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Partisanship in Media Wasn't Started By the Koch Brothers

A Commentary By Luke Phillips

The announcement of Meredith Corporation’s planned acquisition of Time, Inc., which owns TIME magazine, amounts to a Koch Industries-funded takeover that has sent shockwaves through the journalistic world. Many still remember Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post some time ago. Both acquisitions — happening in an age when corporate mergers and consolidations are take place more often than usual — have prompted debates about objectivity and sponsorship, with many arguing that The Post’s quality has gone down since the Bezos purchase and that TIME’s will certainly do so as well.

I don’t doubt claims that publications’ quality goes down when they’re taken over by those with axes to grind. But the notion that any publication is truly “objective” in recounting the news is a false one, perversely fueling the debate between “fake news” and “real news” which has always been less about facts and more about value-laden interpretations of widely disputed facts. If your narratives are “real news” and the narratives outside the pale of yours are “fake news,” then, of course, the media climate will polarize, as it has lately.

But here’s the problem — what the mainstream press gloats about as “real news” is just as much an agglomeration of particular journalistic standards, upper-class bourgeois social values and fact-selecting narratives pertaining to particular economic and political systems as any other information-sharing system. That doesn’t make mainstream media “fake news,” and it’s still very much “real news.” But “real news” is more rooted in perception, tradition and culture than we epistemological heirs of the Enlightenment would ever dare admit.

Does anybody really believe that any news is objective, unbiased and without slant? Does anyone really think there’s no constellation of values and norms and ways of knowing and believing underlying the American journalism guild’s particular slate of methods of presenting facts to the world? “Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams said. But then, so are perspectives. The bigger question than “Who’s funding this?” or “What do they have at stake?” is “What is the broader culture of opinion behind this, and how does it shape the stories that are told?”

The reason I’m not weeping over the new developments for TIME and The Washington Post is that their purchase by political figures — and yes, the Koch brothers and Bezos are basically political figures — does not represent a slide from objectivity to subjectivity. Rather, it is a potential slide from one subjectivity to another subjectivity.

I only read TIME every once in awhile, but my basic impression of that esteemed publication remains that it has always been the enlightened gossip of the American non-political middle and upper class. Its articles are noncontroversial, partly because they don’t make any more claims than they can afford to and partly because they generally reflect the values, attention spans and worldly understandings of their barber-shop-attending and supermarket-shopping readership. It’s not so much “unbiased news” as it is “news for your average American reader to consume happily.” And yes, the change in ownership will almost certainly have an effect on both its quality and perhaps the perspectives through which it analyzes events.

There are ways to combat this kind of ideological ownership and slanting of written media. My beau ideal of a nonpartisan publication is RealClearPolitics and to some degree Politico’s various national and state Playbooks. A quick look at those, though, reveals that they make no real pretensions to “objectivity.” They merely attempt to be fair in presenting diverse arrays of perspectives on the same stories and events. They also have wide funding bases. This is reflected in their sponsorships: Every Politico Playbook is “brought to you” by a different foundation, industry or advocacy group; RealClearPolitics, low-budget as it is, seems to have a diverse array of donors as well, rather than any single donor.

This kind of countervailing balance between the interests behind the news — a kind of Federalist No. 10 and No. 51 for media sponsorship, whereby the tyranny of one point of view is prevented by the arraying of various points of view against each other — seems to me to be the only real way to keep anything like nonpartisanship, even if it’s not strictly “objective.” Maybe in more local newspapers, integrity and honesty can be maintained among underpaid, overworked, civic-minded reporters. But in a big country with big things at stake, it’s harder to see the epistemologically humble Better Angels of Our Nature governing those who have the most power to influence what people think.

So call this an endorsement of the multiple-source model of journalistic nonpartisanship. By the way, although it’s not the most “objective” of newspapers, I do subscribe to, read and enjoy The New York Times.

Luke Phillips is a senior at the University of Southern California majoring in policy, planning and development. This article first appeared in USC’s Daily Trojan.

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