Advertising and Political Bias in the Media: The Market for Criticism of the Market Economy

By Sutter, Daniel | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Advertising and Political Bias in the Media: The Market for Criticism of the Market Economy


Sutter, Daniel, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


I

Introduction

THE NEWS MEDIA distribute much of the information we receive about the world around us. Thousands of politicians, policy researchers and opinion makers wish to transmit information to the public at large. The news media serve as intermediaries in this information market, selecting to transmit a fraction of the millions of potential messages to an audience (Wagner 1997). The accumulation of transmitted messages in the long run shapes the contours of our politics, religion and culture. (1)

The transmission of messages is costly, and the modern mass media rely mostly on advertising to cover these costs. Critics argue that advertising adversely affects the content of messages transmitted to the public since corporate advertisers have an interest in preserving the free enterprise system. Messages critical of business could lead to support for increased government regulation, stricter anti-trust enforcement, higher corporate taxes and perhaps even public ownership o large corporations. Therefore, they argue, advertising produces a political bias in the media.

As we shall see, the working press, including newspaper editors and television news producers and even the top media executives are beholden to media owners and corporate advertisers.... [E]xcept for momentary departures, a capitalist ideological perspective regarding events at home and abroad rather consistently predominates. The system of control works, although not with absolute perfection and is not devoid of items that might at times be discomforting to the rich and powerful (Parenti 1986:19-20).

Proponents press the corporate advertising bias argument in several ways. First, they rely on the obvious self-interest of corporations. Second, they offer numerous examples of the pro-business content of the media (Parenti 1986; Kellner 1990). Third, they offer examples of stories or programs purportedly killed due to pressure from or fear of offending advertisers (Bagdikian 1997; Parenti 1986).

Quantification of partisan media bias is quite difficult. In fact, other scholars claim to document an anti-business, pro-regulation bias in the media (Lichter, Rothman, and Lichter 1986; Pines with Lamer 1994). Given the inability to convincingly demonstrate bias through content analysis, I instead examine the conditions necessary for corporate advertising to control the content of the media. (2) The corporate bias argument has several weaknesses. I distinguish two motives for businesses to try to prevent transmission of messages--a narrow motive to avoid bad publicity for a firm or product, and a broad motive of maintaining a favorable political and cultural climate for business. A favorable climate for free enterprise is a public good; competitive pressures lead companies to seek audiences for their ads. Although a criticized company might withdraw its advertising, other potential advertisers would step forward to fill the void. Furthermore, alternatives to advertising exist for funding the transmission of messages, namely payments from the audience and contributions from patrons or the supplier of the message. Finally, buying and silencing radical news outlets faces collective action problems and is unlikely to be a cost-effective strategy. I contend that proponents of the corporate advertising bias argument have not satisfactorily specified a mechanism by which business's common interest translates into control of content.

Before evaluating the corporate bias argument, I begin with a discussion of efficiency in the news market. Messages are worth transmitting only if their value exceeds the next best use of the required resources. An alternative explanation exists for a paucity of fundamental critiques of the free enterprise system: lack of demand for such criticism. Low demand does not imply inefficiency in the news market; indeed, transmission of criticism in this case would involve waste of resources.

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