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Grand Rapids Power Structure: Part VI – The Media

June 18, 2018

Over the past few weeks we have been investigating the Grand Rapids Power Structure, beginning with a discussion about its framework in Part I; the most powerful family in Grand Rapids, the DeVos Family, in Part II and in Part III we looked at other members of the most powerful members of the private sector. In Part IV, we looked at the private sector organizations that have power and which individuals sit on the boards of those organizations. 

Last week, we looked at the next level of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, the local government, in Part VToday, we will investigate the role and function of the media, within Grand Rapids and how it serves power.

One significant misunderstanding about the media, specifically, the news media, is that it is often viewed through a liberal vs conservative lens. While there are nuances within various news media outlets, the main function of most news media is to serve and normalize power. The news media in the Greater Grand Rapids area also reflects this function.

In addition to serving and normalizing power, the local news media also serves the following functions:

  • Consumerism
  • Distraction
  • Pacification
  • Dumbing the public down

Commercial news media functions within the framework of capitalism, which means that it’s primary objective is to make money. This is especially the case, since most local news media is owned by a much larger corporation. For example, WZZM 13 is owned by Gannett, MLive is owned by the Advanced Publications (Newhouse Brothers) and WXMI 17 is now owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. In fact, very little local news media is owned locally and none of the daily news entities parent companies are based in Grand Rapids.

Since the commercial news media in Grand Rapids are owned by corporations, their goal is to make a profit, thus promoting consumerism. Commercial news agencies promote consumerism two ways. First, by selling airtime or ad space, commercial news entities promote consumerism by simply being a conduit for advertisers. Ads are everywhere, whether they are sandwiched between news and weather on broadcast stations or in print and online, adjacent to news content. A second way that commercial news entities promote consumerism, is by creating what advertisers call a perfect consuming environment. What advertisers mean when they say that news agencies create a perfect consuming environment, is that the way that news is produced – focusing on crime, violence, disaster and spectacle – provides a cultural climate of hopelessness and powerlessness. When people feel powerless and without agency, they are prone to want to consume stuff. Advertisers have been doing research on this dynamic, thus they know that they way that most news is produced with help create compliant and obedient consumers.

A second function of news media is to distract the public. News outlets distract us by creating stories about celebrities, animal doing cute things or covering events that are primarily about entertainment. News agencies also distract us by getting us to focus on personalities instead of systems of power. For example, it is easier to vilify the head of a corporation than to investigate the system of capitalism. It’s also easier to vilify President Trump, than it is to investigate the political system in the US, which is based on power and corruption.

A third function of news media is to pacify the public. Pacifying the public is closely related to the function of consumerism, since we are meant to feel hopeless and disempowered when watching the news. Crime coverage pacifies us, because we believe the police will take care of it. Political coverage pacifies us, because we think that politicians will take care of things. Economic coverage pacifies us, because we think that businesses will fix things. Watching, reading or listening to the news often leaves us feeling numb and without agency and this is what it is designed to do.

A fourth function of the news media is to dumb us down. Commercial news media over simplifies complex issues, like health care, ecological problems of foreign policy. The dumbing down that takes place is based on how news is produced. You can’t deal with complex issues in a 2 minute segment or a thousand word story. It is far easier to produce news that a 10 year old can understand, rather than investigate the complexities of the city budget. The public often is led to believe that we should just leave it to the “experts,” instead of being informed and engaged.

When a friend of mine and I were facilitating a workshop of racial representation in the local news media, we were confronted by a local TV news personality who was mad that we referred to the news media as some homogenous group. The news personality was Lee Van Ameyde, from WZZM 13. In response we provided six months of data and numerous examples of how the news media under represents some groups or engages in stereotyping of other groups os people. His response was, “I can see that you have done your homework, but you are not the typical news consumer.” We asked him what he meant by that. The WZZM 13 news reader said, “We tend to dumb down the news to a fourth grade level, because we have to reach the broadest number of people with our newscast.”

Each of these four functions, ultimately serves the Grand Rapids Power Structure. If we are distracted, pacified and dumbed down consumers, then we are certainly easier to manipulate. However, beyond these functions, it is critical for all of us to understand that 1) the local news media is part of the local power structure, and 2) they internalize the values of the that same system of power.

The people who runs local news media outlets are people who are paid quite well. These people make six figure salaries and they participate in the very same structures of power that we having previously identified. For instance, Janet Mason, the General Manager of WZZM 13, is also a board member of the Econ Club of Grand Rapids. The President of MLive Media Group, Dan Gaydou, is a board member with the Right Place Inc

More importantly, the local news agencies internalize the values of the system of power in Grand Rapids. This internalizing of the values of the system can be seen in how news is presented. The local commercial news media presents politics, the economy and societal issues through the eyes of those in power. News coverage of these themes rarely strays from the norm, which means that what is reported on presents business as usual when it comes to politics, economics and other major social issues.

For instance, look at how those who make up the local news are reported on. When was the last time you can remember a news story that really challenged a DeVos, Van Andel, Secchia, Kennedy or any other member of the Grand Rapids Power Structure? In fact, not only does the local news normalize the values of the local system of power, they often celebrate it and frame the local power structure as great pillars of this community. A recent example of how the news media defends or acts as apologists for power, can be seen in this video clip below, where a local news reporter begins a question by making the statement that the “DeVos family has done so much for Grand Rapids and West Michigan.”

Another way that the local news media internalizes the values of those in power can be seen even when there is some mild questioning of power. Think about all the news coverage in the past year about Wolverine Worldwide and the environmental contamination that company has been engaged in for decades. The news media isn’t really questioning the Wolverine Worldwide corporation as a whole, rather they are presenting the contamination as an aberration or at lest a flawed practice that took place in the past. More importantly, the way that news media has reported on the Wolverine Worldwide environmental contamination has not led them to challenge the very nature of capitalism, which has a historical track record of pollution and contamination.

Another example is how the news media reports on police abuse or more accurately mistakes made by a few officers in the police department. The GRPD or any other local law enforcement agency is general presenting as serving the public good and when there are issues that arise, it is usually just another aberration, since they are essential to public safety. In other words, the very nature and function of the GRPD is never questioned or investigated, despite the significant levels of mistrust and cynicism that exists in this community about police behavior.

Capitalism, systemic violence, white supremacy, patriarchy, settler colonialism, ablism, homophobia and transphobia are almost never the topics of local news media. These are complex issues, which are deeply woven into the very fabric of Grand Rapids and West Michigan. To report on or investigate these systems of oppression, would not only create a culture of informed and engaged people, it would inherently question, expose and challenge the very nature of the Grand Rapids Power Structure.


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