27 June 2008

The Momentum of Tradition in the Media - Or Why You Hear So Much About Political Unrest and So Little About Business

Listen to NPR and you’re more likely to hear news about Palestine than what is going on in the corporate headquarters of your area’s largest employer. If the news offers a context for daily life, this suggests that the news is moving towards irrelevance.

Like all sectors, the media is as defined at least as much by tradition as current reality. A free press grew up coincident with the evolution of modern democracies. The major story of the free press was politics and that remains the main story, the meta-narrative.

This can be good during a time of elections and political crisis. But it rests on an implied assumption: issues played out in the political sector matter and are the biggest determinants of quality of life for the average person.

If you live in Darfur or Palestine, this assumption is valid. In such places, it is not obvious that anything has more impact on quality of life than political issues played out through policy or battle. But if you live in a place like Germany or the U.S., this assumption is not so obvious. I would argue that quality of life for the average person in the developed world is more determined by corporate policy and strategy.

If you live in a democracy, it is obvious that changes in fiscal or monetary policy or laws DO make a difference. But this difference is secondary to what happens at work. If your employer makes a decision to radically change health coverage, needs to consolidate operations and layoff, or is expanding and has great opportunities for promotions, you will notice a real difference in levels of stress, income, and hope. Reducing taxes by 5% does little to offset a loss of job.

Yet business news still tends to be a side note, whereas real news is inevitably focused more on disasters and politics.

But it is time for business news to become more central to the main stream media. Issues like environment, quality of work life, income growth, and benefits coverage ought to be covered within the context of policy implications. What kinds of corporations do we want? What balance of environmental and economic concerns should they navigate? What sort of work experience do we want for our kids? For ourselves? Political reporting is invariably made within such a context, the context of what should be as an overlay to what is. There is a great deal of debate about the ideal political policies, but the press and readers have real ideas about what kind(s) of government and policies ought to be pursued. By contrast, it seems as though most business reporting is done as if one were reporting on the weather: these are facts (e.g., layoffs or expansion) that simply need to be accepted, seems to be the subtext.

The time for the mainstream media to cover business policies and issues as a more central part of the news is long past. If we want our media to help shape a better world - and for hundreds of years it has - it has to shift its attention to the new constraint to progress. What is central to progress now is significant change in the corporation; believe it or not, this will make even more difference to the life of the average person than will additional changes to government policy.


Suzanne said...

Ron, you have brought up a very good point that we have created in the mainstream e.g. major networks, a dumbing down of the news. We are told that the stock market has gone down but the reasons why are not clearly explained...but I believe that is because networks believe that the general public would have no understanding or interest in how corporate earnings reflect the economy and job prospects, or that when the Fed lowered interest rates so quickly it precipitated inflation, a lower value of the dollar, and that those elements had an impact on the rise in the price of oil in addition to the increase in demand from emerging economies and momentum from speculators.

However, I believe that the US does an incredibly poor job of exposing the public to international news (both political and economic) which impact our country and unfortunately lead us to believe that we are the center of the universe. If I want to get international news I have to climb in my car, turn on my xm radio and tune to the BBC or head to my computer and read international headlines via the internet. Even CNN has virtually eliminated its international news coverage, even though it could very easily show one of its World News program two times a day to provide an international perspective. This lack of international news coverage has an economic impact because Americans may not understand how our economy ripples into other economies and theirs back to ours...how many Americans understand the impact of China's massive holdings of our US Treasury securities, and how those holdings give them a political/economic leverage which impacts the decisions our government makes?

Lifehiker said...

Well, let me see... The networks don't cover corporations and trends in how they operate.

Somewhere I heard that the networks are owned by corporations, large ones even. NPR even gets a lot of money, some say, from big corporations and individuals who have made a lot of money in big corporations.

Could this have anything to do with why we don't get much "commentary" on corporate trends?

Some very successful European countries ride herd on their corporations much more than our government does on ours. Yet their corporations and employees seem to be doing pretty well. I wonder why that is? Sadly, I won't find out on the news.

ThomasLB said...

That's a tacit admission that government isn't in charge anymore, corporations are.

I'd argue that it's not the news that needs to be changed.

Ron Davison said...

Great comment. And I agreet that the media tends to talk to us as though we are dumb and it is true that economics and globalization and policy are not simple topics. But I would also maintain that this discussion about what kind of corporations we want to create is one that can be scaled to about any attention span or IQ - just as we do with news and analysis on baseball and politics.

Well said - when we are talking about news coverage of corporations we are talking about how well corporations cover the topic. Hard to see yourself.

I do think that corporations are in charge and I don't think that is going to change anymore than Renaissance-era communities could change the fact emerging nation-states were in charge instead of the churchs. It is, as usual, a to the point point you've made and one that probably deserves a post to respond to.

Thanks. To all of you.