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The Effects of Capitalism on the News Media Industry and the Mainstream News Media’s Portrayal of Capitalism

Updated on March 1, 2012

What is capitalism, anyway?

Capitalism, as defined by Adam Smith, only functions in societies with the “proper economic institutions and the proper respect for the rules of behavior” (as cited in Galbraith, 1993, p. 12). John Kenneth Galbraith (1993), a Keynesian author, noted that in the United States the structure of the economy and the role of government are increasingly not acting in accordance with the definition of a capitalist society. Galbraith (1993) wrote that these institutions are “both behaving in brazen defiance of their rules” (p. 9), yet America still defines itself as a capitalist society.

The news media perpetuate this “defiance”—this discrepancy in the ideals of capitalism and the realities of capitalism. According to Theodore Peterson (1966), Dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Illinois, the news media in the United States contribute to society in their role to “enlighten” and inform the public (p. 38). But, Edward Herman (2002), Professor Emeritus of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, has argued that the news media also participate as corporate contributors to the market system. The news media participate in capitalism both as an actor within the market, but also as a mode to disseminate information about the market to individuals. Ben Bagdikian (2004), Dean Emeritus of the University of California, Berkley Graduate School of Journalism, has suggested that the media serve as a market contributor by producing news, entertainment, and political programs rather than a tangible product. While Smith (1982) has argued that the capitalist system provides firms incentives to produce efficiently, Bagdikian (2004) has argued that the news media do not use their incentives to compete with each other, leading to inefficient outcomes. Bagdikian (2004) has suggested that the news media is an example of market failure in its lack of competition, yet Herman (2002) has suggested that the news media still support free market ideals. The news media’s support for free market ideals creates a pro-market bias, which is an example of an inefficient outcome of the news media’s lack of competition. Peterson (1966) would argue that this bias hinders an individual’s capacity to be enlightened. This pro-market bias also represents how the free market has changed over time from its original market ideals.

Because the application of capitalism has changed over time and currently functions in defiance of its rules, most economists and theorists define capitalism differently. But, there is little disagreement about the elements of capitalism. Galbraith (1993) described the interpretation of American capitalism as a product of classical thought imported from nineteenth century England. He wrote that a capitalist system, as defined by classical writers like Smith, is a system of high efficiency in its productive capacity. In this capitalist system private ownership is the means of production, and in order to produce efficiently the capitalist system promises and encourages employment. The goods or services that are produced are sold in a market of many buyers and sellers, at a price determined by the interaction of those buyers and sellers. To Smith (1982), this idea of competition was the most fundamental element to capitalism. He wrote, “The price of free competition, on the contrary [to monopoly], is the lowest which can be taken, not upon every occasion indeed, but for any considerable time together” (p. 164). In other words, competition keeps prices low for the consumer and encourages producers to provide high quality and varied products.

Smith (1982) equated capitalism with freedom, and claimed that global capitalism would result in global freedom. This notion is rooted in Smith’s definition of human nature. He argued that a competitive market system is best suited to human nature in that no other race of animals has the ability to trade. Therefore, Smith claimed that the market is a universal institution natural to human beings.Smith (1982) wrote, “Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that” (p. 118). Smith (1982) claimed that the idea of willingness to give “this for that” is based upon self-interest, which is also natural for, and unique to, human beings. The aggregate of each individual’s pursuit of his own interest leads to economic growth that benefits everybody. Paul Bowles (2006), an economics professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, referred to the aggregate pursuit of self-interest as the invisible hand, or laissez-faire, at work. As Bowles (2006) wrote, “The ‘Invisible Hand’ metaphor used by Smith is…based on the argument that the self-interested actions of individuals lead, not to chaos, but to order and to socially desirable actions. Prosperity and social progress is brought about, not by the deliberate interventions of policy-makers seeking to promote social welfare, but as the unintended outcome of decentralized decisions driven by self-interest” (p.30).By equating market exchange and human freedom, Smith (1982) suggested that any restrictions on the market are restrictions on human freedom. Those restrictions are imposed by government. Friedman (2002) wrote, “A citizen of the United States who under the laws of various states is not free to follow the occupation of his own choosing unless he can get a license for it, is…being deprived of an essential part of his freedom. So is the man who would like to exchange some of his goods with, say, a Swiss for a watch but is prevented from doing so by a quota” (p. 9).

Whether the government should intervene in the economy, and to what degree, is still debated. In fact, it is a divisive issue in politics as political decisions have economic consequences. According to Smith (1982), the government’s only role should be to enforce private property rights. Property rights allow for exchanges to be legitimate—after purchasing a good, the buyer has legal rights to that piece of property. But, property rights also encourage entrepreneurship (Smith, 1982). Entrepreneurs support the market system by creating more productivity; this may include starting a new business, inventing in a new product, or developing innovative ideas. Bowles (2006) has claimed that in order for entrepreneurs to succeed, they must be confident that they will enjoy the benefits of their risk-taking. As Bowles (2006) wrote, “capitalism is only successful in countries where the state can effectively enforce property rights” (p.35).

Capitalism in theory vs. capitalism in practice

Hong Kong is the epitome of Adam Smith’s economic vision for a capitalist society. In Hong Kong it easy to start a new business and the government has limited, if any, intervention in the economy. American economist Milton Friedman described Hong Kong as “the world’s greatest experiment in laissez-faire capitalism”(End of an experiment, 2010). Hong Kong, now a city-state of China, used to be a British colony. During Britain’s colonial rule, Britain did not impose the same socialist economic system on Hong Kong as it did in its own country. Britain sent John Cowperthwaite to Hong Kong to serve as its financial secretary, who, by chance, was a supporter of Smith. As Friedman (1999) put it, “The difference in the economic policies followed by Hong Kong and Britain was a pure accident,” (p. 316). As a part of laissez-faire, Cowperthwaite refused to impose any restrictions on imports, and insisted to keep taxes low (Friedman, 1999).Friedman (video file, December 26, 2005) called this unrestricted market “complete economic freedom” during an interview with Charlie Rose. Friedman (2011) argued that Hong Kong’s per capita income rose one-third higher than the per capita income of Britain’s between 1960 and 1996 as a result of the unrestricted market. John Stossel (2010), host of Stossel, on Fox Business news, went to Hong Kong within the past ten years and was able to start a new business in less than a day. This ease of entry into the market is another element to Smith’s capitalist ideals, in that each individual has an equal opportunity to participate in the market system (Bowles, 2006). Stossel (2010) concluded that Hong Kong is rich because its market encourages entrepreneurs. Hong Kong remains a highly developed capitalist economy. The Index of Economic Freedom, created by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, has ranked Hong Kong the freest economy in the world for 15 consecutive years (Heritage Foundation, 2008, 2009).

However, the way capitalism is applied varies in different countries. Critics of capitalism argue that it is inherently unjust and unstable. Capitalism is rooted in the need to generate profit, and for Karl Marx, this meant that capitalism was also embedded with “class antagonism, inequality, inhumanity, and crises” (as cited in Bowles, 2006, p. 62). Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Laurentian University in Canada, John Isbister (2001), has argued that, not only is capitalism rooted in inequality, but it is impossible for a capitalist society to develop equality. Because capitalism is defined as private ownership of productive means, some may own the means of production while others do not, just as some have more than others (Isbister, 2001). Marx argued that “capitalism was based on exactly this-- the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class…The capitalists had a monopoly of the means of production (firms) while workers had only their capacity to work to sell” (as cited in Bowles, 2006, p.63). When a relatively small elite own a comparatively large portion of production inequitable distribution is inevitable. Some estimate that the wealthiest 500 people own as much wealth as half of the population of the globe (Haseler, 2000). While Smith would argue that capitalism is natural to human beings, critics argue that the ability to participate in the market is hampered by private ownership.

Capitalism has fundamental unchanging elements, but it has varied in practice throughout history. Bowles (2006) has presented several ways to interpret capitalism over time. One of these ways is by measuring capitalism through dominant capitalist activity. In its early stages, most capitalist activity was merchant capitalism, or the trading of goods (Bowles, 2006). The buyer and seller had equal information about how much a good or service was worth, and were both “well informed as to the prices at which others are selling and buying—there is a going price which everyone is aware” (Galbraith, 1993, p. 14). Over time, the majority of capitalist activity was transferred from merchants to the industry (Bowles, 2006).This industrial era of capitalism is characterized by the “mass organization of the workforce into factories”(Bowles, 2006, p.15). Wage labor became a necessity to meet the demands of factory output. As Galbraith (1993) wrote, “It [capitalism] described an economic system of high efficiency—that is to say, one in which all incentives encouraged the employment of men, capital and natural resources in producing most efficiently what people most wanted” (p.12). The consumerist ideology and the promise of employment resonated from this industrial era. Over time, capitalism evolved into financial capitalism (Bowles, 2006). As seen today, financial capitalism is dictated by the interactions between banks and financial organizations (Bowels, 2006).

As an alternative to interpreting capitalism through dominant capitalist activity, Bowles (2006) has also suggested interpreting capitalism by the “nature of the market” (p.16). The nature of the market is measured by the size and power of competitors within the market (Bowles, 2006). In its early stages, capitalism was competitive, in which individual firms held little market power. In other words, “no buyer or seller is large enough to control or exercise an appreciable influence on the common price” (Galbraith, 1993, p. 14). Over time, capitalism entered what Bowles (2006) deemed as “monopoly capitalism” (p.16), in which large corporations influenced the common price. As seen today, a significant amount of productive activity is carried out by a comparatively small number of corporations. As Galbraith (1993) wrote, “The heads of the corporations that produce between a third and half of the national product of the United States could be seated comfortably in almost any neighborhood motion-picture theatre” (p.7).

Bruce Owen (2002), president of Economists Incorporated, wrote, “Mass media are…critical to the flow of economic information in an economy, including information that permits more informed consumption and production decisions” (p. 184). The U.S., which prides itself on a participatory democracy, relies on an educated public to make informed decisions (Center for Democracy and Governance, 1999). However, most Americans are getting their information, or rather their education, from the news media. According to the 2010 census, only 27.5% of people aged 25 and older living in the U.S. have obtained a bachelor’s degree, or higher level of education. If most of the U.S. population is not formally educated, where are people getting their information? A study by the Pew Research Center (2010) found that 66% of Americans get their national and international news from television. These statistics suggest that the news media play a substantial role in U.S. society. Three economic professors, Besley, Burgess, and Prat (2004) have argued that the media “should be viewed as a requisite and integral part of representative democracy” (p.59). With so much of the population relying on the news media for their information, the news media informs, or rather teaches, the American public.

As discussed earlier, Peterson (1966) suggested that the role of the press is to provide the public with sound journalism which should “enlighten the public” (p. 38). Ideally, he argued, the press should provide the individual with enough information so that the individual can form his own opinions. Peterson (1966) wrote that the individual has the responsibility to “study the facts, unsettling as they may be; weigh ideas which do not necessarily match his own, disturbing as that may be; and put his basic assumptions up for challenge,” (p. 48). He has also claimed that the news media, specifically the televised news media, does not find it profitable to provide enough information for individuals to be good consumers of news. Peterson (1966) wrote, “If the press links responsibility with freedom to publish, then should not the reader link responsibility with freedom to read and listen? …The press has begun to see its own responsibilities, but it has done precious little to make readers see theirs” (p.47). In other words, the media have a social responsibility to inform, but have a corporate duty to make profits.

The media industry: a marketplace of ideas

As a marketplace of ideas, the media have followed Bowles’ capitalism trends over time. In 1983, there were 50 media corporations that controlled most of the media in the U.S. (Bagdikian, 2004). By 1987, that number decreased to 29 corporations and now it is down to five: Time Warner, Disney, News Corp, Bertelsmann, and Viacom, with GE as a close sixth (Bagdikian, 2004). The transition from 29 corporations to 5 coincides with Bowles’ (2006) idea of monopoly capitalism, in which a small number of corporations are producing the majority of mainstream media products. Just like any other corporation in a capitalist society, the media should also engage in competition. But, Bagdikian (2004) has argued that these five media corporations are not engaged in proper competition. Bagdikian (2004) wrote, “To compete outright would mean unique products and the goal of a winner-take-all victory. Instead, the Big Five indulge in mutual aid and share investments in the same media products. They jointly conform to the periodic ratings that presume to show what kinds of programs have fractionally larger audiences, after which ‘the competitors’ then imitate the winners and take slightly varying shares of the total profits” (p. 6). The idea of competition, as defined by Smith (1982) was a winner-take-all-victory, in which each firm is self-interested. But, the media participate as acting on self-interests as well as in the interests of their competitors, distorting Adam’s vision of a free market.

News media critics, like Kathleen Jamieson and Joseph Cappella (2010) have argued that the news media have come to be known as an echo chamber—in which many news outlets are delivering homogenized products. Jamieson and Cappella (2010) defined an echo chamber as an “enclosed media space that has the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal…this ‘echo chamber’ creates a common frame of reference and positive feedback loops for those who listen to, read, and watch these media outlets” (p. 76). Although different news stations may adhere to a different set of ideological values, MSBC may be more liberal while FOX may be more conservative, individuals are exposed to the same news content on the Big 5 news media networks. For example, each mainstream news channel airs the same snippets of a president’s speech. For Peterson (1996), the individual is being deprived of a variety of ideas and information, hindering his ability to become enlightened.

Bowles’ (2006) ideas about industrial capitalism have also resonated with the news media. The mainstream news media operate as a corporation, and they inherently have the same market goals as any other corporation: profits. As a part of capitalism’s emphasis on high-efficiency, sociology and phycology professors, Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2011) have argued that the corporate news media owners demanded “substantial returns on their investments” (p.59), which created profit pressures. They claimed that these profit pressures have encouraged news content to attract large audiences and to be cost effective. Croteau, Hoynes and Milan (2011) wrote, “Newspaper editors, increasingly trained in the world of business instead of news reporting, focus more on marketing and packaging the news” (p. 59). Packaging the news entails sensationalism and bias, which hinders the consumer’s ability to distinguish between the quality of the media’s goods—information.

A healthy environment to educate the public?

Owen (2002) wrote that “private mass media exist chiefly to make profits from the sale of subscriptions and advertising” (p. 184). Structurally, the news media is part of the market, making it unlikely for the news media to be antagonistic toward the market. The media’s dependence on the market system creates an inherent pro-market bias within the news media. Herman (2002) wrote, “The mainstream media strongly supports markets, in the sense of privatization and reliance on markets, on the one hand, in the sense of what the dominant elements in the market want, on the other hand” (p. 78). In other words, the news media will most likely support legislation that reinforces market ideals, but will still criticize actors that “violate accepted business norms, injure innocents, and jeopardize the market system as a whole” (Herman, 2002, p. 78).

News media conglomerates have generated more revenue by providing information which reinforces a viewer’s values. Since the American viewer values the ideals of capitalism: competition, social mobility, and equal opportunity, the news media does not challenge those values. In other words, “as part of the market, the media are unlikely to be hostile to the market and oppose policies that dominant members of the market support” (Herman, 2002, p. 78). This has been most recently illustrated in a two month survey of the news media’s treatment of the unemployment crisis. ThinkProgress (2011), an American political blog sponsored by the Center for American Progress, conducted a study during the last week of July and found the word “debt” was mentioned more than 7,000 times on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News while the word “unemployed” was only mentioned 75 times. Zaid Jilani (2011), senior reporter and blogger for, wrote, “While it was appropriate for the media then to be covering the deficit due to the debt ceiling debate at the time, there was a stunning lack of coverage of the jobs crisis” (para. 1). As one of capitalism’s promises is employment, perhaps the lack of coverage on the jobs crisis was an expression of the pro-market bias in the news media.

Others have found evidence of a pro-market media bias in the under-coverage of sweat shops, and other undesirable working conditions that support a capitalist system. Bowles (2006) suggested that people are encouraged to think of the products of a capitalist economy as objects rather than the products of labor and resources. Bowles (2006) wrote, “If we did think of goods as the outputs of processes involving people, we might be inclined to ask who those people are, under what conditions do they work, and what are the environmental consequences of producing these goods…Capitalism simply finds it necessary—and easier—to bombard us with glossy images of satisfied consumers rather than to encourage us to dwell on production conditions and consequences” (p. 4). It is not capitalism that is providing the glossy images, though, it is the news media.

Perhaps another piece of evidence for a pro-market media bias is in the lack of coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests. These protests have become an expression of anti-capitalism sentiments. On September 29, 2011, protests submitted a Declaration of the Occupation of New York City to the New York City General Assembly. The Declaration (2011) stated, “No true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments” (para. 2). The economic foundation of the U.S. largely rests on the ideas of capitalism: an invisible hand, social mobility, and equal opportunity. But, as the Occupy movements show, this is not reality; people are frustrated with the possession of too much power in the hands of too few. Kat Stoeffel (2011), a reporter at The New York Observer, has claimed that mainstream news outlets did not give the protestors any attention in the first five days of the protests. An article by The Week (2011) has created a time line of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The article has marked the start of the Occupy Wall Street protest as September 17, when 1,000 people gathered in downtown Manhattan and walked up and down Wall Street, and then settled with tents in Zuccotti Park. On September 24, around 80 people were arrested for blocking traffic, and CBS, ABC, The Huffington Post, and other smaller news outlets reported on the arrests. On October 5, The Week (2011) reported that at least 39 organizations joined Occupy Wall Street for marching through New York’s financial district. Organizers estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 people marched, while ABC news reported that there were “a few thousand” (ABC News, 2011). A few thousand protestors doesn’t seem as threatening as 20,000 protestors, constituting Bowles’(2006) idea of a glossy image. But, as the movement progressed and spread to different cities, protestors were faced with police brutality that was too newsworthy to ignore. The Occupy movements and their anti-capitalism sentiments were perhaps unwelcome in the news media until the movement grew to the point of undisputable news worthiness.

Smith would likely argue that a pro-market media bias fundamentally helps to spread market ideals, which promotes an efficient society and human freedom. In a political context, if voters are encouraged by the media to advocate for the free market, then they are likely to vote for candidates with free market policies. For Smith, this would ultimately be beneficial to the world in becoming a more efficient place. Herman (2002), wrote, “One could argue that as markets are good, strengthening them is desirable, and that is therefore a beneficial media order” (p. 78). Others, like Peterson would argue that this pro-market bias undermines the media’s role to provide the media consumer with enough information so the individual can form his own opinions. If the media have incentives to provide glossy images, then consumers cannot obtain thorough information. Herman (2002) has argued that, as political watchdogs, the media should serve the democratic and public sphere by presenting arguments both for and against market initiatives. As for the market, the media play a role in the flow of economic information in an economy. But, this pro-market bias may encourage news outlets not to seek the “informational and political basis for makingits excess and failures”(Herman, 2002, 78). Leading up to the 2008 economic downturn, the media did not seek qualitative information about what was going on in financial institutions.

Bowles (2006) has argued that while free market-advocates attribute economic problems to the government, free market opponents attribute economic problems as being an inherent part of the capitalist system. In the eyes of market advocates, inflation is caused by the government creating too much money, and unemployment is caused by institutional frictions “such as minimum wages and pro-trade union bargaining” (Bowels, 2004, p.37). Others, like John Maynard Keynes, viewed the capitalist system as being inherently unstable and crisis-ridden—crises like the ongoing economic downturn that started in 2008.

In his book, The General Theory and After: Defense and Development (1971), Keynes wrote that firms based their investments on expectations of the future. He attributed capitalism’s inherent instability on these future expectations, which he called the “state of confidence” (Keynes, 1971, p. 148). Political events on the other side of the world could easily affect business confidence which, in turn, could affect investment decisions (Keynes, 1971). Bowles (2006) wrote, “The unconstrained workings of the capitalist economy would therefore produce continual swings in the level of employment matching the swings in entrepreneurs’ confidence about the future and reflected in their investment spending” (p. 60). These continual swings are illustrated by the boom-and-bust cycle (Peter King, 2010). During the boom period, profit expectations and investments are both high. As a result, the demand for labor increases and unemployment falls. Consequently, wages start to incrementally become higher. But, after a while the rise in wages takes away from profits and creates a “crisis of profitability” (King, 70). Peter King (2010) , a public policy professor at De Montfort University, wrote, “This [crisis of profitability] is ‘solved’ by capitalists reducing their investment levels, with the result that growth falls and unemployment increases until workers are disciplined to accept lower wages; at this point profit expectations pick up and the whole cycle is repeated” (p. 70). After the bust phase a credit crunch may arise, during which it may suddenly be harder to obtain a loan. When it becomes harder to obtain a loan capitalists narrow their investments, and a recession may follow (King, 2010).

Consumers look to the business media to learn about what they should do with their money, and to learn about what things are worth. Leading up to the 2008 economic crisis the business media did not give adequate information about stocks and bonds. But, some argue that the business media have interests and pressures in only portraying positive news about financially related items. Although the news media and business media may not always report positively on the economy or financial institutions, there is pressure to optimistically report about financial institutions. Two economists, Alexander Dyck and Luigi Zingales (2002) have argued that the business media must have a pro-market bias, they call it a pro-company bias, in order to maintain contacts and therefore access to corporate information. They examined Harvard Business School case studies and found that the pro-company media bias is higher during the boom period of the boom-and-bust cycle. When investments are high, investors and companies are focused on their growth and therefore relay only positive news to the media (Dyck and Zingales, 2002). As Dyck and Zingales (2002) wrote, “During a boom phase, a lot of the value of a stock depends on a company’s prospects for future growth. And these prospects are highly influenced by the information released by the media” (p. 16). Since corporate actors rely on a high “state of confidence”, corporate press agents have a strong interest to leak only positive news. Because journalists get their information from these press agents, their access to negative information is limited. In the bust period of the boom-and-bust cycle, Dyck and Zingales (2002) have argued that negative information becomes more available to journalists. When the market takes a downturn companies’ stock prices aren’t as sensitive to negative news coverage and there are more incentives for press agents to leak bad news (Dyck and Zingales, 2002).

Because the mainstream news media is a corporate structure, it must be selective as to how it allocates its resources. For journalists to bypass press agents and collect information about a company on their own is very costly. Dyck and Zingales (2002) wrote, “Digging through annual reports, questioning the validity of different accounting practices, and so on require both time and expertise. Most important, it is a very risky activity” (p.12). From the media’s perspective as a corporate structure, it is more cost effective for journalists to rely on companies’ press releases, which are naturally biased in favor of the companies. Journalists also have incentives to maintain relationships with their sources; they have an incentive to disseminate the good news and to limit the bad news. In the case of the housing market collapse in 2008, the business news media probably faced these same obstacles: only receiving positive information in press releases, and not given enough incentive to conduct further investigation. Journalists probably had incentives not to investigate derivatives, and it was probably difficult to obtain information about the actual value of the pool of loans created by investment banks.

It could be argued that just as the economy functions in “brazen defiance of its rules” (Galbraith, 1993, p. 9), the news media in the U.S. is also functioning in “brazen defiance of its rules”. But, if this is the case, then is the news media functioning in defiance because, or as an outcome, of the way that capitalism has been applied in the U.S.? To investigate this further, one would have to examine the financial crisis in Europe, a society with socialist elements. Were the news media involved in Europe’s financial crisis in a similar way that the news media were involved in the U.S. financial crisis?


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