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.
News companies now clean world events like whalers, using every part of the animal, funneling different facts to different consumers based upon calculations about what will bring back the biggest engagement kick. The Migrant Caravan? Fox slices off comments from a Homeland Security official describing most of the border-crossers as single adults coming for “economic reasons.” The New York Times counters by running a story about how the caravan was deployed as a political issue by a Trump White House staring at poor results in midterm elections.
Repeat this info-sifting process a few billion times and this is how we became, as none other than Mitch McConnell put it last week, a country:
Drifting apart into two separate tribes, with a separate set of facts and separate realities, with nothing in common except our hostility towards each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.
The flaw in the system is that even the biggest news companies now operate under the assumption that at least half their potential audience isn’t listening. This leads to all sorts of problems, and the fact that the easiest way to keep your own demographic is to feed it negative stories about others is only the most obvious. On all sides, we now lean into inflammatory caricatures, because the financial incentives encourage it.
Everyone monetized Trump. The Fox wing surrendered to the Trump phenomenon from the start, abandoning its supposed fealty to “family values” from the Megyn Kelly incident on. Without a thought, Rupert Murdoch sacrificed the paper-thin veneer of pseudo-respectability Fox had always maintained up to a point (that point being the moment advertisers started to bail in horror, as they did with Glenn Beck). He reinvented Fox as a platform for Trump’s conspiratorial brand of cartoon populism, rather than let some more-Fox-than-Fox imitator like OAN sell the ads to Trump’s voters for four years.
In between its titillating quasi-porn headlines (“Lesbian Prison Gangs Waiting To Get Hands on Lindsay Lohan, Inmate Says” is one from years ago that stuck in my mind), Fox’s business model has long been based on scaring the crap out of aging Silent Majority viewers with a parade of anything-but-the-truth explanations for America’s decline. It villainized immigrants, Muslims, the new Black Panthers, environmentalists — anyone but ADM, Wal-Mart, Countrywide, JP Morgan Chase, and other sponsors of Fortress America. Donald Trump was one of the people who got hooked on Fox’s narrative.
The rival media ecosystem chose cash over truth also. It could have responded to the last election by looking harder at the tensions they didn’t see coming in Trump’s America, which might have meant a more intense examination of the problems that gave Trump his opening: the jobs that never came back after bankers and retailers decided to move them to unfree labor zones in places like China, the severe debt and addiction crises, the ridiculous contradiction of an expanding international military garrison manned by a population fast losing belief in the mission, etc., etc.
Instead, outlets like CNN and MSNBC took a Fox-like approach, downplaying issues in favor of shoving Trump’s agitating personality in the faces of audiences over and over, to the point where many people could no longer think about anything else. To juice ratings, the Trump story — which didn’t need the slightest exaggeration to be fantastic — was more or less constantly distorted.
Trump began to be described as a cause of America’s problems, rather than a symptom, and his followers, every last one, were demonized right along with him, in caricatures that tickled the urbane audiences of channels like CNN but made conservatives want to reach for something sharp. This technique was borrowed from Fox, which learned in the Bush years that you could boost ratings by selling audiences on the idea that their liberal neighbors were terrorist traitors. Such messaging worked better by far than bashing al-Qaeda, because this enemy was closer, making the hate more real.
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:
Thompson had the freedom to describe the campaign as he actually experienced it: the crummy hotels, the tedium of the press bus, the calculated lies of the press secretaries, the agony of writing about the campaign when it seemed dull and meaningless, the hopeless fatigue. When other reporters went home, their wives asked them, “What was it really like?” Thompson’s wife knew from reading his pieces.
What Rolling Stone did in giving a political reporter the freedom to write about the banalities of the system was revolutionary at the time. They also allowed their writer to be a sides-taker and a rooter, which seemed natural and appropriate because biases end up in media anyway. They were just hidden in the traditional dull “objective” format.
The problem is that the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction of politicized hot-taking that reporters now lack freedom in the opposite direction, i.e. the freedom to mitigate.
If you work in conservative media, you probably felt tremendous pressure all November to stay away from information suggesting Trump lost the election. If you work in the other ecosystem, you probably feel right now that even suggesting what happened last Wednesday was not a coup in the literal sense of the word (e.g. an attempt at seizing power with an actual chance of success) not only wouldn’t clear an editor, but might make you suspect in the eyes of co-workers, a potentially job-imperiling problem in this environment.
We need a new media channel, the press version of a third party, where those financial pressures to maintain audience are absent. Ideally, it would:
not be aligned with either Democrats or Republicans;
employ a Fairness Doctrine-inspired approach that discourages groupthink and requires at least occasional explorations of alternative points of view;
embrace a utilitarian mission stressing credibility over ratings, including by;
operating on a distribution model that as much as possible doesn’t depend upon the indulgence of Apple, Google, and Amazon.
Innovations like Substack are great for opinionated individual voices like me, but what’s desperately needed is an institutional reporting mechanism that has credibility with the whole population. That means a channel that sees its mission as something separate from politics, or at least as separate from politics as possible.
The media used to derive its institutional power from this perception of separateness. Politicians feared investigation by the news media precisely because they knew audiences perceived them as neutral arbiters.
Now there are no major commercial outlets not firmly associated with one or the other political party. Criticism of Republicans is as baked into New York Times coverage as the lambasting of Democrats is at Fox, and politicians don’t fear them as much because they know their constituents do not consider rival media sources credible. Probably, they don’t even read them. Echo chambers have limited utility in changing minds.
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.