Why do you watch the news you watch and visit the news sites you visit?
Because you can relate.
We turn to news not to have our opinions formed but to have them reinforced. News does not create a point of view, news endorses a point of view.
We interpret events not by the news we consume but through the filter of identity and values derived from family and from social networks, physical and digital. Our personal filter shapes how we interpret information.
Some people read the New York Times, still. They trust it. They believe it. They like to think it’s fair and balanced. They like to think that they are fair and balanced, too. And I presume the writers at The Times think the things they write are true. At least I hope they do.
But over at Fox News, they think the things they say are true, too.
That’s the genius of the Fox News Channel. That’s how it got to be number one in cable news, by far. First, Murdoch and his Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes saw a gap in the market and figured out exactly the voice to exploit it. It was the voice of conservative and populist talk radio, long established out in the heartland. That’s where O’Reilly, Beck and Hannity came from, the keepers of their flame. Then they branded that version of the truth “fair and balanced.”
Hold on, isn’t the Times supposed to be the one that’s fair and balanced?
They gave FNC a distinctive voice and presentation style that create an unmistakable identity and act as a competitive insulator by creating the passionate attachment that stimulates consistent viewership every day – and ensures that the channel gets about 94 cents per cable subscriber per month from cable operators, one of the highest rates in the industry and a third more than CNN receives. Because of the fervor of its audience, Fox News is now recording profits of over a billion dollars a year.
FNC presents a consistent thesis on the way the world should operate. Most of its viewers watch no other news. Again, it’s a matter of trust. Fox viewers trust Fox to get the story straight. Here’s the thing – they don’t trust newspapers to do that. In fact, they distrust newspapers deeply.
How can this be? Are all FNC viewers under-educated morons? Tea baggers? All 1.9 million of them who tune in every night? – which by the way is more than double the domestic digital audience of the New York Times.
Everyone in media peddles their own perceived version of truthful reality – and dismisses the capability of their competition to discern it. “The Internet is a sewer,” said O’Reilly on Fox last week. That’s a little rich, coming from him. You can’t blame Twitter and Reddit for unleashing the mob. If you want to see wild eyes and pitchforks, turn to Bill’s program when you get in tonight. Then if you really want to hear the clamor, quaff a handful of Xanax and listen to the brawling on talk radio. Holier-than-thou traditional media has its own problems of editorship and its own confusion over the nature of news.
Just like the medium of cable television, just like the newspaper medium too, some digital news products cheapen the public discourse, some elevate it. A lot of the time it simply depends on your personal point of view. That, after all, is where your version of the truth lies.
Newspaper journalists and their readers are as bewildered by digital news as they are by the success of Fox. They dismiss Buzzfeed, Vox, Gawker and others for apparently ignoring the obligation to sift truth from hoax and rumor in their rush to create viral traffic. Their maniacal chase for clicks and swipes makes them little more than distributors of cute pet videos and people doing dumb things, they say, stuff that’s not worthy of any credible news publisher that wants to be taken seriously. But newspapers have used comics and horoscopes and Ann Landers and all kinds of gimmicks forever to get readers in the door. Nothing new here.
They say that the “native” advertising used by digital news companies muddies the distinction between commercial copy and edit, making it hard to tell them apart, as if adjacency advertising and sponsorships placed in relevant streams of programming is a revolutionary idea. Nothing new here, either.
Buzzfeed and Vox are growing audience at four or even five times the rate of Times Digital. Are all their users dupes, easy suckers for lame cat videos and contiguous advertising?
Journalists have been guilty of the easy dismissal before. In the 1920s, a newspaper journalist called radio the work of “parlor books, hopeless pupils of honorless music teachers and quack health doctors.”
The seeds of newspaper demise are rendered obvious by the easy dismissal of the competition. What lies behind it is the idea that only newspapers, with their precious journalistic process, their commitment to fact and balance and objectivity, can be trusted with the news.
Behind that awful sense of superiority is an uncomfortable truth. It’s not that newspaper journalists don’t trust digital news, it’s worse than that, they don’t trust you and me. They don’t trust that ordinary people will be able to make sensible judgments on issues and news events independently, without their supervision. If they were designing the constitution and not Madison and Hamilton, we’d have a parliamentary system today, where only the toffs had the right to vote.
The provenance of a daily newspaper never did guarantee truth. The myth of objectivity propagated by the editor-priests is as questionable as any of Scalia’s pompous claims of divining absolutist truths in the writing of the Founders. The truth is not deterministic. It’s probabilistic. Just ask the Michael Brown grand jury.
There’s always another side to the story. The burden has always been on us to parse reportage from supposition – and in the digital world, we’re better equipped than ever before. Do you really think Brian Williams would have been outed as a cousin of the Kardashians before the Internet?
My old friend Richard Gringras, head of Google News, recently led the founding of something called The Trust Project to establish the credibility of digital news. It’s a nice, high-minded endeavor. It’s also irrelevant. Journalists, digital or otherwise, do not hold the golden keys to a magical process for unlocking the truth, though careful, considered reporting can help us make up our minds, of course. Although most US journalists identify themselves as Democrats – nearly four times more than identify as Republicans, according to a 2013 study by the University of Indiana – they’re not all ideological warriors and many are capable of advancing a story’s progress in a helpful way as a news event unfolds. But they’re not the exclusive keepers of the truth.
Behind the newspaper masquerade of special insight and privileged veracity is the irony that the modern newspaper industry was built by larger-than-life press barons with an axe to grind, egotistical, headline-grabbing hell-raisers whose newspapers raked over the muck and preached a very definite point of view. But somewhere along the way U.S. newspapers decided that the best way to appeal to the broadest possible local market was to swear allegiance to the doctrine of neutral, balanced, “objective,” news. From a business point of view, this was not smart. It led to a milque-toast tone that built little passionate attachment or durable loyalty. No reader knew what their newspaper stood for. The connection was tenuous, loyalty strained.
Worse that that, “balanced” coverage was a fiction. A newspaper tilted readers one way or the other not just by its editorial approach to a particular story, but by a headline, a photo, even the position of a story on a page. Worst of all, the presumption of neutrality led to spineless reporting with no edge. In news, voice matters. A lot. It is the organizing principle around which news presentation can coalesce and audiences can gather. Whether it’s the knee-jerk conservative voice of FNC or the progressive, alternative voice of Vice.com, voice is an honest filter that serves news consumers better than an elaborate pretense of objectivity. And of course, it’s also better for business.
Challenging the idea of ideological neutrality as a framework for news reporting has inspired a new breed of journalists who brandish their affiliations openly. Today, newspapers employ roughly a third fewer professionals than they did at their peak in 1989, but the proliferation of professionally produced blogs and the rise of digital news companies has added thousands of new jobs in journalism.
It’s not journalism that’s dying, but journalism as conducted by newspapers.
Journalism itself is alive and kicking.
It’s just not hiding behind an illusion anymore.
This just in: Vox Media interviewed the President last week. When asked about the polarization of politics, this is what he said: “The balkanization of the media means that we don’t have a common place where we get common facts and a common worldview the way we did 20, 30 years ago…Technology which brings the world to us also allows us to narrow our point of view.”
But “a common worldview” is the kind of thing that Pravda offers. Thanks to the Internet, we now have a thousand points of view at our fingertips.
You can watch the interview here: