Dear Rita Skeeter: Modern media requires someone to watch the watchdogs

Dariel Filameno/Daily Trojan

The media is everywhere in 2019. There are hundreds of thousands of websites just a click away, each ready to deliver its own version of the news to you. The low barrier for entry to the journalism industry means anyone can call themselves a reporter, no matter how accurate or biased their stories are.

We often call journalism the watchdog of powerful institutions, keeping them accountable by shedding light on their operations and exposing wrongdoing.

But here’s the issue: News media can be a powerful institution of its own. A 2012 Business Insider report said that 90 percent of all media was controlled by just a few conglomerates — News Corp (Fox News, The Wall Street Journal), Disney (ABC, ESPN), Time Warner (CNN, HBO) and Comcast (NBC, Vox Media). Granted, that report was written seven years ago; as more independent sites emerge, these conglomerates start to lose their stronghold on what we read and watch. However, these institutions still represent an overwhelming majority of American media.

This can be dangerous — while journalism intends to seek and report the truth, bias inevitably emerges, no matter who the reporter is or how powerful the newspaper behind them is. This is fine as long as consumers have access to a wide variety of perspectives, but media conglomeracy means we aren’t seeing stories that challenge our perceptions as often.

A good example of where these media monopolies can go wrong is The Daily Prophet, a fictional wizarding newspaper from the “Harry Potter” series. I grew up creating my own versions of the newspaper, wanting badly to continue the stories of the Wizarding World long after the books ended.

Looking back, the Prophet was truly the epitome of what news media shouldn’t be. As far as we know, the Prophet is the only daily newspaper in the British Wizarding World. When there’s so few news sources for wizards to read, it’s very easy for the Ministry of Magic (the Wizarding World government) to exert control over the paper and, thus, the views of the people.

One of the narratives lurking throughout the background of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is the Ministry of Magic’s constant denial of Voldemort’s (the series villain) return. The Ministry uses the Prophet as its mouthpiece to reject Harry’s insistence that the dark wizard foe really has come back.

Because the dominant narrative created by the Prophet was that Harry was lying, everyone percieved that as truth. This caused the threat of to Voldemort loom large, with the majority of the wizarding population blindly trusting the Prophet.

Something very similar seems to be happening with certain populations in the United States and the dominant  television channel Fox News, which is owned by News Corp.

News Corp was started by a man named Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch started his media empire in Australia — his dad owned just one newspaper there and Murdoch’s business acumen allowed him to not only bolster that newspaper’s success, but to buy enough media assets that News Corp alone now accounts for 59 percent of all news media circulation in Australia.

Murdoch also bought multiple papers in Britain and then came to the United States, where News Corp owns properties with brand name recognition and huge audiences.

Murdoch built his news empire with savvy investing practices, but what’s interesting is how he capitalized on sensationalism to sell as many papers as he could. He directed his newspapers to write exaggerated, eye-catching headlines and focused his newspapers’ coverage on scandals and controversy. After the Murdoch treatment, newspapers like the New York Post  went from near-failure to record-high circulation.

The Daily Prophet, and journalists like Rita Skeeter, follow a similar path. Harry and his friends grew to hate Skeeter throughout the series because she would twist their words to write scandalous — even fallacious — stories. The Daily Prophet would publish her reporting with huge, sensational headlines, like “Harry Potter: Disturbed and Dangerous.”

Murdoch’s news was also often politically motivated, and here’s where Fox News comes in. The channel has over 2.4 million primetime viewers on average, and its conservative bent is no secret — in the past, Fox News has made erroneous claims suggesting that a snowy day outside proved that global warming isn’t real or that Black Lives Matter is a violence-inducing racist hate group. Both of these statements are obviously false, but viewers who exclusively get their news from Fox have no reason to question it.

And as with the Ministry of Magic and The Daily Prophet, President Donald Trump seems to have a close relationship with Fox News — they cover him more favorably than other news outlets do, and Trump often praises the channel and its shows: After his inauguration in 2017, Trump tweeted in praise of the network’s ratings, while calling CNN “fake news” in the same tweet.

So we’re seeing the same thing happen: Fox News, because of its massive media reach, is controlling the narrative of politics for many Americans, and leaving them in the dark to the truth, in the same way that The Daily Prophet left wizards in the dark about Voldemort’s return.

As such, Americans must be conscious news consumers. In this column, I’ll explore the ways that news media — from the Daily Trojan to The New York Times — can do better, and what precautions Americans can take to ensure that their news diet is balanced and effectively informs them of current events.

Having a robust news media landscape is vital for a democracy to function. If journalism isn’t kept in check, America will lose its        already-waning trust in the media, and there’ll be no one left to keep our other institutions in check.

Karan Nevatia is a sophomore writing about media ethics and literacy. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Dear Rita Skeeter,” runs every other Thursday.