Conservative commentators and politicians attack the reliability of the “media” since they believe the liberals control it. They often point to television and social media like Facebook. Except for the New York Times and Washington Post, they have avoided attacking other printed media and radio.
While the liberals do not dismiss all media as being too conservative, they argue that big corporations’ concentration of media ownership limits the breadth of opinion and promotes conservative views, such as promoting a smaller federal government.
Liberals don’t campaign for big government. Still, they support government intervention in regulating the marketplace and social behavior. The first is for maintaining a fair marketplace, and the latter protects citizens from being denied exercising their constitutional rights. Those efforts result in a larger central government, which big businesses usually oppose.
Support for smaller government was measured during and after President George H.W. Bush’s term. Gallup polling since 1992 asked respondents to respond to: “The Government should do more to solve our country’s problems.” And “The government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.”
Only twice in the 29 years from ’92 to ’21 has the response reached 50 percent or higher that the government “Should do more.” Meanwhile, in 24 of those years, half or more responded that the government “was doing too much.”
What drives the belief that less government is better than more government?
Media significantly shapes cultural values and promotes politics that help determine how the public perceives the government’s usefulness. Since conservative commentaries and Republican politicians champion small government as a core talking point, tracking their appearance and support in the media indicates how much their message may influence public opinion.
We can consider national media as being divided into four conduits. Television and social media are solely digital, which receive the most attention from the political parties. The primarily non-digital ones are radio and print media, which have not received the attention or the wrath from either party for being biased. However, both mediums have experienced an increase in the concentration of ownership. Has that development moved public opinion to support “small government?”
There are over 15,000 radio stations in the US, with a weekly reach of around 82 percent among adults. About a hundred stations are political/talk radio stations. Other stations may have a single political talk show or host a syndicated talk radio commentator. Overall, only a small percentage of all talk shows are political commentary shows. Preaching conservative values that embrace less government is more apparent on radio than conservative columnists dominating the editorial pages of newspapers.
According to The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio, a 2007 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), 91 percent of the political and talk radio broadcast each day is conservative. The top five largest radio companies host 257 news/talk stations; only 21 broadcast any liberal programming, leaving 91 percent of their total weekday talk programming being conservative.
The CAP report explained that the conservative dominance was not due to popular demand. Instead, structural imbalances by government actions favored the growth of conservative messaging on the radio spectrum by allowing those with the most significant resources, i.e., wealth, to shape that medium.
When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed, there were Republican majorities in both houses for the first time since the 83rd Congress in 1953. They removed the national limit on the number of radio stations that one company could own.
Bill Clinton was the Democratic President that year and consistently led his opponent by 15 to 20 percent. But he refused to ask the electorate for a Democratic Congress in the 1996 elections. In signing the Act into law, Clinton said, that consumers will receive the benefits of better quality and greater choices in their cable services and profit from diverse voices and viewpoints in radio, television, and the print media.
The opposite resulted, allowing for the consolidation of radio ownership to those businesses that could pick off smaller, less financially stable stations. Two large conservative radio ownership groups emerged.
The most prominent provider of conservative talk radio is iHeartMedia (formally Clear Channel), the largest radio station owner in the United States, both by number of stations and revenue. Their talk radio stations regularly have carried or still carry one or more of the following conservative commentators: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and George Noory – plus other conservative hosts.
The second largest distributor of conservative commentary is Salem Radio Network (SRN), which identifies itself as the #1 Christian Radio with full-time correspondents broadcasting from facilities at the US House, Senate, and White House. Over 100 stations are in the SRN network, with millions listening to their commentators. Mike Gallagher alone is estimated to have 7 million, and he is joined on SRN stations by other well-known conservative hosts such as Hugh Hewitt, Dr. Sebastian Gorka, and Charlie Kirk.
All the radio conservative talk shows on iHeartMedia and SRN preach limited government regulations. These two corporations directly resulted from the revocation of restrictions on wealthier owners buying up vast swaths of the public airwaves. In this instance, smaller government resulted in bigger businesses benefiting at the cost of smaller firms losing access to the public airwaves.
Over the last two decades, social media has overshadowed newspapers as a critical news source. As of 2020, only 3% of US adults read newspapers as their primary source of information. Consequently, the loss of their readership has led to the number of newspapers from 8,500 in 2004 to 7,100 in 2018.
As expected, newspaper journalists’ employment dropped by 50% between 2008 and 2020. And as the number of owners has decreased, consolidation has swelled to the point that large media corporations now own 80% of all daily newspapers and almost a fourth of all weeklies.
But newspapers still sway older people since 25% of US adults aged 65+ still rely on print publications as their primary news source. Remember that close 4 out of 5 of that age group turn out to vote. In the 2020 election, 51% went for Trump and 48% for Biden.
Has consolidation in print media resulted in a wave of conservative views washing over their readers? That would be difficult to determine.
The Boston University Library labeled a sampling of newspapers from around the country. They determined 16 were liberal and 23 were conservative based on editorial endorsements from the 2012 presidential race. However, they cautioned that where newspapers place an event (front page or buried on a back page) and which opinion columns they choose to run are more important than just relying on presidential endorsements for their philosophical leanings.
That insight helps to explain why, in the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump received endorsements from only 20 daily newspapers and six weekly newspapers nationwide, of which only two, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, had circulations of above 100,000. Many dailies and weeklies that either did no endorsement or endorsed Hillary Clinton would be considered conservative given their placement of news rather than from a single endorsement. They were rejecting Trump, not conservatism.
The six highest circulation newspapers are roughly evenly divided between liberal and conservative orientations when considering their total circulation. The Wall Street Journal has the highest annual print circulation in the US, more than double the size of the next largest, The New York Times. The third highest in circulation is USA Today; nonpartisan sources consistently rate it as not biased in either direction. The next three in order of circulation size are the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New York Post.
Two conditions reveal that neither the liberals nor the conservatives control the “media.”
First, the four largest circulation papers are national newspapers because they have nationwide subscribers. As an aggregate, conservative messaging has a slightly greater outreach.
Second, concentrated paper ownership accounts for about 40 percent of all newspaper circulation. That leaves 60 percent of the papers locally controlled and determine their content and bias without distant ownership guidance.
Consequently, these two conditions alone belie accusations that the media is controlled by the “establishment,” the “communists/socialists,” or a capitalist cabal. Nevertheless, unless the concentration of ownership is reversed or at least halted, the number of independent newspapers will continue to decrease. Without a vibrant independent print media, even more of the remaining publications will be purchased by those with the most money. And the new owners will push stories and opinions that reflect their interests, not their readers.
Since the newspaper and radio media have thousands of outlets, no political philosophy dominates them. Conservative commentators have ten times more outlets than liberals on the radio, while the largest newspapers’ circulations are about equal in their philosophical leanings.
Conservatives peg the “Media” as elitist and the “enemy” distributing fake news. That trope is based on not tolerating any media that is liberal, which, among radio stations and newspapers, is less than the conservative portion.
Endlessly repeating this fabricated narrative helps explain why a 2017 Gallup poll showed 64 percent of Americans believe the media favors the Democratic Party (compared to 22 percent who thought it favored the Republican Party.)
The bottom line is that attacking the “media” as phony undercuts public trust in receiving factual information from all medium conduits. Democratic institutions can only survive with an informed citizenry. If the owners of the mediums distributing this corrupting message care more for their profit margin than providing valid information, then the institutions that guarantee their existence will collapse.