In The Dumbest Generation: How The Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Emory University Professor of English Mark Baurlein argued that the millennials (referring to people born between the early 1980s and 2000s) are the “dumbest generation” because they focus on Facebook and Twitter instead of the political process or history. A decade earlier, critics had predicted the opposite. The millennials were the first generation raised with a computer in the home, leading many to believe they would be the best informed. However, in the Millennial Era, politicians have championed de-regulation, including the removal of government safeguards on maintaining a vibrant free press. The result is an electorate misinformed by media that is increasingly concentrated, homogenized, and in service of the nation’s power elite and their interests.
Recent data suggests Millennial Era voters are widely uninformed and misinformed about political happenings. A 2012 Pew Research study found that only 53% of Americans could identify that Republicans support “reducing the size and scope of the federal government,” which has been a core GOP aim for decades. Journalist Thomas Frank found voters in places like Kansas to be uninformed, because they voted against their economic interests. Polls in 2010 showed a slew of voters believed relevant falsehoods: the stimulus legislation lost jobs (91%), health reform will increase the deficit (72%), income taxes have gone up (49%), stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (63%), and Obama was not born in the US (63%).
Many of the Millennial Era voters attain their knowledge from media conglomerates that espouse the narratives of those in power. In 1996, the former media consultant for three Republican Presidents, Roger Ailes, became CEO of the burgeoning conservative news network, FOX. FOX became overwhelmingly biased in favor of the Republican Party. During a 19-week period in 2001, Special Report with Brit Hume had a 50:6 ratio of conservative to liberal guests. In 2010, the World Public Opinion project found that out of all news viewers, Fox’s were the most misinformed. In response to FOX, Democrats created MSNBC. By 2013, a Pew study found MSNBC to be the least factually based and most opinionated of the three 24-hour news networks.
Previous generations had regulations to protect media from becoming homogenized. The Communications Act of 1934 kept media diverse by limiting the number of stations one could own and keeping broadcast “facilities at reasonable charges.” The Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed the limits set by the Communications Act. As a result, media became more concentrated and homogenized as the 50 major media companies that owned 90% of all media in the US in 1983 dropped to 10 in 1996 and 6 in 2012.
Congress passed the Fairness Doctrine in 1949. This mandated equal airtime for differing views paid for by the broadcaster. In 1974, the Supreme Court exempted newspapers from the regulation arguing that, with so many newspapers, diversity is naturally protected. However, a fifth of newspaper jobs were cut from 2001 – 2009. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which “regulates interstate and international communications,” exempted all from Fairness Doctrine regulations.
The de-regulation philosophy opposed new regulations aimed at protecting the youngest millennials. In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission which provides “consumer protection” among other functions, proposed no advertising to children under the age of 8 after studies showed they could not tell the difference between television shows and ads. A few years later, under the new President and de-regulation supporter Ronald Reagan, the FTC killed the bill. Thus, the millennials became the first generation to experience widespread advertisements directed at them. Youth targeted periodicals doubled between 1986-1991 as did music between the years 1991 and 1994. In 2009, Nielsen, reported that, the youth’s time spent viewing television was “at an eight-year high” averaging 32 hours a week. Thus, the millennials were arguably largely influenced and informed by the very corporations trying to profit from them in a consumer culture. Reporter William Kleinknecht argued that the result was that millennials do not wear sneakers and t-shirts, they wear Nikes and Abercrombie.
The prospects of the Internet improving the flow of information in the Millennial Era are waning. In his recent book Digital Disconnect, media scholar Robert McChesney argues that the internet’s promise of wide spread information is declining as a few monopolies dominate the majority of its economy: Google owns 97% of the mobile search market and Microsoft 90% of operating systems. Like television, a few major corporations dominate the popular Internet news sites, which re-post and aggregate corporate news articles. Thus, they spread the same misinformation of traditional media to the Internet. Currently, world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, are attempting to legislate bills such as the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Trans-Pacific Partnership to further limit and control the flow of information on the Internet.
The removal of media regulations has led to Millennial Era voters being informed by a defunct media industry dominated by only a handful of corporate and commercial private interests.. This creates a homogenized and biased corporate media that serves–rather than questions–those in power. Millennials need to turn off the corporate broadcasts and begin a media revolution where they change the conception of how people receive their news.