Independent, objective, or the tragedy of media politicking

It is not possible to argue without commonly agreed foundations. There has been a heated debate in recent weeks about the responsibility of the media for the elections. According to Hont, if the opposition speaks to readers of 444, People’s Word, Answer Online, it will sooner or later have as many voters as there are readers of these surfaces. Puzsér shares a similar view, while András Schiffer questions the existence of a “frustrated Fidesz” voter created in part by the media. Péter Ungár talks about the 444 – Telex – Magyar Hang metaverse. It’s a goal kick for András Stumpf. One thing emerges, there is no widely accepted concept of “media”. Everyone feels that the media has some responsibility, but no one is articulating exactly what it is. Opinion.

The journalist is a subjective being. This is natural, it would be a problem if it weren’t. However, the subjectivity of a journalist has an impact on society, so it is important to be subjective, or at least known. Breaking the topos of independent journalism is a much more complicated matter. The question here is not whether there can be a journalist who can do journalistic work independently. Of course it can exist. However, if you are already doing this within an editorial office or, if necessary, your livelihood depends on it, you will already find yourself in a dependency relationship. Okay, but then what about independent editorials?

I would argue that there is no such thing as an independent editorial office.

It does not exist, and it is not because the editorial staff has to maintain itself, assuming that journalists do not work in it on a voluntary basis. You can ensure financial stability in three ways: either by supporting the policy (state or opposition, foreign paid advertisements, subsidies), or by supporting an economic operator, or through readership subscriptions.

The question of political support is the simplest. It is no coincidence that the S&D Socialist EP Group advertised in the Western Light, just as we are not surprised by the appearance of government briefings in the media related to the ruling party. The Hungarian media discourse generally interprets independence solely as the opposite of dependence on the government. The independent who is independent of the government. A significant portion of government-critical media does not receive government advertisements. I think this is a legitimate position. What’s more, it allows government-critical media to assert themselves in a kind of resistance role. They are far more credible than the opposition politicians who paralyze in Parliament, who do this for the millions they receive from the state.

When the media, after the election, thematizes whether it is worth taking a seat on opposition MPs and who will receive how much benefit from the state (which, according to their own narrative, is equal to Fidesz), they consciously or unconsciously strengthen their position of credibility. This is also preparing for the next four-year cycle. I will return to why this is important later.

The next level of dependency is when a particular economic operator or company invests in the media. This economic operator usually also has political interests. Lőrinc Mészáros did not buy a television by accident, nor did Péter Ungár launch rural newspapers in Szombathely, for example, where he competed in the pre-election. But if we imagine an ideal situation, the investor will still have some other economic interest. And the media is power, and censorship is often unspoken. For some reason, in a newspaper run by a U.S. investor interested in a tobacco lobby, journalists don’t want to write an article about the harmful effects of smoking, or just display opinions about banning smoking on the site. They may not be banned, yet self-censorship is used.

The third level of dependency is when readers maintain a page. Ideally, let’s say these sponsors or subscribers support or subscribe to the content on an equal footing. This is not usually the case in Hungary, there are some readers who support such an initiative with significant sums. In Hungary, the media discourse mistakenly calls this level of dependence independence, but this is far from the case. Assuming only the ideal situation (there is no single supporter), a producer-consumer situation will emerge in this case as well. The journalist produces the news, the reader consumes it. However, the reader does not like to consume news that is not written to his liking. But he doesn’t pay. Consequently, a press product maintained solely by readers depends on the opinion, will, and taste of a particular segment of readers. What follows from this? Polarization is increasing. And in the event that a journalist expresses a different opinion from his followers, he would rather not do so. The effect of this can only be given by a Hungarian example, when Mérce did not allow the publication of writings in support of Péter Márki-Zay at the time of the pre-selection. Presumably, the character’s characteristically left-wing supporters would not have looked at this with good eyes. In Hungary, due to the small size of the market, this type of financing is not yet widespread.

The questioning of independence and objectivity is, I think, the basis on which we can put the workings of media players into context.

My next statement is that the media is polarized, and certainly along political interests. I don’t think I need to prove the right-wing or pro-government part separately, although there are counterexamples there as well. In the opposition, however, the situation is much more difficult. While there is one actor on the pro-government side, there are more in the opposition space. Moreover, opposition actors have conflicting interests. Due to the relative weakness of political actors in the opposition sphere, it has often been the case in recent years that some media outlets, recognizing the situation, have influenced opposition politics. However, they also became political actors. The system of relationships is complicated, I would not undertake to decipher this now. (And I would avoid anecdotal reasoning.)

The strengthening of the polarization of society can be deduced in part from journalistic subjectivity. From week to week, we show how different events each approach takes on the surfaces of the press critical of the government and those considered party-ruling. Thus, one part of the Hungarian readers thinks about a completely different reality than the other half. Media bubbles, or as Péter Ungár puts it, meta-versions are created. We are working to break these when we are organizing Journalist Debates and sitting down journalists with different mindsets to debate.

Because the opposition is not united, it has never been, and cannot be, they are not actually competing with the ruling party, but with each other. However, their own voters do not read Mandiner and watch HírTV, but consume only government-critical products. Therefore, left-wing political actors produced political content exclusively for these media. More follows from this. One is that political content production has been adjusted by the opposition to the liking of some actors in the government-critical media. It is important to note here that these media do not form a homogeneous mass either. Each party has its own connection to certain media outlets, and there are serious contradictions where appropriate. I remember when I led the Momentum youth organization,

we have rejected several political actions at the moment because we thought some members of the press would not like it,

and no matter what we say, what matters is how the press serves it.

So basically, opposition parties did not speak only to readers of the government-critical press because they could not guess other messages or see where this would lead, but because all political actors were self-interested, and in the opposition game theory exercise, if everyone the best decision is made, it goes to a point that is in the best position for the ruling party. It is a much more effective decision for an opposition actor to reach readers and adapt to the wishes of the media, in line with the government-critical media, than to try to reach new voters. Cheaper, easier. And if someone doesn’t choose that path, they’ll fall behind in the opposition house championship. At the same time, while opposition parties are competing with only their own voters, the ruling party has put a lot of resources into reaching opposition voters. That’s why the ruling party was able to get extra voters behind it.

The author is an economist, former president of Momentum TizenX, and head of the Foundation for Transparent Journalism.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Index Editorial Board.

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