Comment Of TheDay: “’The Horror. The Horror.’ How U.S. Journalism Descended To These Unethical Depths Is A Mystery, But It’s There.”

Arthur in Maine attempts to diagnose what happened to the news media, and where they turned off the road  of ethical journalism, never, apparently, to return.

His ethics verdict is, essentially, incompetence, though he frames it as “a self-inflicted wound.” Of course, self-inflicted wounds are the essence of incompetence. You can’t get much more inept than shooting yourself in the head.

My own theory is that, whatever the immediate cause—AIM identifies the internet—this fate was always in the cards because of a structural problem in the institution of journalism, similar to what we are now seeing in government and politics. The institution is critical to democracy, and thus demands intellectual rigor and outstanding character among its guardians. However, nothing about the business of journalism nor its craft is constructed to attract the best and the brightest, or even the better than dull. As with our political class, the profession of journalism has always lacked the necessary talent and integrity to discharge the vital function the Founders intended it to fulfill.

Here is Arthur in Maine’s Comment of the Day on the post, “The Horror. The Horror.’ How U.S. Journalism Descended To These Unethical Depths Is A Mystery, But It’s There.”

Actually, how the media descended to these unethical depths is no mystery at all.

In the early- to mid-90s, the news media was at an all-time high. Newspapers were welling for fabulous multiples; there was really only one cable news network (the acronym that must not be named) and the alphabet channels still dominated broadcast news.

The press caught wind of this newfangled Internet thingie. They started covering it, even to the point of hyping it. People became interested. As did much of the country, the news media became besotted by the potential of this new medium. Remember how many so-called “dot com” companies sprang up? The news media, too, drank the kool-aid, figuring that online production would be cheap and they could move the display ad concept that had kept them beautifully profitable for centuries over to the Web.

And they made their content available for free.

That was the biggest mistake. Only one major American news outlet – the Wall Street Journal – decided from the outset that its content had tangible value and that it would charge for access. They made some content available gratis, but if you really wanted the valuable information the WSJ published you had to pay for it.

At this point, all the other newspapers (and the TV outlets) continued offering content gratis. And here comes the next blow: display advertising online DOES NOT WORK. It didn’t take marketers long to realize that web ads, unlike display ads, were directly trackable (in fact, that was one of the premises advertisers were sold by the media outlets: you can close the loop on spend vs. sales).

So an increasing number of people STOPPED buying the papers, preferring their content online. The online advertising of the time didn’t work, because it was old-style thinking in presenting ads; it wasn’t yet based on the idea that you build massive databases and target ads directly to the people most likely to buy that product. And with fewer dead tree editions going out, the rate bases for the conventional model had to be cut – and cut again.

Ah, but there’s more. The barriers to entry to set up a newspaper or TV outlet is a massive chunk of change. But an online news source? Those are CHEAP to launch. So facing declining rate bases, an audience who had been thoroughly trained to believe that news content is free and increasing competition, the news outlets started seeing serious erosion of customer base.

What to do? Start charging for content? We can’t do THAT! So we’ll cut staff. The grizzled veteran reporters and editors – those who at least employed some modicum of self-restraint when it came to inserting opinion into reportage, and who by tenure had the biggest paychecks – were the first to go, usually via buyouts. They were the lucky ones; they got out when the getting was good. Who replaced them? Younger staff. Staff without the experience, staff who didn’t have a steely-eyed editor in chief screaming at them to get their $#!+ together. And much of this staff came in via a university system that was already indoctrinating, rather than educating, students.

All types of media took it in the shorts with this, but it was especially the smaller-community outlets that suffered the most. This put more of the market (what was left of it, anyway) into the hands of the larger-city newsrooms – and guess what? Most large cities are LIBERAL!

We cannot forget that news outlets are not their to provide us with news – they’re there (mostly) to turn a profit. They do so by giving their audiences what their audiences want. It’s a lot cheaper to cover and package media to a metro area of a million people than it is to do the same for a STATE with a million people – and even in THOSE states, the cities (and the bulk of the audience) tends to be… well, you know.

Without going into too much detail, the media outlets miscalculated on social media just as badly as they did with the Web at the start. Like the Internet and how people would actually use it, the news media made a lot of noise about this additional Next Big Thing but really didn’t understand it – or how to use it.

They finally figured it out, but the damage was done. Today, media outlets COUNT on people sharing their stories, because when they do, that generates page views and a chance to show some advertising. Each click might generate a tiny fraction of a cent, but when the business is already struggling, you’ll take those pennies.

So: that’s how we got here. MASSIVE miscalculation about the Web. MASSIVE miscalculation about how to provide content. MASSIVE miscalculation about how to cover costs. Failure to foresee proliferation of more competition – and either start that highly-targeted competition themselves, or buy them out (like Facebook and Google do any time someone comes up with a new approach that threatens their bases).

The appalling coverage these days traces back to one and only one thing: a self-inflicted wound.

15 thoughts on “Comment Of TheDay: “’The Horror. The Horror.’ How U.S. Journalism Descended To These Unethical Depths Is A Mystery, But It’s There.”

  1. Interesting. I would add that the story writers are schooled in hitting the high points and moving on to the next “big thing.”

    I would also add that websites drive views driven by clicks which drive advertising dollars. Consequently, we get glaring headlines about Trump’s most recent blunder on whatever the issue is. Because of the easy reach of internet stories, the content has to be extreme to grab short attention spans, relegating real information to the bottom parts of the stories, where we usually learn that Trump’s latest blunder isn’t such a blunder and has historical context. But, you have to weed through inflammation and wounding to get to it.

    jvb

  2. Absolutely right on. Armageddon with the media is not news to me. I blame Woodward & Bernstein, tho they served a clear and important purpose, it turned “journalism” completely around. No one to trust. No one to believe.

    • E2, I’m not so sure even Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, et al. (Even Edward R. Murrow) weren’t spoon feeding us a line of processed baloney when we were kids. I’m must not so sure that was in fact the way it was.

  3. Super comment, AIM.

    Again, I think it’s all the unsupervised children in the media and, worse, in academia, who are destroying those institutions apace. All these 30-something Ph.Ds are terrifying.

  4. Thanks for the COTD nod, Jack! In your preamble, you wrote:

    My own theory is that, whatever the immediate cause—AIM identifies the internet—this fate was always in the cards because of a structural problem in the institution of journalism, similar to what we are now seeing in government and politics. The institution is critical to democracy, and thus demands intellectual rigor and outstanding character among its guardians. However, nothing about the business of journalism nor its craft is constructed to attract the best and the brightest, or even the better than dull.

    I agree to an extent; the critical skills of a reporter are 1) being able to cultivate sources that can provide interesting stories, 2) getting those sources to talk, and 3) packaging that information in a way that’s compelling and interesting. All three are talents; none requires a PhD.-level intellect.

    But we should never forget that in discussing the term “news business,” the emphasis is on the word BUSINESS. Up until media outlets were forced to start charging for content, the news was simply the vehicle offered by news outlets to attract the ears and eyeballs necessary for them to sell their actual product: ad space.

    Competent reporting definitely helps them do that, but even that has NEVER been as important has managing to connect with and hold on to an audience – by any means necessary.

    The fascinating thing these days is that so much of the legacy media appears to have abandoned even THAT due to its fever-swamp dreams of a monster in the White House. Legacy media has largely become a self-reinforcing bubble – though if my Facebook feed is any indication, at least some of the public is more than happy to go along for the ride.

    In my work as a crisis communications consultant, I do a LOT of media training (helping clients to understand reporters, media outlets, and how to be interviewed). I always open with a question: “What is the fundamental responsibility of a journalist in our society?”

    Most trainees respond with something romantic along the lines of “to report the news” or “to tell the public what’s going on” or “to provide the public with the truth.”

    I then reveal the answer: THE FUNDAMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY OF A JOURNALIST IN OUR SOCIETY IS TO GENERATE REVENUES FOR WHOEVER OWNS THE MEDIA OUTLET.”

    And it’s true. Even for NFP news orgs like NPR. It’s all about the money, regardless of business model. Ours just happens to be advertiser (or underwriter) based.

    Which I would argue is still much better than state-controlled media, which comes with its own set of problems.

    • But Arthur…that’s like saying that lawyers’ #1 job is generating revenue from plaintiffs. Professionals by definition are not primarily driven by business considerations. That is partially a myth, but it is still a foundational myth. If that is all professionals are about, then they aren’t trustworthy, hence they are not professionals. If the conclusion is that journalists are not worthy of trust, I can hardly disagree. I don’t think other professionals deserve to be in this class.

      I sure as hell am not an ethicist for the money…I don’t spend three hours plus on Ethics alarms 7 days a week (health permitting!) for the money.

      • There’s a difference though, Jack. Lawyers are there to make money, yes, and they do that by serving their clients – all true.

        The difference with journalism, however, is a fundamentally bifurcated structure. There’s the content side, and then there’s the sales side. In theory, content isn’t supposed to be reactive to the sales side, nor the sales side reactive to the content side (though theory and practice are two different things).

        Most journalists believe in the fundamental virtue of their work; most think they walk with the angels. I’ve met a few older, more experienced journos who agree that they’re there primarily to provide the stuff that fits between the ads.

        So it’s really not at all akin to your example. A better metaphor would be a company that focuses on outdoor advertising (aka, billboards). The head of that company looks at the market and the roadways, decides where to put the billboard, and either purchases or leases the location. That’s akin to the publisher. Journalists are more like the people who build and install the billboards. Without their work, there would be no place for the ads.

        But the billboards were built in the first place to make money for the people running the company.

        • Arthur said:
          Most journalists believe in the fundamental virtue of their work; most think they walk with the angels. I’ve met a few older, more experienced journos who agree that they’re there primarily to provide the stuff that fits between the ads.

          This lack of cynicism is a big part of the problem. There is nothing worse than an idealist doing a job that absolutely, positively requires skepticism and an innately suspicious nature.

          Good reporters question not only everything, but the “why” of everything and understand that in the end, following the money usually gets you closer to the truth. They get human nature. But idealists (like most current reporters) only see the world through the lens of their idealism. They are incapable of putting it aside, and especially replacing it with suspicion. When events arise that confirm their beliefs, they tend to discount contraindications.

          That’s how “the narrative” was developed — through the lens of idealism, and a perception that they are on the “side of good” or “walk with the angels.” Seeing complicated sets of facts through a lens of simplicity leads to what we have now.

          • Yes. And the irony here is that while most journos are in fact DEEPLY skeptical of at least some sources, that skepticism rarely extends beyond their reporting to the organizational structure and purpose of their employers.

            In fact, journalists can and SHOULD be skeptical of ALL sources, even if the reporter happens to share many of that source’s beliefs. That’s part of the problem right now: an Adam Schiff is not treated with the same skepticism as, say, a Devin Nunes.

            And on the institutional level, it’s a shame that more journalists aren’t equally skeptical of the organizations that employ them. But I know this: many people have a natural tendency to be at least somewhat supportive of the people who sign our paychecks (if we don’t, we move on to something else). I suspect this effect is at least somewhat amplified in today’s news business; jobs are increasingly hard to come by due to budget restraints, plum jobs with prestigious outlets tend to enforce groupthink, and many journalists are simply glad to be working at all. Most of them truly love their work – and when one loves their work, it’s not difficult to rationalize or develop blind spots about the work environment.

            • I’d say skepticism is in perilously short supply among the forty and under set.

              Having been called a cynic here (and elsewhere), I looked the word up. Survey says: “an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest; skepticism.” I guess I’m not an authentic cynic because I don’t believe all people are motivated purely by self-interest, but some are and many are largely motivated by self-interest. I think if you believe otherwise, you are the quintessential useful idiot highly sought after by Marxists. Marxist and communist leaders simply want your money and power over you. “With a little bit of luck, someone else will do the work.”

              In any event, I think the young journos and their contemporaries who are idealists are being taken for a ride. I hope they wake up in time.

              • I like Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a cynic:

                CYNIC (n) – A misguided blackguard whose faulty vision causes him to see things as they are, not as they should be.

  5. To your point about “eyes on the screen make for good paydays in the newsroom,” we watched our local ABC affiliate, abc13.com, last evening. I noticed a few things. First, all of the on-the-scene reporters were wearing face masks even though the nearest person was about 15 feet away and it is 85 degrees with 90% relative humidity. Secondly, there was significant time devoted to George Floyd demonstrations at Houston city hall and a march down Emancipation Avenue*.

    From differing reports there were anywhere from 10,000 to over “hundreds of thousands” of people at the demonstrations. Largely, the demonstrations were extremely violent, with the burning of buildings, cars, executions of police in the stree . . . Wait. What? None of that happened? Oh. We were left with the plight of demonstrators overcome by the Houston heat who suffered from extreme thirst, fainting, and life-threatening dehydration, all of which were ignored by the cops who prevented EMT squads from doing their jo . . . . Wait? That didn’t happen, either? So, you mean to tell me that the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from heat were treated with respect and were given the right to make their points at peaceful demonstrations against incompetent police work? Are you really telling me that speakers spoke, listeners listened, and police policed, with absolutely no disruption and no overreaction by the militarized police forces? Yeah, sure. That didn’t happen. What about the looting? They looted! That happened on Friday evening at a T-Mobile store? That’s it? Please. ¡Viva Antifa!

    jvb

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.