Greg Garland shares this thought-provoking essay by our old friend Matt Taibbi, now a middle-of-the-road blogger, who echoes what I’ve been arguing about the need for at least one reliable medium that has no partisan or ideological ax to grind. Is that even possible anymore? He buries his most salient point at the end:
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.
Wow! Taibbi admits that when he first went into journalism, he felt the old objectivity model was archaic, and he relished Hunter S. Thompson’s subjective coverage of the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign for Rolling Stone, which was also chronicled in Tim Crouse’s “The Boys on the Bus” (not to be confused with “The Boys in the Band!”). However:
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. . . .
Perhaps this is overly idealistic, but this is a discussion we need to be having within our beloved profession if we really hope to survive, which will require reaching more than just the half of the American public who voted for Biden. I’ve been arguing for four years that criticizing Trump for his outrageous utterances and actions is all well and good, but we have made no effort as journalists to understand the people who were willing to put this moron into office. They comprise half of that “audience.”
Case in point: The criticism the MSM are airing that more heads would have been cracked if antifa or BLM had stormed the Capitol is a valid one, but by the same token, let me turn your memories back to last spring and summer when the left-wing crazies were creating an “autonomous zone” in Seattle, vandalizing the federal courthouse and the police station and other taxpayer-built buildings in Portland, mindlessly burning black-owned businesses in Minneapolis and other cities, which CNN and other such media outlets dismissively labeled as “mostly peaceful protests.” That’s like saying the performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater was “largely uneventful.”
The MSM can’t have it both ways, brothers and sisters. Anarchy is anarchy. And the media are as polarized nowadays as the populace, when we should be moral arbiters. As Taibbi put it:
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 [sic] 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 Housestaring 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. . . .
To recite a cliché, Taibbi is saying we’re part of the problem when we need to be part of the solution. Amen. But it will take some self-introspection, which nobody likes.
There’s still more. It’s worth reading and sharing with colleagues and students and discussing in Zoom meetings. Please do.
Our DWS member John Stuart Mill had some salient thoughts about tolerating unpopular opinions:
“If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility . . . Though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
“So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it.”
“There is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood.”
But Mill also said:
“The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defense would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government.”
—John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
British philosopher, economist, essayist, colonial administrator and author
Rather more recently, Walter Cronkite said:
“In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story. . . The ethic of the journalist is to recognize one’s prejudices, biases, and avoid getting them into print.”
“I’m a liberal, but I’m not biased. Seriously. . . A journalist covering politics, most of us are aware of the necessity to try to be sure we’re unbiased in our reporting. That’s one of the fundamentals of good journalism. We all have our likes and our dislikes. But . . .when we’re doing news — when we’re doing the front-page news, not the back page, not the op-ed pages, but when we’re doing the daily news, covering politics — it is our duty to be sure that we do not permit our prejudices to show. That is simply basic journalism.”
—Walter Cronkite (1916-2009)
Peabody Award-winning American broadcast journalist, war correspondent, CBS anchor and author
Where’s Uncle Walter when we need him?
He should have a talk with Margaret Brennan and Gayle King at his old network.