How do the histories of legacy news media organizations and social media companies hinder their ability to claim to be politically objective? Well obviously, any person or group that literally just exists will have a history (comprised of words and actions) during the time they have existed. The more high-profile a person or group is, typically the more well-known their history is because the increased fame/notoriety. The thing about histories though, or reputations in this context, is that they’re hard to shake. That is a huge problem for legacy news media organizations and social media companies whose histories have led them to a place where the public do not trust them, as noted in The Federalist Stories No. 2.
This loss of trust is a big deal because Americans thirst for truly nonpartisan sources of political information, as noted in The Federalist Stories No. 3. But because of the histories of legacy news media and social media organizations, even if literally all of them today confessed to being partisan and promised to never do it again, there would still be large numbers of Americans who would remain skeptical. And just to be clear, we are talking about both media organizations that lean politically left as well as those that lean politically right. As the saying goes, the best way to maintain trust is to never lose it in the first place, right? Well what about these companies’ histories makes them so hard to shake? We’re glad you asked because that is exactly what we are going to talk about.
In the abstract sense it’s easy to say “hey everyone makes mistakes we’re all human.” The difficult part is applying this concept to specific situations, especially situations where we are required to forgive a mistake of someone else. Few people like having to ask for forgiveness, but even fewer like having to forgive someone else. We won’t go into the details of why here because that’s a topic for qualified psychological professionals, but obviously one of the biggest stumbling blocks are those pesky things we all have called memories. Plus in modern times there is something to be said about mistakes being harder to shake due to advancements in communication, technology, record keeping, etc.
What does all of this talk about histories and mistakes have to do with partisanship and bias though? Simply put, when all (or the vast majority) of mistakes by legacy and social media organizations are beneficial to the same political party over, and over, and over, it doesn’t take Americans very long to notice. Americans will naturally make their own inferences about that organization’s political leanings, even if those organizations deny such leanings. If it goes on for too long, a growing number of Americans will start wondering what percentage of these mistakes are genuine and what percentage are intentional. For anyone today who follows politics at least a tiny bit, unfortunately it is clear Americans crossed that threshold of suspicion a long time ago.
We understand this observation would be better described using some past and current examples, a few excellent examples of which have actually happened in recent weeks, but we at Political Rankings are going to refrain from that for now. As you know, Political Rankings’ prioritization of being nonpartisan is not something we want to jeopardize by giving examples that might benefit one party more than the other. Maybe after the November 2020 elections, when there will be less of a heightened sense of impacting an upcoming election, Political Rankings will write a follow up article to this one with some examples.
Histories of People Who Run the Organizations
People change jobs in America all the time; it’s a free country after all. But some job changes in and out of government, especially highly visible ones and those that involve huge jumps in salary, begin to raise eye brows. As noted previously in this article series and in plenty of other articles, the media industry is not the only industry where this happens but it does raise even more eyebrows (both eyebrows if we’re being technical, because one is already raised, right?) as it relates to the media industry because of its special role as a “fourth estate.”
You may be thinking “yes, organizations are made of people, and all people naturally have histories, we covered this already.” Well, yes and no. The important dimension to add here is that when Americans have seen people in clearly partisan positions within government for a period of time, it is a tall order for Americans to believe that person is magically nonpartisan just because they get a new job in the media industry that happens to be designated “nonpartisan.” That tall order gets even more difficult for Americans to believe when it is those same people making mistakes in their communication of political information that benefit the same party over and over.
Histories of the Organizations Themselves
The people that work for legacy news media organizations and social media companies are representatives of their respective organizations or brand, so that brand’s history also must be taken into account. Decisions Americans see from the frontline employees come down from the top to make sure they are, among other things, on-brand. So taking for example the types of news stories to cover, or spend the most time covering, Americans can typically see a pattern pretty quickly. Left-leaning organizations feature stories that reinforce themes that are important to the left and right-leaning organizations feature stories that reinforce themes that are important to the left. For social media companies it may be featuring news stories or curating what topic is trending.
This makes perfect sense in a variety of ways due to the audiences, or a large percentage of the audiences, that give their attention to left-leaning and right-leaning organizations being themselves leaning in that same political direction. One of the inevitable consequences of this is, however, that when this pattern is observed, especially over the course of decades, it becomes impossible for Americans to believe these organizations are completely nonpartisan and unbiased; it’s those pesky memories again. The ultimate consequence is the loss of trust by the American people in said media organizations, a dynamic at the core of why the landscape of American politics is the way that it is today, and the focus of organizations like the Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy.
There is no getting around having a history or reputation. Media companies themselves have histories along with the people who work for them, and like people in any other industry, mistakes are bound to be made. There’s nothing wrong with that but it is practically impossible for the American people to forget the histories and mistakes of said media companies, especially if they’ve come to suspect some mistakes are not actually mistakes. That is why America needs a new source of political information like Political Rankings that is nonpartisan, trustworthy, and comprehensive from day 1.
One day, Political Rankings would absolutely love to have the high visibility, connections, and resources that come with being a media company that has been involved in politics for decades. But more important is making sure that when that day comes, the history leading up to it is true to our values; especially nonpartisanship. Along the way it is assured we will make mistakes because that’s what humans do, but we promise that they will be honest mistakes, that we will correct them as quickly as possible, and that they will absolutely not always cut in favor of one party. And the reason we will be doing all of this, other than a passion for politics, is to do our part to restore trust between the American people and the government that is supposed to be “…of the people, by the people, for the people.”
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