The Illusion of Choice

By Chris Salazar

The presidential debates air Monday night as Clinton snags a 6 point lead over Trump. Yet, while these two behemoth personalities are potentially the least liked candidates in history, the disconcerting spectacle is the media’s tattered reputation.

This isn’t new. Journalism has suffered dwindling approval ratings since the mid-nineties. In a recent poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, 450 people were instructed to lay bare their opinions about the news media, politicians and political institutions. The two candidates, in spite of their inflammatory reputations, garnered greater approval over the news media—which was second only to Vladimir Putin.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 ushered a new information era where money and media intertwine, closer to two lovers wrestling than two adversaries grappling. If our media is the vehicle by which power is mediated by truth, then the devastation of that legislature is clear: almost 90 percent of our major media companies are owned by six corporations. Contrast this monopoly with our former distribution of American media in 1983 where approximately 90 percent of what we read, watched or listened to was owned by 50 companies.

The decisions we make are only as good as the information we receive. If we accept that premise, then the conclusion relegates choice to being a mere illusion when intelligence remains suspended in arrested development. It’s clear that Hillary Clinton is backed by the big media lobby. The WikiLeaks emails, which revealed that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) favored Clinton over Sanders during the primaries, demonstrate as much.

2016 Libertarian Party Nominee Gary Johnson. Image by Gage Skidmore.

The issue with our political system is how it stymie’s third-party campaigns. For example, most Americans don’t even know Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential nominee, and Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential nominee, exist as options to consider—candidates who differ ideologically, and offer ideas that challenge the discourse of conventional wisdom. A robust democracy requires a robust dialogue. But the nature of the journalistic landscape is fragile, where journalist’s tip-toe around egg shells lest they bite the hand that feeds them.

Unfortunately, former President Bill Clinton’s legacy, at least in part, permitted the consolidation of the six corporations (GE, News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS) that dictate the vigor of the political conversation.

Clinton leads in the polls. But while polls can, and do, shape elections, they’re flawed. Not necessarily because of malicious intent, but as a result of methodology and confounding variables. Consider the bandwagon effect. As a candidate gains momentum in the polls, it often results in more funders, voters and catches the attention of interest groups.

When soft-spoken Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and political newcomer, entered the GOP primaries no one considered him a contender. However, as he climbed the polling ranks last fall, going from second to first, he was taken more seriously as a candidate until his polling prowess dwindled last December.

Automated dialing can also skew polling results as federal regulations only permit robots to call landlines. So roughly half of the U.S. adult population who only own cell phones—tend to be younger, lower wage earning urban dwellers—are not represented.

So, it’s not hard to see why Gary Johnson and Jill Stein didn’t reach the 15 percent in the polls required to enter the debate stage alongside Clinton and Trump on Monday night. But it’s regrettable for two reasons. First, Americans need exposure to something novel, whether it’s a new take on an old political stance or a new face from a maligned party. Secondly, the eerily cookie cutter political discourse reifies the party collusion between Democrats and Republicans.

The truth dwells behind the monetary veneer of corporate media. Until it’s allowed to defend itself, the writing plastered on the wall reads: American democracy, the illusion of choice.