Article 25

Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

Controlling the News Media

In Uncategorized on 01/26/2014 at 2:58 pm


Size matters – and flattery helps

By Dennis Nichols


Here’s something to expect to hear often through October, as the Mainstream Media unwittingly project the Democratic Party’s talking points: Income Inequality. Example: “Democrats Seize on Income Inequality in 2014” (Burgess Everett, Politico, Jan. 5, 2014.)

Past “talking points” issues of the Democratic Party have included:

  • Global warming
  • Climate change (rebranded)
  • Health-care reform
  • Gender equality
  • Marriage equality (rebranded)
  • Unemployment rate drops
  • Economic disaster (Bush)
  • Economic recovery (Obama)
  • Fiscal cliff
  • Gun violence
  • Occupy Movement
  • Koran burning causes – latest Mideast atrocity)
  • Bullying 

Some of these are legitimately Big Stories, and some persist beyond being talking points, but all have been Democrat campaign themes or wedge issues. As party spokesmen have raised them, media leaders have directed their focus on those issues, which often wane after the next election. 

The three major TV networks were the visible news leaders before about 1990. Ted Turner founded CNN in 1990, and it became a fourth major news power with the Gulf War in 1991. Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News in 1996, and it quickly became the leading television news channel, although perceived as biased because it did not join the center-left consensus of the other broadcast networks and major newspapers, and the only major national center-right news medium in America then was the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.

Less visible in directing news slant were several factors:

  1. Most editors and publishers are followers, not leaders.
  2. Most small newspapers rely on the Associated Press for their national and international news.
  3. Most TV journalists aren’t: Aren’t journalists, aren’t competent, etc.

As a result, most news media in secondary markets and secondary media in major markets try to appear serious by imitating what market leaders do, and the market leaders are few. Most small daily newspapers follow the suggestions in the AP daily news budget, which offers about a dozen story ideas with the content packaged. 

The AP headquarters in New York directs news content. How big is that office? I don’t know. I could ask, but so could anyone, and I don’t have the time or the assignment, so I’ll generalize: Not very big.

Look online for information about the Associated Press, and you will find abundant material extolling the organization and its heroic history from 1846 to now. A skeptical view is scarce, but we know who writes and edits this drool. Search engines are not much help, either, the AP being among the world’s most prolific content providers. A Google search of “AP” returned 273 million hits, the first of which was That’s a start, I guess.

Here’s something germane on the AP’s own site, under the heading “About Us,” which by the way treats “headquarter” as a verb:

“AP has the industry’s most sophisticated digital photo network; a 24-hour continuously updated online, multimedia news service; a state-of-the-art television news service; and one of the largest radio networks in the U.S. Its commercial digital photo archive is one of the world’s largest collections of historical and contemporary imagery. AP Mobile, the AP’s award-winning news app, has been downloaded over 9 million times since its launch in 2008, and AP has a strong social media presence, building new connections between AP and its members, customers and consumers. …

“AP, which is headquartered in New York, has more than 3,200 staffers worldwide; almost two-thirds of whom are journalists – in more than 280 locations worldwide, including every statehouse in the U.S.”

A list of active bureaus in October 2013 numbered 108 in 49 of the 50 states, one in the District of Columbia, one in Puerto Rico and 90 in 82 foreign countries, a total of 199 bureaus in 83 nations and one U.S. territory. Other sources say variously that the Associated Press covers 97 to 120 countries, but those data change with time, and one bureau might cover several countries.

The distribution of bureaus seems odd: Florida has 5, Massachusetts 1, Texas 7, Illinois 2, California 4, Nevada 3, New York 3, Ohio 4, Montana 2, Michigan 3. Every state except Delaware has at least one, and the web information says they have staff there, too. Turkey has 2, Russia 1, Brazil 3, Japan 1, Canada 1, Australia 2, England 1. History and circumstances doubtless come into play, and the presence of member news media is a factor, but Nevada is not equivalent to New York, and Australia is not a larger news source than London or Canada.

Staffing one bureau full-time takes five people. That’s three shifts plus weekends, vacations and holidays. With 199 bureaus and a minimal executive office, the AP staffing overhead is more than 1,000 people. With about 2,150 AP journalists worldwide, that leaves only about 1,150 more for assignment, an average of about six per bureau, and they have to cover government, finance, business, sports, entertainment, education, technology, science, military, wars and the occasional catastrophe. They write, edit, take pictures, record video and prepare the content for print, broadcast, online and other formats.

The New York bureau is larger than the remote offices, but the key people making the decisions on what is important probably number no more than a dozen.

And the reality is that they, like the news faces on NBC and CNN, pretty much agree with President Obama and the leaders of the Democratic Party and its campaign arms about what is important. Naturally, then, when the president says income inequality is a critical national problem, the Mainstream Media decision makers are quick to jump aboard, and the bandwagon rolls.

That income inequality has grown markedly in the past five years, or that the situation is a consequence of policies promulgated by Obama and his partisans, is not a story at all, not visible to the discerning eye.

Among major American newspapers, The New York Times is least likely to follow the consensus in its reporting. From the time of Walter Duranty and Stalin’s genocide in Ukraine to Benghazi, the Times has tried to set the agenda, expecting other news media to follow, rather than react to the zeitgeist beyond the Potomac and the Hudson. It’s on the left, but as a leader, not a follower.

Journalists, in my experience as a journalist, are some of the most insecure and defensive people of any craft. I speak of general assignment and government reporters. Sports journalists are a separate category with their own peculiarities, and culture writers fall into a different category still, both dealing by design with bread and circuses.

News journalists respond well to flattery, recoil at serious criticism, enjoy trivial criticism for the satisfaction they derive from being right and talk mainly to a limited circle of news sources and to each other. They seldom encounter dissenting minds. They want to feel important. Many are the first members of their families to go to college, and they exhibit about the same socio-economic profile as elementary schoolteachers.

They love clichés. The best are the instant clichés, such as the term “narrative,” which used to mean narration in storytelling, one of the four rhetorical modes, along with argumentation, exposition and description. Now it means political myth, a framework upon which to build a campaign. “Narrative” appeared suddenly a few years ago, corresponding perhaps with the Obama phenomenon. Now we hear some broadcasters use it in the frequency a teenage girl might use “like.”

Cliché makes stories easier for journalists to understand and frame. Cliché in phrase and in thought is the flesh of today’s AP.

A clever person in public life does not try to direct journalists. He herds them, as one would herd cattle. He can know his success when they moo their assent.

President Clinton did well, but President Obama has herded them spectacularly. That he still commands their ruminations and wins their bovine acquiescence is testimony to his herding, not his governance.

Dennis Nichols is a former journalist who operated a Linotype before becoming a reporter and editor. He now is administrator for a small village.