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November 30, 2023

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Forum discusses media role in society

American consumers are in trouble – not because of the food they eat or the cars they buy, but because of the media they read and watch.

About 20 people gathered at Maumee Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church last night for this month’s Wood County Public Forum to discuss the role of media in democracy, sponsored by Democracy for Northwest Ohio.

Stephanie Studebaker, 3rd district candidate for Ohio Congress, led the discussion, which began with a short presentation and then broke into a question and answer session with the audience.

Studebaker served as communications director for the Ohio Howard Dean campaign in 2004 and said that her interest in media bias developed through experiencing difficulty with fickle press during that campaign.

“For every event we did, whether Howard was there or not, it was like pulling teeth to get the media there,” Studebaker said. “It was like we had to do somersaults and flips to get them excited about anything. To me, it spoke volumes about media bias.”

Studebaker said that in the early stages of Dean’s campaign, the press were hesitant to spend time reporting on a candidate most people knew so little about.

“The first conversation I’d have with a reporter would a lot of times include the question, ‘Can you refresh my memory on who Howard Dean is?'” she said.

This mentality from the media can be a problem for candidates like Jeffery Bretz, who is running for the Ohio’s 5th Congressional district this November. Bretz said he relies on the media to help him convey his ideas to people he can’t speak to personally.

“I go door-to-door and I drop literature under doors and talk to people,” he said. “But I can’t reach everybody that way. The media plays a big role in people deciding, ‘Hey, I like this guy.'”

By failing to give candidates adequate coverage, Studebaker said Americans end up missing out even more than the lesser-known politicians do.

Early in her presentation, Studebaker asked the audience what they thought was the purpose of the media in the United States.

When an audience member responded, “selling advertisements,” Studebaker quickly agreed.

“Unfortunately for me, I always thought the media was the watchdog of society, meant to inform the public and then allow them to make decisions,” she said. “But now that big media controls everything we read, see and hear, it’s not about that. It’s all about profit.”

But like it or not, big media – defined by Studebaker as the five media giants that control the majority of cable television, publishing, radio and Internet in the U.S. – have a firm grasp on influencing what information the average American receives. According to Studebaker, the average American teen spends more hours watching television in a year than they spend in school and in that time sees more than 40,000 commercials.

Lee McLaird, coordinator of the Wood County Public Forum, said that with multinational corporations owning such large portions of the media, certain questions must be pondered.

“We must ask ourselves, does this effect the quality of our news? And how do corporate interests affect our coverage?” she said.

But Studebaker realizes that with media conglomerates spending millions lobbying to the Federal Communications Commission every year to keep their own interests safe, these are questions that will linger.

Because of this, she said consumers must become more savvy – and more vocal – about what the media can and cannot do.

“Do you know who owns our public airwaves?” Studebaker asked the audience. “We do.”

Studebaker said that radio and television stations won’t listen to demands of the public until people actually begin to make them.

“If you see something you don’t like, you should write a letter to the editor and tell them about the bad coverage,” she said.

But supporting non-commercial media outlets, pushing Congress to increase funding for public broadcasting and getting radio licenses issued to individuals not looking to profit can also create more diverse coverage.

Every eight years, TV and radio stations must renew their licenses to continue broadcasting. According to Studebaker, this is when consumers who are unhappy with coverage should voice their complaints.

“Let the FCC know about it and affect change,” she said. “I don’t know how many people it takes, but it will at least let them know that we’re not all asleep.”

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