American democracy is no longer very democratic, according to a new university study (4/9/14; Perspectives on Politics, Fall/14). Instead, it's dominated by moneyed elites in a process where public opinion has little to no impact on policy. Released a month ago by Princeton's Martin Gilens and Northwestern's Benjamin I. Page, the study concludes:
Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
The political scientists looked at more than 1,700 policies over 20 years to find out how public opinion translates into policy, and concluded that where economic elite views diverged from those of the public, the public had "zero estimated impact upon policy change, while economic elites are still estimated to have a very large, positive, independent impact."
Bracing news? The study went viral in social media, but has hardly shown up in the US corporate press. A month after its release there have been no network news mentions, nor has it appeared in the most influential newspapers–the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. (The New York Times, 4/21/14 and the Washington Post, 4/8/14 published blog posts on the study.)
The Baltimore Sun (5/12/14) was a rare exception with an op-ed calling for public financing of campaigns to counter the influence of wealth. "Rather than curl up in a fetal position and cede the fate of our democracy to those with the fattest bank accounts," Kate Planco Waybright and Jennifer Bevan-Dangel wrote in a response to the study, "our organizations are taking action. We believe public financing of elections has enormous potential to transform our democracy and to help ordinary Americans regain our voices in the political sphere."
There are likely several reasons why corporate media have ignored the study, chief among them that its findings hit too close to home: The same well-heeled elites and their representatives who dominate US politics and policy are also the owners of US corporate media.
In one study after another, FAIR has shown how corporate media discount popular views and the opinions of the less powerful in favor of elite viewpoints. Pro-business think tanks are favored over those viewed as less than business friendly; and corporate sources in news stories are far more numerous than those who might be seen as their counterweights– representatives of labor unions, consumer and environmental groups. FAIR studies have repeatedly shown how the subject of poverty is slighted in news coverage, including a study to be published next month (Extra!, 6/14) that finds coverage of the poor nearly nonexistent, and news sources who are affected by poverty even scarcer. Indeed, according to the study, America's 482 billionaires received many times as much coverage as America's 50 million poor.
Not that you need a study to demonstrate the media's corporate deference–not when major media figures will come right out and tell you. As when NBC's Meet the Press anchor David Gregory (11/11/12) faulted Barack Obama for not cozying up more to CEOs, telling an approving Jim Cramer of CNBC:
Jim, I always thought that one of the big mistakes of the first Obama term is that he never had a moment in the Rose Garden where he was flanked by the biggest business leaders in America and said, "Look, we're going to work together in common cause to deal with this economy, to deal with our fiscal position, and ultimately affect America's influence in the rest of the world." Can he have that moment now?
In fact, Obama did have a moment precisely like that, appearing with several CEOs at a press conference on January 28, 2009, shortly after his inauguration. It's hard to imagine a Democratic president who has tried harder to make corporate interests his own.
Similarly, when former CNBC host Maria Bartiromo was launching her new Fox News show, she told the media industry website MediaBistro (3/18/14) how her new business would be different–corporations would finally get a chance to tell their side of the story:
There's a void in the market. We never hear business people as part of the conversation on a Sunday. I only hear politicos doing their talking points. I want to get the guy on the front line, the gal on the front line, telling us why they're not taking money from overseas and putting it here, what should tax reform look like, what should immigration reform look like. So I'm going to bring business people into the conversation on a Sunday morning.
The only mention of the study on cable news channels came on MSNBC's All In With Chris Hayes (4/16/14), where the host cited gun legislation requiring a background check before one could purchase a firearm, that had as high as 90 percent public backing, but was voted down in a congress swimming in gun lobby money. Hayes concluded, "In fact, it sounds like the textbook definition of oligarchy, of government by the few." The wealthy few.
Updated May 16, 2014