The Media's Mousetrap
James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt
David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg just published a crucially important piece in the New York Times regarding the role of the media in the state of our political affairs. Their diagnosis is that the media has turned cynical, reporting ruthlessly and continually on negative news that foment public perception that things are worse than they are while eroding our public trust in our institutions (ironically, including the media).
This misperception and erosion have left open the doors to radical solutions, like electing an apparent strongman who refused to detail almost any of his post-election plans during his campaign, just to create a change away from the institutions that are largely serving us well (but needing some serious corrections) but that aren't at all liked. They write,
The state of the union is mixed. So why did so many people accept Trump's dark vision? One answer is that it fits with what they feel from the news. In this case, it doesn't matter if it's left- or right-wing news. Where can you count on finding stories every day about violence, social dysfunction and government incompetence and scandal? When is the last time you read a news story about government competence? What are the images from the news that readily come to mind about African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims or immigrants? Do you picture people with aspirations who are studying, making contributions, building businesses? Or do you picture lawlessness, drug use, dysfunction?
For decades, journalism's steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump's seeds of discontent and despair to take root.
This is insightful, and it's something for the media to reflect deeply upon and attempt to remedy. They also point out that there are deep roots to this problem, and they're quick to point out that some of my concerns about the media are more symptom than cause (specifically the comedians bit).
The erosion of belief has been gradual. It didn't begin with the internet or cable TV, and it is not entirely because of the new enthusiasm for getting news from social media or late-night comedians. It can, ironically, be traced instead to the years of the Vietnam War, Watergate, C.I.A. surveillance of Americans and other profoundly disillusioning experiences in the 1960s and 1970s, when reporters were doing what the originators of the First Amendment had in mind - checking the power of public officials by holding them accountable.
That was a public service, and it ended a more permissive era when a more timid brand of journalism glorified leaders, knowingly looking away from their personal and professional lapses. Unfortunately, the pendulum swing led to a new problem: hypercynicism, with virtually everything about America's leaders, power brokers and civic actors, including their private lives, fair game for scrutiny. Speaking truth to power now meant taking down all icons, exposing all pretension and looking for self-interest and "spin" everywhere.
Okay, fine. That gives the media a target for self-corrective action, and we should all hope they (and we) heed it. There's another serious issue with our media, though, that will be harder to grapple with. Presently, our media has an incredibly hard time distinguishing news from gossip. There should be little doubt that this failure to separate the essential from the sensational is partially diagnosed by Bornstein and Rosenberg's assessment, but there is a perpetuating factor to this malady that makes it so much worse.
It should trouble us that our media isn't just cynical but pathologically unable to focus. We just witnessed it completely miss the ball in one of the more culturally important elections in American history, and it did so by caring about entirely the wrong things.
It's easy to say that they were in it for the money. That this conclusion is facile doesn't make it wrong, but a more charitable reading of their circumstances also uncovers a deep horror. Greed and even cynicism cannot fully explain the consequential convulsions of our contemporary media, which is so distracted that we have come to talk about major political concerns and social movements in terms of the number of news cycles they survive before being all but completely forgotten. Notably, climate change hasn't yet made it to a single complete cycle, even though it stands a real chance of wiping out humanity within a handful of increasingly unpleasant generations.
Look at what they have brought us, though. During a crucial period for journalism to play its role as the Fourth Estate, it brought us weeks of transgendered bathrooms, amplified what should have amounted to an eyebrow-raising but ultimately boring account about Clinton's emails to DEFCON-1 level alarm, and devoted countless hours to nonsense analysis of Trump's scandal of the hour without ever having bothered to send a couple of reporters to rural Michigan (or even Flint) or Pennsylvania to get a finger on the pulse of what might really be going on in the country. They displayed all the discipline of a tabloid; all the too-cool-for-school of Ferris Bueller all grown-up into an upper-Manhattan office; and all the focus of a rambunctious kid who can't finish his homework because he wants to play with the dog-, no go swimmi-, no ride bikes-, no watch TV-, no play video games.
I feel sorry for the media, though, because I've come to recognize that they have to be this stupid. They have to be this petty. They have to be this distracted. They may even have to be this cynical. (They don't have to be too brilliant to do their jobs, though.) The media is in a mousetrap.
The media's mousetrap works like this: imagine yourself as some editor at a significant media outlet, say CNN. Comey's letter to investigate a little more deeply into the Clinton email affair gets released, and you, having (we'll say) decades of experience in journalism recognize immediately that there's no chops to this story. It may not even be a story. Further, it's reckless to report on it if it's a non-story given the way it might interfere with the election (in a way that will prove illegitimate if, as it turned out, it was a non-story from the beginning). What do you do? You report it, of course, like it's big, bad, and very, very, very important. Why? Everyone else will anyway, and why should you be the one outlet that skips out on it (only to be dragged into it too late to have won the scoop)?
Maybe it has been the excess of air-time needed to be filled by 24-hour cable news. Maybe it was that there's been a general blurring between journalism and opinion. Maybe it's that there is so much ease in publishing now -- and such a market for media that isn't "mainstream" -- that someone can get a lot of attention for publishing essentially anything wild or scary enough. Maybe it's that people aren't able to discern news and gossip (a taboo largely and intentionally broken during Bill Clinton's sex scandals). Maybe it's something else or some combination of many factors. The fact remains, our media has been on a race to the tabloid-bottom at least for a couple of decades, and it isn't clear how that cycle can be broken.
Sadly, because of the deep lack of trust that all of this noise has produced, it's become considerably worse than a mere race to the bottom. If that were all that it is, any truly reputable outlet that wanted to could distinguish itself (in both meanings of that word) by rising above the fray and setting a tone. That has become impossible because our populace has become so deeply distrustful of anything institutional that fringe conspiratorial thinking is the new mainstream. If a media outlet deems a story unfit to print and doesn't report on it, that becomes its own scandal, a cover-up or attempt to keep "the truth" from the raving masses. This problem has, in fact, reached inception-level: "the mainstream media" has become a mainstream-media buzzword meaning a failure to report the news accurately and faithfully.
Are there solutions to this information catastrophe? Sure. I can immediately think of two; one horrible and one almost hopeless.
The horrible one is the more obvious of the two. Coming up with some kind of system by which we can grade news outlets on how serious they are. This would, of course, have to be done by independent watchdog agencies that issue ratings, but it's still horrible. Behold, for example, the recent behavior of the independent watchdog agency known as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which recently added former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali and current Muslim Maajid Nawaz to its anti-Muslim extremist list, effectively putting targets on their backs and discrediting them to who should be their most sympathetic audience (liberals). Imagine what Breitbart or the Drudge Report would do with that kind of power. And given that each team out there would compete to be the One True Watchdog, not in earnest competition to a general populace but in terms of capturing their own share of a politically balkanized bubble of groupthink, this really wouldn't solve anything without some kind of institutional declaration of whose "truth" is most truthy.
The last thing we need now, given the depth of ideological divide and conviction (and thus knowing who would be most likely to volunteer to become watchdogs) is anything that could try to turn our broken media into Official Media. We don't need a Ministry of Truth, whether it is one run by the state (worse) or by agendist ideologues (not much better). This is the road that other failing states have taken (Russia comes immediately to mind), and it's exactly the kind of thing Orwell rightly warned us about.
The hopeless option is that people have to change so that the media can. Normally, I'm of the opinion that when your movement's success depends on masses of people changing how they are, you've become a fool in the service of an idealistic vision. In this case, I don't see another possibility. People have to learn to distinguish gossip and ideological propaganda from actual news, and they need to look outside the media for a while (not to alternative media, which is even less reliable than the mainstream stuff, but just outside, to their communities where they can see plainly how things are going for themselves).
For all the problems it causes, the media is thankfully a capitalist industry. It is in thrall to the dollars and attention it gets from keeping its audiences. Discerning audiences will force a discerning media, and then it can get itself back on track instead of making the Fourth Estate look like the aftermath of a post-homecoming frat-house blowout.
Can it happen? I think so, but it won't be easy. The first step is to break the ideological bubbles that absolutely ruin our trust in each other, which should, in time, decrease conspiratorial thinking and unlock the mousetrap the media has found itself in. We have to start talking to each other, start listening to each other, and start being civil with each other -- respecting differences, disagreeing still, remaining friends, and seeking compromise. There's almost no other hope, unless we want Trump TV to be the only credentialed source out there, telling us exactly what it wants us to think and how to think it.