The Toxic Combination of Corporate Money and a Neutral Media

© Josh Sager – September 2012


In a post-Citizens United political landscape, those with large amounts of money are able to spend near-unlimited amounts in order to spread propaganda favorable to their interests. Corporations, unions, and rich individuals invest in political advertising and attempt to sway the public into supporting politicians who are friendly to their interests. With the weakening of campaign finance laws, modern elections have become billion dollar events and interest groups the new advertising sponsors. As most of the money in political races is spent in the production and distribution of political advertising campaigns, this increase in money in politics has led to the public being bombarded with political propaganda, much of it non-factual, and all of it focused at shaping public opinion.

Money may not directly buy an election, but it definitely buys a megaphone which can be used to influence voters—the more money which can be spent, the larger and louder the megaphone that can be bought to sway the election. Americans are currently being inundated with millions of dollars of political advertising and there is rarely any real fact-checking that would correct any falsehoods propagated by these ads; some fact checking may occur, but it is almost never propagated with the same frequency of the lie. By virtue of shear repetition and lack of a loud debunking voice, political advertising allows those with resources (ex. oil corporations) to convince wide swathes of the population to vote in a certain way, regardless of the real effects of such a vote. At this point in American politics, the megaphones that corporate interest groups are using to spread their propaganda are the size and power of air-raid sirens—even if the truth about an issue is spoken, it is drowned out by the much louder lies of those who wish to buy the election to serve their interests.

In the traditional political model, the media acts as an information source and a fact-checking organization. By reporting the facts and debunking lies, the media serves to keep both sides honest and confined within the facts. Unfortunately, due to both the sheer volume of political propaganda being thrown at the American public and an unwillingness by the media to risk being seen as biased if they debunk propaganda, the traditional media functionality is now failing. The American media has gone from the objective arbiters of the facts, to the neutral stenographers who report partisan lies on equal footing with factual arguments.

For the most part, the current mainstream media has become totally politically neutrality and has neglected much of the fact-checking that it should be doing. A neutral media, as opposed to the objective media, reports all sides on an issue equally, regardless of which side is factually correct. As most Americans lack a personal knowledge of the issues and rely on the media to tell them the facts, the equal portrayal of political propaganda and factual arguments often leads Americans to draw the wrong conclusions. When there are no fact checkers, it is far easier to construct a set of lies to prop up a false premise than to make a factual argument; reality has contradictions and exceptions, while an argument engineered to spread a lie simply forces all facts to conform to the selected outcome.

We see examples of this toxic “neutrality” in several recent situations:

  • The fictional “death panels” that plagued the Affordable Care Act passage
  • The fight over the validity of global warming as a phenomenon
  • The portrayal of Obama as a socialist or radical liberal

For more details on the Neutral/Objective media situation, read this article.


The combination of a neutral media and a deregulated campaign finance system has a truly toxic effect on American democracy. The massive advertising campaigns of special interest groups are flooding the American public with propaganda and are running virtually unopposed by the media. In the absence of an objective referee, the loudest (wealthiest) interest groups will be allowed to shape public opinion in their favor and will gradually indoctrinate the public to support their interest.

A democracy doesn’t work if the people voting have been indoctrinated to the point where they are incapable of making rational choices when they step into the ballot box. Because of their exposure to a flood of misinformation, the low-information voter is increasingly likely to vote contrary to their interests, not because they don’t want to pursue a certain policy, but because they have been brainwashed. If we, as a society, want to retain our democracy and the integrity of our government, we must prevent private entities—all of which have an agenda, regardless of whether they are large aggregations of power or simply people with wealth—from being able to drown out all other voices. How are the poor and middle class expected to get their voices heard when millions of dollars of advertising is blaring propaganda across every media medium?

By equalizing the playing field through campaign finance laws—the strongest of which would be a constitutional amendment—we may create a system where the discussion is based around who has the best ideas rather than who shouts the loudest. To protect our democracy, it is imperative that every American recognize that limitless money in politics is a recipe for a government that only serves those who can afford a loud voice, and that campaign finance is an issue beyond partisanship—without sane rules on the money in our political process, there is no way to have an actual conversation about the issues.

Get Involved and Get Money Out of Politics

2 thoughts on “The Toxic Combination of Corporate Money and a Neutral Media

  1. Josh, often you present a truth-based viewpoint that is grossly over-simplified. It’s the big bad corporations pulling the strings, and the innocent American people are never to blame for the problems that their group behavior creates. All corporations have the same motivation and are working in concert to undermine the government. This is fine as far as over simplified rhetoric goes (in fact I greatly prefer it to what most news channels present) but at some point I have to protest. In the case of the news media, you blatantly ignore several huge facts about media in America, and how it is almost entirely the fault of the American people what message they are presented. From Fox News to Rachel Maddow, what you see on news media is what the American people, not corporations, have demanded.

    They are called ratings, and until the 1970s, they were largely irrelevant in determining what information a news channel reported. News media has always been a for-profit industry, but until methodologies for measuring audience response to a program became comprehensive enough, they didn’t really adapt the information they presented beyond the basic sensationalism that had existed since the introduction of the printing press, and the presentation of information. In the 1960s, we saw a glimpse of what some people called “real journalism”, but the nostalgia for this period in some people’s mind stops them from seeing what it really was – more poorly informed sensationalism than what we see today (ie. news outlets thought the people wanted more extensive coverage on relevant topics, but as soon as they were able to get a better read on what people wanted in the 70s, they abandoned it).

    Through more rigorous testing of audience response news outlets have adapted to what the American people really want (and as someone who works in marketing, I can tell you with full confidence that what people say they want is almost completely uncorrelated with their actual desires and actions. So never ask a women what you should do if you want to attract women, or a man what you should do to attract men. Trial and error will aid you much better). So, what do people want to see on the news? Here’s a list of some things:

    Something New: People love shiny new stories, so much so that when there are few new events actually happening, news outlets will report non-stories, manufacture content, and blow existing current events out of proportion. Do you remember Hurricane Nadine? It barely caused a fuss in real life, but if you watched the news that day they were DESPERATELY blowing it out of proportion. Why? Because it was new. There were plenty of old stories that continued to develop, reactors in Fukishima, the continued fallout of the BP oil spill, and conflict in the middle east. But news outlets knew that Americans were bored of those topics. They wanted information on something new. This is why legitimate discussion is almost always drowned out in news media – by the time the “newness” of a story wears off, it is forgotten in favor of the next shiny new story, long before intelligent viewpoints can be voiced.

    Conflict: The people love a good fight. This is why so many issues which are relatively one sided get the “fair and balanced” approach. News outlets aren’t really afraid of appearing to favor one side. They just fear losing the sensationalism that comes with creating a debate on every single topic. This is why “neutrality” benefits them – they are able to make everything into a fight. Sure, plenty of debates have 2 or more legitimate sides worth considering, but the news media rarely considers all the details even in those cases. They are interested only in the emotional release that people get from conflict. This is why news outlets like CNN reported on the whole “vaccines and autism” thing as if it were some big division in the medical community – when in fact it was only one real doctor advocating that MMR vaccines caused autism, and the vast majority of the medical community presenting study after study which debunked his claims. The resulting deaths of un-vaccinated children weren’t caused by the pharmaceutical industry or some other corporate player – they were completely on the news media for creating a controversy where there wasn’t one.

    Confirmation: We love confirmation far more than we love information. Anything that makes us feel smart, like we “knew all along”, and confirms our pre-existing beliefs, is what we like to hear. This is why Bill Orielly, Rachel Maddow, and Bill Maher get such high ratings. People tune in to hear the story they want to hear – that they are smart, and all the problems of our country can be blamed on Republicans/Democrats/Immigrants/Corporations/religious people. That the world is in fact simple, and that they “don’t need to be a rocket scientist” to understand issues that people spend their entire life studying and still don’t understand. (ie. the economy, the welfare state, the long term effects of religious thought on a stable social environment). People want to know that their emotion-based viewpoints (which invariably fall into some self-righteous “liberal” or xenophobic “conservative” category) are completely correct on every issue. The fact is that reality refuses to conform to emotion-based ideals. So people like Maddow and Oreilly pick and choose the facts that they want to share based on what jives with what their viewers want to hear. News channels that have a well known “liberal” or “conservative” bias (MSNBC, Fox) are simply betting more on the confirmation strategy to get viewers. News outlets that are seen as more “neutral” (CNN) bet more on the conflict strategy.

    A Story rather than a series of facts: People tune into the news to watch “news stories”. They expect these stories to follow the patterns of actual fiction – there should be a major protagonist or antagonist who can be painted as universally good or evil. There should be some conflict and some resolution, and some tidy Ending. In the case of some stories, like a disappeared little girl, this is a somewhat accurate depiction, which is why stories of cute little girls that go missing get high ratings. In reality however, most actual big issues in our world never end. But the news media would have you believe otherwise. Using the BP oil spill as an example again, as soon as the usual amount of time had passed, news outlets began changing their tone from the alarmist “HOLY SHIT LOOK AT ALL THAT OIL” to “Ok, this is almost over, they are cleaning it up, sure there’s still plenty of concern but our ratings are falling so we’re going to start talking about more new shit”. You could almost estimate their Neilson ratings by the tone at which they talked about the story. Same thing with almost any environmental issue. They are simply too slow-moving for the American public to be able to view them as a story.

    For many people, the simple fact that most of the problems we face as a country are the fault of our own collective behavior is too much to bear. So we search for scapegoats, which usually ends up being someone rich and powerful who somehow benefits from the process. We wish to view them as the cause of the evil of our own selfish short-sightedness rather than the simple opportunists that they are. If we want better news coverage, then we need to watch better news coverage, we need to read more things we disagree with, and we need to let go of our emotion-based views of the world. Because those views are too easily gamed by news media, political coalitions, and corporations alike. And attempting to stop them from gaming them will only exacerbate the problem.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s