Colliding With The Social Web

ABC Caters To Its Own Special Interest Groups

In March of 2009 I wrote a blog post (Why more politicized news anchors are a good thing) about why I thought the concept of objective journalism and mass media was a bit more fiction than fact, and that “the politicization of reporting is just an example of how media organizations are scuttling the mold of ‘neutral observer’ and identifying more with ideologies as a means to attract specific demographics of viewers.”

The approach acknowledges, at least in theory, that the traditional mass media organizations realize they are not really about mass media anymore, and that they need to specialize and direct their news and coverage and perspective to a specific audience.

Of course, as I wrote back in March, this does have its advantages – particularly in competitive media landscape we find ourselves in today – by enabling an organization to not be all things to all people and instead use limited resources to provide the highest quality product to its target audience.

This is provided, of course, that there is transparency from the broadcaster / news source. Without transparency, you run the real risk of being exposed as dishonest and end up alienating more people than you would have if you simply acknowledged your perspective or slant from the very beginning. A slant or an angle is one thing, but when you act like you have something to hide, people often think you do. And if people feel you are trying to deceive them – your slant is irrelevant, because your entire report is now questionable.

What is fascinating about this is how it relates to ABC and its coverage of the health care debate and President Obama’s plan. If you recall, back in June, ABC provided President Obama with a lot of time to discuss his health care proposal during ABC’s Primetime and on Nightline. Many dismissed the program or were critical of it as nothing more than an infomercial, because no opposition perspectives were included in either program. Not even an opposing commercial. At the time, ABC defended its approach. Even Nightline host, Diane Sawyer, said that ABC’s format and focus on the health care issue had little to do with the marketability of Obama.

Sawyer’s comment is a bit disingenuous.

According to research by the National Center for Public Policy Research, revealed in Amy Ridenour’s Newsbusters story, “ABC News Advertising Review May Explain Why Conservatives Were Locked Out of Health Care Shows”, commercials run on ABC were dominated by member companies of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) trade association. PhRMA is a significant backer of President Obama’s health care plan.

In point of fact, in the 98 broadcast days of ABC World News the National Center determined that ABC’s World News featured 1,102 commercials, 597 (almost 55%) of which were placed by PhRMA members.

If we assume that media companies are targeting specific demographics now for their media coverage (a directive that comes from its executive leadership), it stands to reason they are going after advertisers that appeal to their audience, just as they will offer programs and special reports that meet the interests of both their target audience and advertiser base. Naturally, if their advertisers are behind an initiative – why wouldn’t ABC tap into the most marketable spokesman of that cause in an effort to appease their advertisers and their audience? It’s a win-win for all sides.

So, at the end of the day, ABC’s decision to air the pro-Obamacare programming had everything to do with marketing and the station’s effort to secure a specific demographic of viewer.

There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with that!

The problem I have is that Diane Sawyer and executives at ABC were not honest or transparent about what they were doing. ABC could have aired the program, discussed the issues and disclosed their financial stake in the plan. Instead, the network fell into a classic trap. ABC was so concerned that people would not perceive the network as an unbiased and credible source of news (remember, people were calling these programs infomercials), that it tried to act like a mass media company and dismiss what everyone saw in the hopes that no one would see it. It ended up making ABC look worse in the process.

ABC has a financial stake in the success of Obama’s health care plan. ABC also has a strategy to reach an audience that is largely favorable to left-wing policies. So, ABC should have no problem airing a program with Obama about his plan.

But by pretending to be something they are not, ABC is not fully adapting to its new mission or to become appealing to the type of viewer they ultimately want to reach.

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