I grew up in the era of Walter Cronkite, the Huntley-Brinkley Report, and later the reporters who broke the Watergate story, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. It may offend our modern sense that crowdsourcing is always better than curated, but I appreciated what journalists did back then. There was a sense of duty to the public. Find the stories that people ought to know about and share them in their order of relevance. Journalists took the initiative to look beneath the surface and uncover information the public needed to hear about. The Associated Press and United Press International fed stories into the newsroom from around the world, presenting the facts on the ground. Each news group selected from those stories and/or the stories of their own journalists and decided what deserved air time, space on the frontpage, or inclusion in the magazine. Consumers of the news would select the news outlet that best reflected the way their own values would prioritize the news.
Maybe their choices of what was and wasn’t newsworthy were questionable. Were they right to hide Roosevelt’s disability from view or Kennedy’s affairs? But I think their stories were selected on the fairly noble basis of what was in the public’s interest to know.
Now, let’s compare and contrast that with the ways in which we receive our news today. For purposes of convenience let’s break those sources into three categories: mainstream media, Fox “news”, and social media.
Mainstream or the established media has often descended from the news media giants of yesteryear. Examples would include ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. Fox “news” was truly a complete break from historic outlets. Riffing off of the success of CNN, Fox “news” was a cable network with a mission to support purveyors of conservatism at any cost – even when it meant hiding parts of a story, ignoring a story, or, on occasion, manufacturing a story. Finally, we have social media like Facebook and Twitter. Social media quickly evolved from where we find out from our friends what they are doing that day to a disintermediated source of news.
In my years of development, there was a sense that television news was for the common person and newspapers were for the thinking person. Today, influencers read and watch the news as well as consuming propaganda from those who share their own established perspectives. These influencers then flood social media with disintermediated news which the common person uses as their primary means of news gathering.
Let’s break this down a little further. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to speak in broad strokes and there will be some generalizations.
First let’s look more deeply at the mainstream news outlets. Once bastions of investigative journalism and authoritative news, ABC, CBS, and NBC have wandered far from their roots. A half hour news broadcast has about 22 minutes of content. Approximately half of that content will be the kind of news stories that their predecessors would have recognized as news. The other half is a combination of public service announcements (like changes in the recommended age a man should begin to have his PSA checked) and fluff pieces. This part of the news looks strangely like what you found on YouTube Trending the week before – often they are exactly the same.
The mainstream outlets that once curated news with apparent concern for the public good has been supplanted. Modern media curates the news on what will increase their number of viewers – particularly in the younger demographic most attractive to advertisers. To accomplish this, mainstream news relies on three primary tools: fear mongering, sensationalism, and warm fuzzies. News is only a ruse and not at the core of their mission.
As you watch the evening news tonight, as each story ends ask yourself which of the three categories did it fit into. How many were purely useful information?
The good news about mainstream media is that they take the facts seriously. If you don’t believe me, ask Dan Rather or Brian Jennings. They might use the facts to scare you or sensationalize how important they are, but they do work with facts. When President Trump refers to media that doesn’t represent his alt-right base as ‘fake media’ it is usually this group that he is targeting. Despite his plethora of tweets and leading rallies in chants, he has never mentioned an instance in which the mainstream media got a fact wrong. There was the mistaken removal of the King bust and smaller number of the Patriots at the White House stories, but both of those were promptly corrected by their outlets.
But the duty of the fourth estate goes well past fact checking and garnering high Nielson ratings. They are the ‘fourth estate’ because they are to be the watch dogs over the activities of the three branches of our government and to call to our attention any of their abuses of the democratic process. Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation into Watergate is a prime example of journalism as the fourth estate protecting democracy. Murrey Marder of the Washington Post investigated McCarthy’s claim that Army personnel in New Jersey were involved in espionage and showed that his claims were false. Seymour Hersch uncovered the My Lai massacre. These are just a few high profile examples of how courageous and committed journalists provided the public with information that they would not otherwise have had and which strengthened our democracy. Note that it wasn’t until well after the Republican primaries were over that journalists began to do their job of looking into Donald Trump’s crooked business dealings, bankruptcies and alleged sexual assaults. Journalists still haven’t determined the extent of Trump’s financial entanglements with Russian financiers. A cynical person might think that the media wanted to stretch his candidacy out for as long as possible because Trump was good for ratings (advertising revenue).
I have presented traditional journalism and mainstream journalism as being different entirely. It would be more accurate to say that the preponderance of emphasis has changed from providing useful information to the electorate to baiting viewers for their advertisers. The New York Times estimates that then-candidate Trump received 2 billion dollars worth of free media coverage in comparison to other candidates. Trump brought eyeballs to advertisers. He didn’t do it by discussing policy that informed voters, but by fostering fear, sensationalizing facts, and channeling a latent anger among those in the electorate who felt otherwise neglected. By the equal-time-for-each-candidate mindset of yesteryear, it is highly doubtful he would be president today. FCC rules allow a disproportionate amount of time to be given to only one candidate if it is done in the context of an interview. Clearly, giving one voice disproportionate exposure in an election is not fair. It represents a breakdown of the role of the press as envisioned in the First Amendment. It is my opinion that mainstream media is not fake news in the sense of disseminating false information. They are fake news because they have deteriorated to the point of being little more than an infomercial disguised as a news broadcast.
I do want to mention that some newspapers, like the New York Times and Washington Post appear to be continuing many of the virtues of traditional journalism. But we are in an age where the discussion among journalists is whether newspapers are on the verge of extinction. Fortunately, the President’s criticism of the media, and the New York Times in particular, appears to have given the real newspapers a whiff of new life.
Now, let’s look at what has been until recently the leading cable news network, Fox News. Until Trump starting abusing CNN, Fox News often outperformed both CNN and MSNBC combined. But by so publicly subjecting his critics to churlish ridicule, President Trump has fed them the viewers they needed to stage a comeback of sorts. Of course, the news that Fox has paid several women who alleged sexual abuse and harassment millions of dollars in settlements hasn’t helped their popularity. Nor, has the news that Fox hid these liabilities from their investors.
Fox News invented the ill-mannered-host-shouting-over-his-guests-with-neck-veins-popping genre. They leave out facts that don’t support their alt-right agenda. For example, in reporting the story of Jimmy Kimmel’s baby’s health issues, they omitted the part where he made a plea for affordable health care. They make up false news, like Judge Napolitano’s claim that Obama was wiretapping Trump. When those fake news stories are shown to be fake, there is no news correction. According to PuditFact, CNN has the fewest false or mostly false statements of the cable news networks followed by MSNBC, which is more of an opinion network than a news network. They claim that a full 60% of Fox News “news” is either wrong or mostly false.
So, the question must be asked, if Fox News tells more lies than facts, why is it so popular? I think the answer lies in what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’. There is a psychological stress that occurs when our beliefs are challenged by our perceptions. If we bought a car and then read in Consumer Reports that the model we bought has reliability issues or depreciates rapidly we experience stress. It is only human to avoid pain. If we are far left, we don’t want to watch Fox News because their perspective is inconsistent with our beliefs. If we are alt-right, we don’t want to watch CNN for the same reason. The alt-right view is based on gender, race, religious, and cultural bias. Bias is hard to sustain when presented with facts. Facts cause bigots pain. Where can they go for reassurance that their anger and hate is justified? The “news” on Fox News fills the bill.
Now, let’s make no mistake about it. There are more than a few bigots in the United States. The fight for justice made great progress. But we have also backed the devil into the corner. Jesus describes Satan as a Deceiver, Killer, and a Destroyer. Those ignoble aspects of our nature that are fed by the Breitbarts and Fox News of the world have yet to inflict the last of their devilish damage.
Donald Trump sees the more accurate media outlets as a threat to his America, because facts stress him and his followers out. Truth will not lie down with hate. As our judiciary and legislative branches have drawn his attacks for limiting his power, it is no surprise that he has so vigorously opposed the truth-tellers. Based on his tweets, it would appear that he spends many of his non-golfing hours glued to Fox News and reading Breitbart.
I encourage all of us to expose ourselves to cognitive dissonance as much as we can stand it. It is important to understand how others think and how they feel. Whether it was Nazis convincing working people that their problem was the success of Jews or Republicans convincing working people that their problems were due to minorities, immigrants or treaties, it comes back in large part to feelings. From the time Adam pointed the finger at Eve who pointed her finger at the serpent, humans have only improved at passing blame. It is always easier to pass the blame to someone else – even when it isn’t their fault. We have a psychological need for a concrete place to place blame that isn’t us. Like cognitive dissonance, self-blame or grasping for a cause for misfortune is psychologically stressful. Oh, look, there is someone who is a different gender, color, religion, or culture. How handy. It’s their fault.
The alt-right is enabled by the misinformation that dodges cognitive dissonance and blame shifting that feeds bigotry. Fox News isn’t going anywhere. They will be lying and hating until Jesus returns. It concerns me how many Christians are feeding the devil with a swift click of their remote.
UPDATE 2017-05-14 13:20: I should repeat that these are generalizations. Even Fox News has people like Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith, who exhibit journalistic integrity.
Both mainstream media and Fox have moved dramatically away from serving the public to pandering to the public. A major contributor to that trend has been social media. As a college student, I had access to the AP wire as part of my journalism class on copy editing. As a soldier working in intelligence, I had access to classified information. In both cases, I found it intoxicating to have such unfettered access to what was going on in the world. In fact, that was one of the hardest parts about leaving the Army. One of the reasons frequently cited for the addictive nature of social media is the fear of missing out (FOMO). If there is an uprising in Turkey or Egypt it is not surprising that we first hear of it directly from the people involved by Twitter or Facebook. No need to wait for tomorrow’s paper or even the broadcast news. Just open the Twitter app while you walk to your next meeting. I have friends with varied interests who obsessively vomit links to the stories they find interesting into their Facebook feeds. People who use social media can feel that they “know enough” about what is going on from what they see in their social media feeds. Websites quickly learned that the best way to get people to click on those links was to have topics and headlines that have come to be known as clickbait. “Woman dies after opening the trunk in her grandmother’s attic. Find out why.”
Mainstream media and Fox both felt the pressure from social media’s immediacy, lack of scruples in generating clickbait, and appeal to the lowest common denominator among the public. The new normal in news is largely driven by this.
How do you make money as a “news” agency in three easy steps?
1. Compete with the immediacy of social media by reporting stories before you have confirmed your sources or understand what is happening. What is important is to be first. We’ll worry about being right later, but only if we get caught.
2. Compete with the internet’s clickbait stories by either re-sharing them or sensationalizing the ones you already had.
3. Appeal to the lowest common denominator by turning away from investigative journalism and enabling the avoidance of cognitive dissonance and blame shifting. Tell them everything they want to hear and help target some scapegoat with hate and fear.
This three-pronged approach will work whether your organization targets the alt-right or far left. It is very flexible. Of course, democracy loses when journalism takes this approach because it depends on an informed electorate. But, hey, when was the last time democracy put money in your pocket?