My Ph.D. is in the field of political communications, and I’ve worked in various capacities covering media policy, including as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow in Communications and Public Policy, a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Given this background, I’m drawn to analyze the political biases of various media, including my own local monopoly newspaper, the Capital, which is a division of Capital Gazette Communications, which is a division of Landmark Media Enterprises. I hope my analysis will provide you with new conceptual tools to ask questions regarding the Capital’s political biases.
Defining Political Bias
As with other media outlets, the Capital seeks to be perceived as an objective source of news. Although the word “objective” in such a context is inherently ambiguous, many media scholars and most readers mean it to include the absence of a hidden conflict of interest that leads a media outlet to systematically bias its news coverage in a way that is adverse to the interests of its readers.
The Capital seeks to train its readers to think of allegations of political bias in partisan terms; for example, does it have a conservative or liberal bias? Once political bias is framed this way, the Capital assures readers it is objective by citing complaints from both liberal and conservative readers that it is biased against their interests. Since both sides cannot be right, at least one side is wrong. And if there are a lot of complaints on both sides, it suggests that both sides are wrong and that the Capital represents a middle-of-the-road ideological position consistent with its median (i.e., “typical”) reader, which is all anybody in a democracy can reasonably ask of a newspaper’s ideology.
Similarly, the Capital has strict guidelines against its news employees publicly revealing any of their partisan political activities. To publicly engage in such behavior, it is understood, would undermine reader trust in its political reporting and so be a cause for firing. Some political reporters won’t even vote in primaries because their partisan registrations cannot be hidden from the public.
Like a magician misdirecting an audience to hide his trick, framing potential political biases in partisan terms is a smart marketing move for the Capital because that isn’t the source of its most systematic and harmful political biases. Those biases derive from the economic incentives created by its parent media conglomerate, Landmark Media Enterprises.
The Capital’s Real Political Biases
The Capital has substantial monopoly power born out of the economics of newspaper advertising and distribution. It also provides what economists call a “credibility” good, which means that it is very hard for a purchaser of such a good to know its quality. From the good itself, the consumer cannot know whether it’s getting filet mignon or dog food. In such a situation, knowing the interests of the goods provider is very important in building public trust. That’s why we expect that both our politicians and local journalists will disclose material financial interests that might undermine that trust. Indeed, both have ethical guidelines that encourage them to do so. But whereas political disclosures are enforced by law, journalistic ones are of necessity voluntary because of legitimate First Amendment concerns. Unfortunately, that means that when ethics guidelines conflict with profitability, the guidelines may not even be worth the paper they are written on.
Along these lines, it is telling that the Capital rarely reminds readers of its ownership by Landmark, a privately held company owned by one of the wealthiest families in America. During the 2000s, its owner, Frank Batten, Sr., a multibillionaire now deceased, was frequently listed on the Forbes 400 as one of the wealthiest individuals in America. In 2008, one year before he died, Forbes listed him as the 190th wealthiest person in America.
Landmark squeezes every last penny out of its media properties. Before the financial crash in 2008, Landmark announced that it wanted to sell its newspapers. But after the crash, it couldn’t get the price it wanted, so it has been waiting for the market to turn, meanwhile bolstering its bottom line to look as good as possible for a prospective buyer.
It is hardly unusual for local newspapers to minimize reader knowledge of their parent companies, including the financial incentives created by those companies. One reason for this is that distant ownership of local media properties is generally recognized not to be a selling point for readers. Selling point or not, however, readers deserve such information so they can better understand the biases of their local source of news.
Other than the fact that privately held Landmark appears to be especially good at squeezing out profits from its local publications, the Capital’s profit motive is only noteworthy in the sense that that is not how the Capital, like other Landmark subsidiaries, likes to present its motives to the public. Like politicians, the public interest is what it professes to seek.
What the public doesn’t understand, partly because the Capital and other local newspapers don’t explain it, is the mechanism by which the profitmaking motive can systematically bias political coverage, especially for a local newspaper with substantial monopoly power in its news market.
Political Bias from Maximizing Revenue
From a profitmaking standpoint, the Capital has two incentives: increase revenue and reduce costs. Let’s start with increasing revenue. When a media outlet is in a highly competitive market (such as national newspapers and broadcast media), it scraps for readers in part by taking controversial stands, including reporting controversial information, where controversy involves alienating some potential readers while appealing to others.
Profit-driven local newspapers with substantial monopoly power tend to be more cautious about taking controversial stands because they are more likely to lose readers and advertising revenue by doing so. The contrast with politicians is telling. Politicians hate controversy but are nevertheless willing to attack the interests of those in the base of their opponents’ party. In contrast, profit driven monopoly newspaper editors are even more hesitant than politicians to take a controversial position that, by definition, is going to alienate some of its audience. Any boondoggle that benefits more than a token number of its readers or jeopardizes substantial advertising revenue is a boondoggle they’ll want to pretend doesn’t exist.
This doesn’t mean that the Capital won’t take strong stands on many issues. All that it means is that it isn’t willing to take strong stands on an issue that will cost it readers—unless a competitive media outlet is forcing it to cover the issue to maintain its credibility with readers. The types of scandals the Capital loves—for example, ones involving the moral turpitude of a single individual and ones involving a few thousand dollars with a clear moral tale—have this characteristic. The result is that the really big political corruption goes unreported.
From this perspective, the Capital doesn’t especially care whether it supports liberal or conservative special interest groups. What matters is that such groups constitute readers that it doesn’t want to alienate. From this perspective, unions (associated with Democrats) and business groups (associated with Republicans) are equally untouchable. But reporting on Joe Schmo who has done something bad is fair game.
But what about all the Capital’s rhetoric that suggests otherwise? Here we must distinguish between abstract and concrete positions. In America, it’s often said that politicians run against politics-as-usual in order to engage in politics-as-usual. Running against Washington, even for long-term incumbents who constitute Washington, is as American as apple pie. The key to this game is abstraction, not mentioning which incumbents and special interests one will harm. The Capital plays this game extraordinarily well, shamelessly lambasting politics, politicians, and special interest groups in the abstract while finding excuses to endorse the status quo when any powerful local interest has a stake in it.
Political Bias from Minimizing Costs
Now let’s move to the cost side, where I’d suggest the most insight is to be found. Journalism is an expensive undertaking. The more spent on news, the smaller the newspaper’s bottom line profit. The problem is, newspapers don’t want to let their readers know when they’re being cheap. They don’t want readers to know when they are being fed dog food rather than fillet mignon. One result is that a large amount of what passes for news is generated from press releases, often slightly rewritten. Compare the recent news item on the Anne Arundel School Board Nominating Convention (SBNC) with the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) press release on which it was based.
Compare the two articles. Here is the AACPS press release:
BOARD MEMBERS BIRGE, PRUSKI, DROOFF TO TAKE OATHS OF OFFICE ON JULY 8
Posted By AACPS Public Information Office, July 2, 2013 @ 2:51 pm
Teresa Milio Birge of Odenton,, Andrew Pruski of Gambrills, and Else Drooff of Arnold will be sworn in as members of the Board of Education of Anne Arundel County at a ceremony at 9 a.m. on Monday, July 8, 2013, at the county courthouse in Annapolis.
“I am pleased to announce the reappointment of Ms. Teresa Milio Birge and Mr. Andrew C. Pruski, and the appointment of Ms. Else Drooff as the student member to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education,” said Governor Martin O’Malley, who made the appointments official today. “I am confident that each member possesses the skill and the leadership necessary to ensure every child receives the quality public education they deserve.”
Pruski has been appointed to his first full term as an at-large member of the Board. He has served on the Board since August 2009, when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Tricia Johnson, who vacated her seat when she was appointed to the County Council.
Birge has been reappointed to her second five-year term as the District 32 representative on the Board. She has served as the Board’s vice president in 2010-2011 and 2012-2013.
Drooff, a rising senior at Broadneck High School, was appointed as the 40th student member to serve on the Board. She succeeds Nick Lefavor of Old Mill High School. Anne Arundel County’s student member of the Board is the only one in the nation serving on a local board of education who has full voting rights.
All three will take part in the Board’s first meeting of the 2013-2014 school year, scheduled for July 10, 2013.
Now look at the article under a Capital reporter’s byline. Due to copyright concerns, I’m presenting a link to the original article, O’Malley reappoints Anne Arundel school board members, rather than pasting it here.
Note that the reporter has changed the title, reorganized some paragraphs, and paraphrased some sentences, but has added no meaningful information that isn’t in the press release. Given that for many years the Capital hasn’t actually sent a reporter to cover the SBNC, it may not be a surprise that it doesn’t have any noteworthy substance to add to the press release.
It could be argued that the AACPS press release already covered all the important facts. But I would beg to disagree, as can be inferred from my various articles on the SBNC’s nomination of the two Board of Education incumbents (see AACPS School Board Nominations Due May 24 and Governor to Reappoint Two Incumbents to AACPS School Board).
The Capital’s press release style of journalism is facilitated by the willingness of our local governments to pick up the costs of news. For example, AACPS, which spends more than half of all County tax revenue, hired a former Capital editor and education reporter to run its PR shop. At close to $200,000/year in total compensation (after factoring in expected deferred compensation), the highly skilled PR officer earns a large premium over what he could working at the Capital. He also has five staffers working for him in his PR office (as well as many other staffers who report to him outside the official organization chart). In contrast, the Capital has only one relatively low paid and inexperienced education reporter. The Capital, in effect, has outsourced reporting to AACPS, which has the additional advantage that AACPS is willing to pick up the tab for well-written journalism. This economic arrangement is a win-win for the Capital and AACPS; the Capital saves money on the news and AACPS gets its message out. But it’s not necessarily good for the citizens, who count on their local monopoly newspaper to hold their public school system accountable.
To minimize news gathering costs, the Capital also needs to curry favor with its key news sources. Consider the world from the perspective of a reporter. Let’s say you’re covering AACPS and the Capital expects you to write several stories a week. If you alienate the superintendent and, to a lesser extent, the school board, you’re pretty much out of a job. You need them for story ideas and access. If they shut you out, finding other sources is likely to be prohibitively costly, especially in the current environment when AACPS staff are banned from talking to the press without the superintendent’s or the PR office’s permission. There is also the fear that if you alienate AACPS, it will give its stories to a competitor. The result is, if you want to keep costs down, you report the news from the perspective of the AACPS PR office, which may or may not be in the interest of the public.
Lastly, the Capital‘s publisher hasn’t been willing to risk libel suits, even frivolous ones, because they can be very costly, significantly reducing the profits that go to Landmark and thus risking the publisher’s pay and even position. A consequence is that most of the so-called investigative journalism done by the Capital is recycling the results of investigations done by the government (e.g., reports of government prosecutors, auditors, judicial decisions, local police, and local public meetings), where not only libel risk is eliminated but government has picked up the lion’s share of the cost of the investigative reporting. The problem is that relying on the government for your investigative journalism tends to result in systematic bias because the government does a less than perfect job reporting on itself (e.g., look at AACPS); indeed, that’s one reason the public is willing to pay for journalists.
It is ironic that the Capital is so contemptuous of government in the abstract (polls of Americans indicate that this is a widespread sentiment) but then relies on it to do its investigative reporting.
The former publisher of the Capital used to visit various civic groups in Anne Arundel County on a regular basis. At such an event, I asked him about how the economic incentives of his parent company affected his political coverage. The publisher replied that his bosses never asked him to take a political stand on any issue, by which he meant a partisan stand, and noted that readers from both sides of the aisle accuse him of political bias. Of course, that wasn’t the type of political bias I was asking about.
Perhaps he didn’t understand my question, or perhaps, like any talented politician or smart marketer, he wasn’t going to answer a question that wouldn’t put the product he was marketing in the best possible light. In any case, my question was unfair because it is unreasonable to expect a rational individual to volunteer any information that might endanger his compensation or position.
So how can the Capital be held accountable if one cannot rely on the Capital to hold itself accountable? At one time the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun reported on AACPS and other local news, thus keeping the Capital relatively honest. But since the economic downtown, they have largely abandoned such coverage, focusing on their core markets. Perhaps with the recent economic upturn or as a result of new information technology, that will change.
Another option is to rely on those who are the subject of the Capital’s reporting and thus presumably are in a position to evaluate it knowledgeably. But those individuals are dependent on the Capital’s goodwill, and it is generally foolish to criticize the hand that feeds you no matter how impartial that hand professes to be. As politicians know, “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel because they always get the last word.”
Unfortunately, this set of incentives leaves our local democracy in a bad place. The public is largely dependent on its local newspaper to hold its government accountable. When the newspaper becomes part of the propaganda arm of government, the public will eventually pay a high price.