The debate whether or not the media is liberal or conservative runs high these days. Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University and the author of more than 12 books, attempted to make sense of the complicated issue in the Special Events Center on Monday night.
The answer, he said, is not so black and white.
He said the media tends to sway to the left on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but more to the right when it comes to political issues, such as the 2000 and 2004 elections and in the case of Terri Shiavo.
There is, however, another factor that comes into play.
“The assumption is a lot of the debate about the nature of the news media is that the news media’s essential business is in conveying news,” said Gitlin. “Actually, that assumption reflects very shallow understanding of what the news media in our society are about.”
“The news media are actually an emotion machine,” he said. “The business of the news media is to draw attention. Period.” He added that “News organizations sell this attention to advertisers” through “sensation (in news) and flattery of the audience” in order to keep the attention from drifting away.
“The business of getting attention is where the revenue comes from,” he said.
He added that the need to maintain audiences’ attention is partly due to the fact that many news organizations are run by “large entertainment conglomerates,” but mostly because “they belong to a society which is committed to devoting its attention for a vast number of hours a day to something alluring and attractive and distracting from the everydayness of everyday life.”
“One of the deepest beliefs in America is having to do with the right to be entertained,” he said.
Gitlin illustrated this point by referencing a story that appeared on the front page of The New York Times. It was about a convicted burglar who was sentenced to house arrest instead of prison because he had various heart ailments. To make the sentence harsher on the man, the judge sentenced him to 10 months without any television. The man, who loved television and owned several sets, insisted that this was cruel and unusual punishment and pleaded his case in federal court.
He won the case. The court found that the man had a right to be entertained.
“I think this reveals something deep about our civilization,” Gitlin said. He added that he is not referring only to the U.nited States, since people in many other countries, such as Japan and Mexico, watch more television than Americans. “The bias of the media, in short… is that the news is something for wonks, and that entertainment is the central preoccupation.” Gitlin said.
Gitlin mentioned one source of news that has unexpectedly portrayed the most truth about the American political situation: the Daily Show with John Stewart.
“In a fake news show, you could see, unmasked, undressed, the pomposity and pretense and distraction of the so-called real news,” Gitlin said.