Our system of media is supposed to enlighten and inform. It doesn’t, anymore. It’s badly broken.
Local newspapers can no longer afford to hold local politicians accountable. The aim of covering politics as though all parties are suspect is no longer financially viable. The system is clogged with false stories, hoaxes, hyperbole, twisted opinions and outright lies. People no longer trust it to deliver the truth. There are a million explanations for what happened. I have one of my own.
It’s broken because there are no real editors anymore. The crushing imperatives of time and market have rendered them redundant. Many in new media see no need for them. Old media can no longer afford them.
Seems like a small and inconsequential thing to say, right?
Wait, hear me out.
A century ago, in his book “Liberty and the News,” Walter Lippmann wrote:
The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy.
Selecting and ordering the news of the day is the primary function of an editor. And so is verifying it.
When I first joined BBC Television in London one of the training exercises we had to work through was a story based upon a single sentence: “The mayor of the town was struck by a car as he crossed High Street this morning.” Gradually, as more information was made available to us, the story began to develop. A witness claimed to have seen the mayor lurch unsteadily from a nearby pub. But another bystander swore that the car involved had been moving much faster than the speed limit. Conflicting accounts gathered momentum. What was true? What was certain? What was supposition? What story angle had the best corroboration? Where were the incentives for different accounts? By the end of the day we had to script a story that we could defend.
And the next day we had to do a similar exercise all over again.
We were learning the basics of getting it right, learning how to ask ourselves the hard questions the hard way to force precision on what we wrote, learning how to take ourselves out of the story. We understood even then that the truth is not deterministic, it is probabilistic. (If you don’t believe me, ask the Michael Brown grand jury). But our job was to get as close to the facts as we possibly could.
For the daily diet of news in the U.S. we used to rely on a coterie of distant, faceless editor-priests arbitrating what was newsworthy on any given day from their offices at the Associated Press, the New York Times and a small set of other respected media institutions. Their selection and treatment of the leading stories was generally accepted across all other media outlets. Sure, group-think ruled, but there was little active consideration of tailoring those stories based on audience preference. Bias was assumed, not deliberate, because the mass media marketplace was an undefined, amorphous, homogenous bloc. Most important, there was a process of editorial inspection in place. There was time to ask questions, time to weigh alternative, even conflicting narratives.
Today a media outlet cannot survive if it waits to try to get it right. Better to broadcast now and walk it back later than to wait and work through the editorial process. Now we are slaves to the ephemeral fodder of the cable-driven “news” cycle, instead of to what might actually matter. And it’s a news cycle driven as much by the exaggerations of social media as by actual events, so we are bounced, constantly, breathlessly, from cable to digital and back again, with no pause for breath along the way.
We are urged to take our place inside CNN’s “Situation Room,” or in the “America’s Newsroom” of Fox News. The idea of course is that there is no editorial intermediary – the viewer has a privileged vantage-point right inside the news-making sausage factory.
In the same way, in digital media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, RSS feeds or Buzzfeed, we are not accessing digital journalism. In many cases we are really accessing the equivalent of digital wire services, coming directly to us raw and unfiltered, with scant editorial process to get in the way. The advantage is that we can see a story develop first-hand. The disadvantage is that it may be nothing but conjecture anyway.
Live and late-breaking. Speed. Is. Everything. Feed the beast.
The news now must be visual, personalized, dramatic, simplistic, stereotypic…and immediate. That elderly curmudgeon in the corner holding up his hand and saying “wait, we need to check this first?” He’s gone.
Actually, he left a while ago. According to a study by Columbia University, in 1955 newspaper stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. By 2003 about half of all stories were about something else: They were reports that tried to explain why, not just what. Interpretation of the news event had become more important than the event itself.
As a result of the pressure of time and this long-term trend towards interpretation there has been a breakdown in the process of journalism. Ezra Klein over at fivethirtyeight recently summarized brilliantly the shortcomings in the way American politics in particular is now covered. There is, he said:
pervasive groupthink among media elites, an unhealthy obsession with the insider’s view of politics, a lack of analytical rigor, a failure to appreciate uncertainty, a sluggishness to self-correct when new evidence contradicts pre-existing beliefs, and a narrow viewpoint that lacks perspective from the longer arc of American history.
In other words, there is no editorship.
In the case of cable television and digital media, the transition from reporting on events to interpreting them is complete. Why? Because there is a ton of empty air to fill. A 24 x 7 news program means 168 hours of air time to fill each and every week. That’s 10,080 minutes.
But original news – finding and carefully developing stories – is expensive to generate, especially for a newshole of more than 10,000 minutes a week. And most news stories develop slowly, even incrementally, it’s the interpretation of what they might represent that can change quickly. So the answer to the problem of empty air is obvious. Turn it into hot air. Fill it with bloviators. They come cheap, because they’re desperate to be seen – it’s good for the bloviation business. And then, because conflict boosts ratings, encourage them to be argumentative, stridently so. Finally, promote the program as if it’s a sporting event, in the hope that viewers will tune in to see a raging contest, with winners and losers, and champions.
What do you get when you do this? Not news. Opinionation. Highly-predictable, unfiltered opinionation. Like politicians, you know what the loudmouth bloviators are going to say on any issue before they open their enormous mouths. An editor is the last thing you want. Might slow things down, challenge assertions, look for facts behind the wild-eyed, self-serving, hyperbolic claims of special insight.
It’s not new. Way back in 1935, a program called “America’s Town Meeting of the Air” debuted on NBC Radio. Its creator and moderator, George Denny Jr, had become worried that society was so polarized the average person no longer listened to other points of view. Yes, this was 1935. At the start of the first broadcast, this is what he said:
“If we persist in the practice of Republicans reading only Republican newspapers, listening only to Republican speeches on the radio, attending only Republican political rallies, and mixing socially only with those of congenial views, and if Democrats…follow suit, we are sowing the seeds of the destruction of our democracy.”
Denny’s answer to the problem was to replicate on radio the Town Meetings that were held in the earliest days of the country, forcing the two main political parties to debate the issues of the day, out in the open.
His show was an instant success but not because it achieved Denny’s idealistic objective. Rather than changing minds, it confirmed prejudice and hardened position instead. Audiences cheered or applauded when they liked what a speaker said, and they heckled and hissed when they felt the speaker was wrong. That’s what gave them satisfaction.
The Internet is one big town square. It provides the kind of access and openness to news, information and opinion that Denny could only have dreamed of. But digital media reinforces established prejudice every bit as much as America’s Town Meeting. In the world of instant access, editorship – the process of establishing veracity and accountability – is an anachronism. And because it has gone AWOL, propaganda, fake news and lies proliferate.
No, David Brooks did not call for the assassination of Donald Trump in an interview on Radio KYRQ in New York. (There’s no such radio station). No, Mike Pence did not tell Fox News that gay conversion therapy saved his marriage. No, President Obama did not ban the Pledge of Allegiance in high schools. No, the Pope did not endorse Hillary Clinton.
It’s a vicious circle, too. When major news outlets go nuts trying to debunk reports that Podesta and Clinton are running a child trafficking ring out of a pizza shop in DC, it suggests to those who distrust “liberal media” that there is something to it. And that maybe there’s a cover-up going on. Here’s how that works: Anatomy of a hoax And here’s another example, from a hoax that originally took me in, I’m sorry to say: How Clinton rigged the ballot
But when I say the media system is broken, I’m not just talking about Internet hoax stories. The problem is deeper than that. Neither traditional nor digital media shed much light on the issues of the day, today. Instead they diffuse it. Or turn it off completely.
Nonetheless it would be silly to place all the blame on the Internet or even the information intermediaries we each choose to pay attention to, traditional or not. The problem, you see, is with us. We’re the ones seemingly untroubled about living in a factless age.
Consider the Trump cabinet hearings. We watch as politicians deny a previous belief expressed on the record, or as they parse and obfuscate its meaning. Then we convince ourselves to go along when they promise behavior counter to the original professed motivation. It’s a dance. The liar goes scot-free. If accused, he or she simply blames the media. Naturally.
We have either become contentedly cynical about politicians who spend their lives airily adjusting political position or we are not sufficiently media literate to see through the falsehoods.
Let’s assume the best. Let’s assume that as a society, we have become illiterate when it comes to the news media we consume every day. Perhaps the sheer speed of the news cycle has left us struggling to keep up, moving too quickly, easy marks for the careless journalist, the venomous Facebook comment, the hoax and the unscrupulous publisher.
Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of the information they’re receiving. But perhaps we lack the will and the capacity to get that job done? Do you?
If you buy the premise that media illiteracy is a problem then let me ask you a question that may represent a first tentative step towards managing that problem.
Why do you watch the news you watch and visit the news sites you visit?
I think I know why.
Because you can relate.
If you’re like everyone else, you turn to news not to have your opinions formed but to have them reinforced. News does not create a point of view, news endorses a point of view.
How do you know if a news story is true?
If you agree with it.
People believe in information when it confirms their prior belief. Worse yet, if you present them with data that contradicts their belief, they will typically double down on their position rather than incorporating the new knowledge into their understanding. This is how we end up with anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. And how we end up with false equivalences – they all do it, they’re equally to blame, what can you do? And how we end up with self-segregation and tribalism – while some jerk in Russia messes with our electoral process or some bandit in Macedonia makes money from the clicks.
We interpret events not by the news we consume but through the filter of identity, values and experiences derived from our family and from our social networks, physical and digital. A personal filter shapes how we interpret information. A personal filter drives our selection of news source.
Behavioral scientists have been studying “homophily” – the tendency of humans to cluster in like-minded groups – for more than a hundred years. In today’s media universe, such groups are getting smaller and smaller.There are multiple news sources to pick from, hundreds of splintered offerings catering to every shade of ideological position. The media landscape has fragmented so quickly that the audience of network nightly newscasts has declined by more than 35% in just the last decade. Their audience has gone off to echo chambers brought to you by Comcast and Facebook.
A year ago Vox Media interviewed President Obama and asked him about the polarization which besets contemporary politics. This is how he responded:
“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. It’s the last thing we here should want, even though the lack of it makes life difficult. And while we may have had a common worldview back when there were only three tv stations and a single newspaper in most cities and towns, that worldview was never an impartial one.
Media neutrality was always a myth. It’s just that before the Internet we had no vehicle to call it out – the media system was a one-way street, with news dispatched down to us, the passive, polite, appreciative recipients. Those were the days. The Gospel according to Cronkite. Modern media surrounds itself with an aura of objectivity, but at best objectivity is an aspiration, not a fact. The media’s claims of neutrality are as specious as were Scalia’s pompous claims of divining absolutist truths in the writing of the Founders.
Take newspapers. The provenance of a daily newspaper has never guaranteed a truthful examination of reality. Still doesn’t. The Times was convinced Clinton would win. In contrast, the Washington Post took the Trump candidacy seriously: The Post and Trump Whose editorial position was closest to reality? Whose reality?
To be fair, 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 universal truth.
Fact is, a newspaper has always 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. It was ironic that the tilt was often to the left, since most of the media owners and chief executives I’ve met sound a lot like Republicans. But I never came across many evangelicals in the newsrooms of our newspapers and only a few reporters with genuine working class roots. No wonder most of them missed the fury Trump rode to victory. They were looking at a different audience.
It’s a similar story with network news. I was naïve. I brought into the gravitas of anchors like Cronkite and Brinkley. I still often hear people of my generation lamenting their passing. So when I was first confronted with their fallibility, I was deeply disappointed. It happened one New Year’s Day long ago in the unlikely venue of the Sea View Hotel, in Bal Harbor, down in Miami. (It’s a long story). The hotel was owned by Archer Daniels Midland, the global agribusiness company and the largest sponsor of ABC’s “This Week with David Brinkley.” And there, on the chair across the pool from me, and at lunch with Bob Dole, and later at cocktails with Dole and Paul Volker, other leading political figures of the day and Dwayne Andreas, the ADM chairman and chief, was David Brinkley himself. David Brinkley. The old-school journalist and editor. Unimpeachable. Diviner of truth. Editorially neutral. Unsullied and unable to be bought. Being bought.
I wondered what my old BBC Editor would say about that.
I realized that ABC News would never run a story critical of Andreas or ADM. And that Brinkley and Dole were way too close for comfort.
And I began to see that the idea of television network impartiality was probably bullshit.
So years later it was easy for me to understand how traditional media could become the cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq. They had become an extension of the ruling elite. High-profile journalists had become expensive talent, many even media brands in their own right, liberated from editorial stricture. Rather than standing apart from the political system, they had been co-opted by it. They were part of the club.
Subsequently I turned down not one but two invitations to the Correspondent’s Dinner. I was no longer a journalist, but somehow it didn’t feel right for a media guy like me to be enjoying a night of self-congratulatory hob-knobbing with the who’s-who of Washington. My job was to make sure people kept them honest, not to wallow in their proximity.
And let’s not forget what Leslie Moonves, the CBS president, said last June about Trump’s run: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Trump was ratings gold. A segment on income inequality was ratings swampland. According to the Tyndall Report, in 2008 the three network news broadcasts devoted a total of three hours and 40 minutes over the entire year to issues reporting. In 2016 that plummeted to just 36 minutes. Holier-than-thou, network television has its own problems of editorship and its own confusion over the nature of news, the righteous role of media in our democracy – and the truth.
Ah yes, the truth. There’s that word again. 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 the writers at The New York 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 – though most of the time their presentation of a news event is very different from coverage of the same event in the Times.
You might say that’s the genius of the Fox News Channel. That’s how it got to be number one in cable news, by far. As he had done for years with his newspapers, Rupert Murdoch spotted a market opportunity.
When Murdoch owned the New York Post he had a long, sloping shelf installed down one side of his very large office. Lined up next to each other on that shelf were the latest editions of all the newspapers he owned around the world. The sheer number of them wasn’t what interested me. What was interesting was the way the same lead story in those papers was treated by their respective publishers. One day a report featuring Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, dominated news coverage. According to The Australian, it was yet another example of why her tenure was a disaster. The Times of London lauded what she had done. The Sun had a headline that said “Our Maggie does it again!” The New York Post warned Reagan not to emulate her: “The Iron Lady Has Gone Mad,” read the headline. Each catered to its particular readership, it’s market – and it would be impossible to pinpoint a coherent Murdochian political philosophy simply by looking at the front pages of his newspapers.
In the world of cable television news, Murdoch and his former Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes saw a gap in the market and instinctively figured out 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 the flame. Then they branded their version of the truth “fair and balanced.”
But hold on, isn’t the Times supposed to be the one that’s fair and balanced?
Ailes gave FNC a distinctive voice and presentation style that created an unmistakable identity. The identity created a passionate attachment with an audience that skews old, white and male, an 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. Fox News makes a profit of over a billion dollars a year. Its nightly audience of 1.9 million viewers is almost double the domestic digital audience of the New York Times.
Most of its viewers watch no other news. FNC consistently reflects their view of the world. It’s a matter of trust. Fox viewers trust Fox to get the story straight. They don’t trust newspapers or the television networks to do that. In fact, they distrust them deeply.
All media outlets work hard to reinforce the ideology protecting their interests – and work even harder to disguise their partiality. FNC is perhaps the most obvious about it. Each peddles its own perceived version of “truthful” reality – and dismisses the capability of their competition to discern it. Print journalists dismiss Buzzfeed as clickbait – while newspapers have used headlines and comics and horoscopes and Ann Landers and all kinds of gimmicks forever to get readers to open the pages. “The Internet is a sewer,” said O’Reilly on Fox. That’s a little rich, coming from him. You can’t blame Twitter and Reddit and Facebook alone 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.
The fact is that all media outlets make decisions about how to position themselves within a market – and how to signal where they stand. The market rules. There is a constant balancing act between the cost of entry and continuance, and the size and profitability of the market. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, as long as we all understand that professional “editorship” is less about striving to get the story right and more about striving to get it right within the context of the targeted audience. That’s why there’s always another side to the story.
So you, my friend, have only one option. You must learn to become an editor yourself.
Last year my colleague Richard Gringras, head of Google News, led the founding of The Trust Project to establish the credibility of digital news. It’s a 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. You do.
Want my advice? Think about the news programs you habitually watch and the sites you habitually visit. If you accept that we can no longer take the business dimension of what they do for granted, then examine your own motivation for choosing them. And maybe take the time to do the following as well. It won’t take a minute – and after a while you may find that you automatically incorporate this scrutiny into your reading process every day:
- Ask yourself who is publishing and distributing what you read and watch
- Do you recognize the name? Do you know who owns it?
- Get clear on the biases it has. Note: Don’t kid yourself it’s bias-free.
- Why does it have the biases it has? Hint: Follow the money
- Why is it selecting the stories it is offering?
- What audience is it catering to?
- What commercial sponsors does it have?
- Do you recognize the source of a story. Is it credible?
- Does the story have a byline? Google the name.
- Does a photo accompany the story? Does it look doctored? Is it believable?
- Beware all anonymous sources.
- Does a quotation ring true? Is it in character?
If you are suspicious of a digital news report, look for a small disclaimer somewhere that labels it “satire” – that’s a common way to lie while avoiding a legal suit. But most fake news is easy to debunk, it’s so obviously bullshit. It’s the other stuff, the lazy or deliberate mistruth, the artful shading for the market, that’s what is harder to spot.
If in doubt, check it out.
Google it. Better yet, go to snopes.com.
If in doubt, check it out.
You have to be the editor now.
- This is an update of a post entitled “Can Anyone be Trusted” that was published on BlastofWinter on February 15, 2015