I think the current debate concerning the mainstream media entirely misses the point. And yes, I’m about to channel Howard Beale. I’m going to break this in three sections.
Some conservatives seem to think that the media fails society because it is too “liberal” and that the media promotes an agenda to discredit conservatives (anti-religious, too focused on bad news out of Iraq, etc…). The strategy by some conservative bloggers of attacking the BBC, CNN, or other outlets for their terminology or their choice of stories or even their recent “scalp hunting” is a way of either intimidating the media or, worse, discrediting the MSM so people on their side will only follow news that promotes a conservative viewpoint.
Some liberals seem to think that the media fails society because it is owned by large corporations and those corporations will not report negatively on the Administration or some businesses. I think the cause for the media’s decline is correct (that the media is corporately owned), but in a more subtle way.
For background: it wasn’t too long ago that news organizations’ primary function was not to make a profit. It was to build prestige for a larger organization. For example, CBS News in the 1930s-1970s may or may not have been profitable, but that wasn’t the point of CBS News. CBS News’ success increased the prestige of the CBS “brand” generally and, therefore, the Paley family or their successors were more than content to subsidize a financial loss from the CBS News subdivision. Similarly, many newspapers were not “corporate” organizations, they were family-run organizations (the Grahams, the Sulzbergers, etc…).
Since the major focus for news organizations (in particular the networks) was not focused on the profitability of the news sections, they were able to pursue stories that were controversial (e.g. it is unimaginable today for CBS to run a prime-time special to debunk a right-wing Senator’s wild charges, in part because it would receive low ratings, in part because it would be too controversial) and, further, to hire people who were interested in promoting news that may not be popular but was important.
It was a public trust, in a sense. Yes, there was a sense of paternalism to it (we know what’s good for the public) and there was some condescension to it (which is why some conservatives bitch about “liberal elites” – they were more often than not “liberal” and they were almost by definitiion the "elite"). But for thirty years, I would argue it served the public pretty well.
Beginning in the 1980s, this began to stop. Network news services were pressured to cut costs and bureaus were eliminated. In order for the news division of a network to receive airtime in prime time, they were required to pander to their audience. Documentaries like "CBS Reports" concerning the Pentagon's spending policies, to be replaced by Dateline NBC with Stone Phillips. In addition, the proliferation of news outlets (e.g. cable news, radio, INET, etc…) caused declining ratings, which caused news outlets to panic. Even CNN, which was created as an all-news network, faced a significant challenge from FNC’s success and even faces an identity problem concerning their role in the marketplace.