I turned on the TV eagerly this week to watch the much publicized Stewart vs. Cramer where Stewart was declared the victor but he did make a confession for both himself and Cramer, ‘We all sell Snake Oil.’ That in a lot of ways summarizes what I think a lot of the media has come down to… it almost makes me think if the Chinese system of government controlled and censored media has some merits, at least. If one had to choose between the government or a private corporation trying to impact world events using media, I will have a slight preference towards the government.
Its shocking how openly the media has been involved in not just reporting news, but impacting news. It can be argued that the news channels played a big role in Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual going bankrupt. They would have had higher chances of survival if they news headlines had not created a vicious cycle of fear. Maybe, the reporters were doing their job, but was there something more to it, I think so! It certainly isn’t responsible reporting when you see a CNBC reporter outside a bank branch asking customers if they came to close their account and if not, why not since the bank was going under. Equally irritating were these Zee News reporters following every member of the Indian Cricket team for days after the World Cup 2007 loss just to get a picture with a smile. That smile would then be looped over the television channel for days to exploit the anger of cricket crazy fans in India.
It was amusing to see the CEO of NBC make a statement defending CNBC even after Jim Cramer accepted the lapses in their reporting. But was it just a lapse or something more syndicated? Its easy to see the incentives for news channels to create bad news. I do not see any regulatory or government controls that would keep the urge to "create" news under check. It does seem the bond movie ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ is coming true, in concept. In his book “Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell offers proof that merely the facial expression of a news caster can impact how people perceive an election candidate. Such is the power of Media – currently unregulated.
Do we need a news regulator just like we need a banking regulator? I can see activists all around complain that a news regulator is undemocratic and a step towards where China is. In some ways media is the watchdog for what a lot of other organizations, including the government are doing, but how good a system is it when the watchdog itself is a profit driven business. Are not-for-profit media organizations an alternative?
I wish there was a right answer, but in my mind the right principle is clear – such a powerful part of the society cannot be left in greedy hands without regulation because Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely