answer to this pressing problem has not arisen given content is largely accessible for free on the internet, and online ad rates are despairingly low. Companies are experimenting with various models to generate revenue, some of which are proving reasonably successful despite the long odds against them.
Journalists have to make a living, and media companies need to be profitable, or at the very least sustainable, to have any sort of meaningful impact. But there should be a great deal of scrutiny paid to how these outlets make their money and how it might affect their editorial stance. As Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman conclusively showed in their groundbreaking documentary, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, the corporate-owned media in America churns out the exact type of journalism you’d expect – one that supports the system responsible for creating media conglomerates. It would make absolutely no sense then, for Omidyar and Greenwald’s ‘symbiote’ structure to antagonize itself given that its purpose is to grow and make money. While Greenwald has stated over and over again that he and the other writers will have full editorial independence in the non-profit arm of First Look Media, he also surely understands that by not obsessively focusing on the NSA and matters pertaining to the security state, he reduces the for-profit arm of First Look Media’s ability to make money.
So just as Glenn Beck will continue painting a bleak, apocalyptic vision of a society in order to sell emergency food packages and gold, Greenwald will do much the same, just to a smarter, more affluent audience, with a far more sophisticated product.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.