The Media Must Become Unbalanced Again

Bill of RightsWhen the First Amendment to the Constitution was written in 1789 prohibiting “the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing of the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances,” the press, primarily newspapers and pamphlets, was highly partisan, polarized, and unbalanced.

And it stayed that way until the 1830s, when the penny press in New York figured out that it was commercially more viable to be non-partisan and balanced – that way they could sell twice as many papers to both sides of the political spectrum. Reducing the newspaper’s price to a penny also started a circulation war because selling more papers not only meant more circulation revenue but also more advertising revenue.

Pulitzer and Hearst fought the New York penny press wars with sensational headlines as news morphed from being partisan information for the elite to non-partisan entertainment for the masses. News content decisions for the penny press transitioned from being primarily a public service to being primarily a money machine. Sound familiar?

From Print to Multimedia

The same thing happened to radio and then, of course, television. When William S. Paley at CBS started radio news and then TV news, it was loss-leader programming meant to enhance the network’s reputation and image. It wasn’t until the late 1980s when Larry Tisch bought CBS and G.E. bought RCA (and thus NBC) that the notion of television news should be a profit center was introduced by non-broadcast, corporate profit maximizers.

Maximizing profits meant being balanced – actually the motivation was not a positive one of being balanced and non-partisan, it was a negative motivation of not pissing off anyone, especially advertisers. Vanilla was the favorite flavor.

Things Are Different Today

But when cable TV started eating into broadcast TV viewing, and entertainment and news programming became more fragmented, just like in the days of the penny press, balance didn’t sell as well as sensationalism. News once again became opinionated entertainment: Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, Matthews, O’Donnell, et al.

Media critics, including this one, have decried the polarization of news into far right and far left camps populated by vicious, angry entertainers who make a sick joke of Fox News’s Big-Brother slogans, “fair and balanced” and “we report, you decide,” and MSNBC’s “lean forward.” These slogans have the same validity as 1984’s “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “ignorance is strength.”

A Breaking Point

Up until the December 14th killings at Newtown, I decried the unbalanced, right-left polarized media. But no longer.

After NRA top lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre disgustedly ranted in a December 21st press conference:

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.

He blamed video games, movies and music videos for exposing children to a violent culture day in and day out.

“In a race to the bottom, many conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society, by bringing an even more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty right into our homes,” LaPierre said.

OK, the NRA is blaming the media for the shootings in Newtown, so it’s time for the media to get unbalanced and fight back, not because the media has to get revenge on the NRA and other wingnuts who blame the media, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a public service to ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and handguns.

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more. There is no balanced side to the debate about eliminating assault weapons and handguns. Ask Bob Schieffer of CBS News, David Gregory of NBC News, or Piers Morgan of CNN. Ask the parents of the 20 children who were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The media, the news media must get more unbalanced on this issue and promote and market like only the media can. They must fight the NRA and the gun lobby and push to pass meaningful legislation to try to stop people slaughtering other people using guns, which are weapons of mass destruction.

About Charles Warner

Charles Warner teaches in the Media Management Program at The New School and NYU’s Stern School of Business, and is the Goldenson Chair Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Until he retired in 2002, he was Vice President of AOL’s Interactive Marketing division. Charlie’s book Media Selling, 4th Edition is an update of Broadcast and Cable Selling and is the most widely used sales textbook in the field. He has also written a companion book to Media Selling titled Media Sales Management that is available free on



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