Broken Media

I agree with Matt Taibbi’s latest essay. Our media are broken:

The moment a group of people stormed the Capitol building last Wednesday, news companies began the process of sorting and commoditizing information that long ago became standard in American media.

Media firms work backward. They first ask, “How does our target demographic want to understand what’s just unfolded?” Then they pick both the words and the facts they want to emphasize.

It’s why Fox News uses the term, “Pro-Trump protesters,” while New York and The Atlantic use “Insurrectionists.” It’s why conservative media today is stressing how Apple, Google, and Amazon shut down the “Free Speech” platform Parler over the weekend, while mainstream outlets are emphasizing a new round of potentially armed protests reportedly planned for January 19th or 20th.

What happened last Wednesday was the apotheosis of the Hate Inc. era, when this audience-first model became the primary means of communicating facts to the population. For a hundred reasons dating back to the mid-eighties, from the advent of the Internet to the development of the 24-hour news cycle to the end of the Fairness Doctrine and the Fox-led discovery that news can be sold as character-driven, episodic TV in the manner of soap operas, the concept of a “Just the facts” newscast designed to be consumed by everyone died out.

Without defending Fox News at all, the problem goes back long before 1996 as Mr. Taibbi himself acknowledges:

I came into the news business convinced that the traditional “objective” style of reporting was boring, deceptive, and deserving of mockery. I used to laugh at the parade of “above the fray” columnists and stone-dull house editorials that took no position on anything and always ended, “Only one thing’s for sure: time will tell.” As a teenager I was struck by a passage in Tim Crouse’s book about the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys in the Bus, describing the work of Hunter Thompson…

The emphasis is mine. He didn’t come into the news business until about 25 years ago, just around the time that Fox News was born. By then J-schools had already abandoned Aristotle’s 5 Ws of writing, that objective style he calls out, in favor of point-of-view reporting. That started in the 1970s. Ah, yes. Objective reporting. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.

He concludes:

Media companies need to get out of the audience-stroking business, and by extension the politics business. They’d then be more likely to be believed when making pronouncements about elections or masks or anything else, for that matter. Creating that kind of outlet also has a much better shot of restoring sanity to the country than the current strategy, which seems based on stamping out access to “wrong” information.

What we’ve been watching for four years, and what we saw explode last week, is a paradox: a political and informational system that profits from division and conflict, and uses a factory-style process to stimulate it, but professes shock and horror when real conflict happens. It’s time to admit this is a failed system. You can’t sell hatred and seriously expect it to end.

They don’t know anything else. They can’t afford to do anything else.

Not only do the new kids coming along deride the old objective style as much as he did when he was their age, they castigate, dox, and cancel those who pursue it. I can’t see anything good coming of that.

5 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    I read pretty widely when it comes to ideology – and have most of my adult life. I think it’s definitely true that “news” has grown increasingly editorialized over the years. Some of it is subtle, biased by choice of story, who gets quoted, the framing of issues, etc. But increasingly a lot of it is just nakedly agitprop.

    It’s a sad irony that my early intelligence training on deciphering Soviet propaganda and comparing it to anti-Soviet propaganda and westerns news sources has continued to be useful in my everyday life.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    Essay is spot on.
    The Chinese would call it disruption of social harmony.
    Maybe they should be snowed in by a legal blizzard.

  • bob sykes Link

    I don’t think there ever was a time when the media were objective, not even in the days of Nast or whoever that publisher in the early Republic was. Every newspaper in every era was (is) biased and bigoted and specialized in partisan propaganda. The problem facing everyone at all times has always been, What is real? In every era, everyone, all of us, has been deluded about most things.

    As all of us now. Does anyone actually know what just happened in DC? The correct answer is, No.

  • steve Link

    My perception is that people now make so much money putting out propaganda based on news that there is pretty much a zero per cent chance it changes. Plus, the consumers mostly seem to love it. Outrage and hate are addicting. You get to blame others for everything.


  • Andy Link

    Certainly, media is never objective and never has been. It’s aspirational, like the American creed or the Christian desire to avoid sin. The difference, as I see it, is in the level of sincere effort one puts in to try to meet the aspirational standard, along with honest introspection to actually evaluate how one is doing on the path. Many in journalism don’t even pretend to do either anymore.

    But the erosion of standards and the lack of sincere effort are also the result of what Taibbi and others discussed – the current market for information and “news” promotes it. Clicks and developing and feeding a loyal audience (“engagement”) is how money is made and the bills are paid. Politicians have similar incentives now too when engaging with the media.

    Again, I can’t see how this ends – or at least how it ends well.

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