‘News’ is Advertising. “That’s economics son, and don’t you ever forget it.”
Back in the early 70’s I was deeply concerned with the direction the powerful nuclear power industry was taking. I had a deep distrust for the ‘partnership’ the industry had forged with the Atomic Energy Commission, the regulatory agency tasked with overseeing it while also promoting it. In my view this was a huge conflict of interest and could only lead to no good.
So concerned in fact that I participated in many (non violent) protests, both at the regional regulatory review committee hearings and the actual construction of several nuclear power plants in the area. At the time, nuclear power was promoted as the miracle cure for all the problems that ailed America. “Too cheap to even meter” was a popular propaganda slogan bandied about in the 50’s and 60’s in an effort to dispel any opposition.
Who doesn’t want cheap power to feed a hungry and growing nation?
Sell the sizzle, not the steak is the marching orders of any good salesman. Leave the technical details to the rocket scientists and just sell the benefits. So it stands to reason “We the Protestors” were not welcome anywhere we showed up because we were throwing cold water on their hot shower. The power plants meant construction jobs for the local population and huge tax revenue for the towns where they were sited.
One particular local newspaper did not treat our presence kindly, producing a front page story gloriously praising the previous day’s regulatory hearing where approval was finally granted along with a hatchet job on us, a small group of about 20 protestors who showed up for that final hearing and briefly disrupted it when we were unlawfully blocked from speaking during the public comments portion of the hearing.
Sufficiently indignant to work up a good lather, a friend and I marched down to the newspaper and demanded to see the editor. Who, we quickly found out, was also the owner. Within a few minutes we were ushered into a cluttered back office where a pudgy little man was seated behind a huge wooden desk overflowing with old newspapers and paperwork. The place was such a mess the owner had to clear two chairs so we could sit while we interrogated him.
To his everlasting credit, he was polite and respectful as he listened to us complain about his paper not meeting the ethical standards of proper unbiased reporting all newspapers were expected to meet. While we did not insult him by swearing or shouting, from the point of view afforded by more than 40 plus years of perspective, I can say with some embarrassment we were not kind to the man.
He did not interrupt us nor argue his case, but instead sat silently while we rapidly dissipated our built up frustration and righteous indignation. Clearly he was a veteran of verbal assault by outraged readers and seemed to understand the best way to deal with this type of situation was not to feed the fire, but instead to just let it burn out on its own.
Media, in whatever form it takes, is still little more than advertising.
Burn out we did and in less than 10 minutes time. It is truly amazing how quickly the flames of passion die when offered no resistance. It’s like boxing a ghost, quickly dispelling all your energy swinging impotently at thin air. That was a secret I utilized later in life as a professional salesperson and company problem solver. When someone is pissed at you, listen to what they have to say with respectful silence. They soon calm down and tell you what they really want other than just a punching bag to smack around.
When he saw we had played ourselves out he asked if we were done. I weakly nodded in the affirmative, not knowing what else to do. He then seamlessly launched into his rebuttal; once again it was glaringly obvious he was an old pro with his response memorized and well rehearsed. What follows, while written with “quotation marks” to aid in reader comprehension, is a paraphrased rendition of his polished but increasingly forceful diatribe.
“I don’t know why you labor under the delusion a newspaper must be unbiased in its reporting or why you think we should treat all sides equally regardless of its merit. You may have got that in school, but that’s not the way the world works.” He announced, pausing for effect.
To be perfectly honest, the last thing I expected was for him to admit to everything we had just accused him of. Secret number two; agree with your adversary without really agreeing with them. It takes the wind right out of their sails.
“See this?” he asked as he grabbed a copy of the day’s newspaper, the same one we were just pointing to as we explained to him our noble and honorable cause in front of the regulatory committee. He expertly flipped the newspaper to one of the pages in the back, then in one motion jabbed his thick finger at a full page automobile dealership ad while slapping the paper down on his messy desk.
“This is advertising. This dealer buys a full page ad in my newspaper twice a week and that’s what pays the bills around here.” Without missing a beat, he grabs the paper and quickly flips it back to the front page, then once again jabs his finger at it while smacking it down on the desk, this time with even greater force. Plainly he was getting a little worked up.
“You see this?” he questions once again as he points to the front page story about the regulatory hearing that approved the power plant.
“This is advertising. This also pays the bills around here.”
I sat transfixed, shocked and awed into silence. My friend, squirming in the seat next to me, was turning green at the gills. Without a doubt we were in way over our head and he was looking for some way to escape. While stunned speechless, I was fascinated and waited for him to continue, having never met anyone like him before.
He didn’t disappoint.
“The people who read my newspaper and buy my ads want the power plant and the jobs and money that come with it. You might be right about radiation and floods and bad equipment. So what? This pays,” he declared as he repeatedly pokes at the story. “And you don’t,” he nearly spits as he moves his finger down to the protest story and stabs at the picture of “We the Protestors” being hauled away by the state police.
“I write what my people want to read. And they don’t want to read about you. I only put that story in because it’s news and that’s what a newspaper is supposed to do, report the news. But you don’t pay the bills,” he finished with a flourish.
He had a good point.
We all spin our narrative to suit our pleasure and preference as we navigate life. Whether we are filtering ‘facts’ to fit our preferred point of view or lecturing some poor soul on the glorious mission of the social justice warrior to pleasure our ego, we produce what sells even if the only one buying is us.
While there are plenty of people who will strenuously disagree (if only to sooth our fragile ego) we are all propagandists to some degree or another. The owner/editor was unabashedly, and proudly, explaining how he was simply giving the people what they want and being fairly compensated for doing so. We all talk our book and wish to be affirmed in our beliefs, especially when we are emotionally invested or financially compensated.
I made my last stand, insisting he could have been less dismissive of us while writing the story. He was immediately amused, then snorted his contempt as he lunged forward to drive the sword home.
Speaking slower now to make sure the long haired dimwits seated in front of him understood what he was saying, he covered the same ground once again.
“You don’t pay the bills. The power plant does.” Now he really was spiting, with white flecks of saliva spraying the newspaper and us in the process.
“That dealer likes what he reads in my paper and he pays his advertising bill every month. The people in this town like what they read in my paper and they buy the dealer’s cars. What do you do for them or me?” With eyes wide and nose flared, the owner of the newspaper everyone liked except “We the Protestors” had just gutted his catch and was ready to feast upon the remains.
“That’s economics son, and don’t you ever forget it.”
I never have and I never will, though I still occasionally get righteously indignant. Just ask Mrs. Cog.
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