Notice I did not say “Love the Media.”
In the face of distrust of and attacks on the “media” and the “press”, I wanted to make a few observations. It took me a while, so I broke it into two parts. First, I set out to demonstrate that the media has always been flawed. People have always complained about it. Today’s faults don’t differ that much from those of the past. Second, I set out to demonstrate that, flawed as the media is and has always been, it still has value in our society. Question it? Sure. Demand it do better? Sure. But don’t throw it away simply because you suddenly realized it’s an imperfect beast.
Also, something is not “fake” or “false” simply because you don’t agree with it.
I leave to you to decide whether I succeeded in my goals.
Let’s start with a necessary confession. Sometimes, I strongly criticize the media. However, let me make something clear. The media serves a purpose.
It is possible for something be both a positive and a negative. It is possible to find a product or service necessary, or useful. And to still have legitimate criticisms of the institution that provides it.
I own a car. I find it useful. I value it. I need it in order to go about my daily life. I still have criticisms of the automobile industry. Even about the specific manufacturer of my car.
Can they do things better? Yes. Should we try to get them to do better? Yes. Does that make their product worthless? No.
NEGATIVE WAVES ARE A BUMMER
But that leaves me with a problem. Often, it’s the criticisms that we remember. Not the positives. Because the negative stands out to us.
When things go our way, they go as we would like. As we would expect. We are satisfied. There is nothing noteworthy. Just a checked box we had planned on being checked. Thus, those things tend to pass by without us noticing much. They don’t tend to stand out to us.
However, when something negative happens, like something worthy of criticism, things are not going our way. Things are not as we expect. Things are upsetting to us. That provokes a stronger reaction. We have to do something other than what we planned. We get frustrated. Or mad. So, those things are noticed. They stand out to us much more than the positive.
Therefore, it all makes sense really. Like many people, when I get around to discussing the media-Surprise! I am usually criticizing it. Because I am upset about something the media did. Meanwhile its positive aspects will raise no comment from me. Like many people, I tend to take them for granted.
However, please don’t allow that to make you lose sight an important fact. Those positive aspects are still there.
SOME DEFINITIONS AND LIMITATIONS – FOR PURPOSES OF DISCUSSION
I should probably take my time to lay out some terms here. To make sure we are all on the same page.
When I talk about media in this, I am usually referring to the news media. The press. And within that, I am largely discussing the mainstream media.
I know media can mean much more than that – social media, bloggers, etc. I know that in that mix these days there are fake accounts, trolls (both professional and amateur), bots, etc. By and large, in this article I am not speaking about those. Because I may tell you something on Twitter, but you know I am not a journalist. I am no investigative reporter. I am just some regular citizen mouthing off. And you know to take anything I say in that context.
So, when I discuss the failings and benefits of the media in this article, you may say to yourself, “Wait a moment. What about bots? Or that fake Russian account? Or that crazy blogger?” You are right. My comments will by and large not relate to them.
My comments are more aimed at the media in its less broad, but often generally accepted, sense. The same media that, in September 2016, a Gallup poll indicated only 32% of Americans had any confidence in. A May 2017 Harvard-Harris poll indicated 65% of voters believed the mainstream media purveys a lot of fake news. In an October 2017 Politico poll, 46% of Americans believed the same media made up lies about President Trump.
Also, let’s face it. I am not exhaustively examining media issues here. This article stretches on long enough already. I will spare you the accompanying book.
MEDIA FAILINGS – AN ONGOING SAGA
LAY OF THE LAND
So, as usual, let’s start with the negative.
I hear a lot of complaints these days about the media. From friends, acquaintances, total strangers, celebrities, politicians, and on and on. But here’s the thing. Most of these people act like this is a newly discovered or developed thing. That they just found out that the media has flaws. And that somehow, they’re just finding out now makes something that has been useful all along suddenly worthless. The flaws existed before. The worth did to. The latter does not go away because you suddenly discovered the former.
Let’s start digging into those flaws. Take a look at this skit by Saturday Night Live parodying It by Stephen King. Kellyanne Conway plays Pennywise. But the skit says far more about the media than it does Ms. Conway.
“Put me on TV.” From a skit aired on Saturday Night Live in October 2017, featuring Alex Moffat and Kate McKinnon.
“Don’t you want a quote?” The skit presents a media willing to sell its integrity for ratings. To go “down there where the doodies are.” To seek sensation over substance. A media in a symbiotic relationship with extreme and the inflammatory personalities, each enabling and feeding the flames of the other’s success. A media where even those who seem to have integrity find themselves drawn inexorably into the horror of sold souls. The skit succeeds. I have seen folks with no knowledge of It in any form laugh at this. But if the skit resonates, it’s because we are nodding in agreement with its assessments as we watch.
Let’s be honest. Mainstream media, and the media in general, face a daily barrage of insults. Public distaste and distrust run rampant. Resentment festers. The relationship between the media and its audience is toxic. And yet, at the same time, it isn’t.
We still look to it for information. Or, at least, segments of it. And many of us also look to it for entertainment.
And none of this is really new.
NOT DISCOVERING A NEW LAND
For as long as there has been a press, people have been complaining about it. For as long as there has been a press, it has had faults. There has been bias. Overemphasis of certain events to inflame and excite the audience. Exaggerated reporting. And, yes, fake news.
All the same, the nature of medium has continued to evolve. Just like all other information sources. Clay tablets. Scrolls. Books crafted with careful calligraphy. Bards. Printing presses. Town-criers. Mass production of books. Paperbacks. Magazines. Newspapers. Newsies. Radio. Television. Message boards. The internet. E-books. Online articles. Blogs. Twitter. And so on.
Some things have definitely changed. People used to write to their newspapers. To their radio stations. To their television stations. But the rest of the public would not know what that feedback said. Unless that station or paper chose to let the public know. Maybe by reading the letter on air. Or publishing it in the “Letters to the Editor” column. But they did not do it for every letter. Just a select few.
In contrast, today everyone’s comments are visible to everyone else. Instant access to both the article and the comments underneath. A whole back and forth tennis match of public opinion. The dreaded comments section most people advise us not to read. Right there in plain sight. Accessible for all to see. All in one place. Full disclosure.
Information is still thrown at us by the usual suspects. But others have joined the mix. We have to navigate through some very tricky waters these days. First of all, there is any Joe or Jane with an opinion and a blog. But we also have to steer our course between misleading memes, trolls spreading lies and inflaming people, and conversations where the person behind the curtain is not even a person. We have to ferret out whether the news agency is genuine or satirical. Or somewhat balanced or extremist. And there are thousands of all kinds.
That sure isn’t like it used to be.
Yes, the medium clearly has changed. But look at my list of the changing nature of the medium. Clay tablets to Twitter with lots of steps in between. A march through the centuries. Even the fact of change itself is nothing new.
THE MEDIA IS JUST ANOTHER SET OF BUSINESSES PROVIDING SERVICES
The media has always been a bunch of businesses. Media enterprises need to pay for their operations and provide the services they do. They need money. To get it, like any other provider of goods or services, they encourage the public to buy their wares.
I cannot emphasize this enough. They have always been trying to sell us something . . .their product. Sensationalist headlines. Ad nauseam coverage of a few stories at the expense of all other coverage. Shining spotlights on extreme personalities because they catch the eye, even if only in an awful, “can’t look away from the accident” kind of way. And, to whatever extent they exist, skewed reporting or narrative biases. These are all designed first and foremost to drive sales and acquire advertisers.
And, by the way, wanting to sell to the public is basic entrepreneurship. Not evil.
If we see Fox News as “Conservative” that’s because that was the marketing niche it could fill. If we consider MSNBC “Liberal,” it is for much the same reason. If folks did not buy either, then those networks would have to switch to some other gimmick to market their product.
And like any business, the various news organizations try to shape the market. They try to steer us into liking how they do things. But at the same time, we are capable of noticing that manipulation. And free to tell the sellers we are not interested in how they are marketing their goods. I can say that I don’t need a thneed. And so can you.
Again, the media is just using basic business practices. Someone selling something is going to have an easier time of it if they can influence the market rather than wait for the market to tell them what sells. So that’s what they try to do. They want to convince you that you need a hula hoop. That does not mean there will be a market for hula hoops. That is entirely up to us consumers. We are allowed to say, “Nope, nope-ity, nope, nope.”
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
So, media organizations have always been selling us something. Just like any other business. Let’s get a little closer look at how the business has played out in the past. Let’s delve a little bit into some specifics from the media’s history.
A LOOK AT PAST HEADLINES
First up, let’s check out some reporting from the past.
For background, the first true land battle of the American Civil War was called the First Battle of Bull Run. You may sometimes run into it being called First Manassas. It took place July 21, 1861. On July 22, 1861, the New York Times ran the following headlines about the battle:
Those are inflammatory headlines. Designed to grab the passerby’s attention. To incite them to buy the paper and read more. Those headlines are also wrong on the facts in certain, rather crucial, respects.
There was indeed fearful carnage. Especially by the standards of the day. An estimated 13% of the men who fought became casualties. That count includes killed, wounded, and missing/captured. In contrast, total U.S. casualties in the very bloody World War II were about 7%.
On sheer number of people involved and some of the technology in play, it is probably fair to say the First Battle of Bull Run was one of greatest battles ever fought on the continent up to that time. Quite probably, the greatest battle.
There was an advancing Union army that did, in fact, attack the Confederate position by flank.
However, importantly, it was also a crushing Union defeat. The Union was thoroughly routed from the field. Driven back to Washington, DC. Union folk strongly feared the Union had lost the war with that first true battle.
So, the headlines have clearly got it wrong. In some big ways.
The New York Times corrected itself later. Did I say “correct”? What I meant to say is “correct somewhat”. By two days later, on June 24, 1861, the New York Times had time to actually gather some better information. So, the paper ran with these headlines instead:
It reported the loss as a loss. That’s a plus.
It admitted the need to correct earlier reporting. Another plus. However, reporting a Union loss as a crushing Confederate one is quite a bit more than a mere “exaggeration”. “Exaggeration” implies there was some truth to the statement, which there wasn’t. So maybe half a plus, instead.
And still, some erroneous reporting remains. The Union army was routed by almost any definition of the term. That’s a minus.
The reported Union and Confederate losses are inaccurate too. Casualty tallies often include killed, wounded, captured, and missing. History indicates that the Union casualties were close to 2,900. That’s with about 460 of those being killed. Confederate casualties were close to 2,000. That’s with about 390 of those being killed. No matter how you look at it, the total Union dead and wounded exceed 600. Further, the Confederate numbers did not end up at 3,000. What’s more, the Confederates fared better than the Union in casualties. Cold comfort though that would be to Confederate mothers and wives.
To be fair, I don’t expect that the paper could have easily gotten accurate numbers on those figures at the time. I doubt, for example, that the New York Times had ready access to actual Confederate tallies. Still that’s a minus.
Total score so far: minus one-half.
So, even with the corrections, the headlines still have inaccurate reporting. They also still exhibit a level of bias. Presumably, at the very least, to reassure the readership that things are not that bad. Remember. Crushing Union defeat. People were probably very receptive to the paper’s reassurances right then.
Hmm? Describe battle as scary, absolute downer, or “it’s not that bad”? Which do you think would result in more papers sold? Yeah, I am thinking that’s what the editors thought too.
Further, even with the corrected reporting, the inflammatory headlines designed to stir up readership are still present. “Shocking Barbarities Perpetrated by the Rebels”. Not really. That’s clickbait material right there.
Now, none of the reporters had cell phones. There was no viral video uploaded by witnesses to help piece the story together. The reporters did not have access to the same avenues of information available to their modern-day counterparts. They couldn’t type up their stories on the scene and upload them to their editors. Or consult with recordings to fact check before publishing. So, rushing to press without having correct details was less remarkable back then.
Nevertheless . . .
Mistaken reporting. Exaggerations. Sensationalist headlines. Clear evidence of bias. Sounds like the complaints against today’s media.
SUFFERING THROUGH MARKETING TRICKS
Let’s look at some more tricks from the not too distant past.
If you remember back in the days when print newspapers were prevalent, major articles would start on the front page. But then they continued elsewhere in the paper. Sometimes you would start reading again on a later page, only for the article to be continued further on yet another page. And to read the entire article you had to first flip through all the advertisements and other “bit piece” articles.
Sound a bit like clickbait? First, they grab you with a headline. Then they make you click through a bunch of stuff, including ads. Just to get the juicy stuff at the end. All for marketing.
What about this one? How many times were important stories buried further in the paper, rather than on the front pages? All because the editors didn’t think the stories were flashy enough? Or thought the stories were too controversial? All of that might hurt sales. So, the story was reported. But it was hidden away. Leaving the eye-catching stuff in full view instead.
Sound familiar? Today, news programs and feeds go on and on about one or two things that tend to grab attention. Meanwhile, they only give small or minimal coverage to the large number of other events taking place at the same time. There is coverage of those events. You just have to dig to find it. Just buried in a different way. All for marketing again.
Many current marketing tricks are just variations on old themes.
THIS NOT JUST IN . . .FAKE NEWS
YELLOW JOURNALISM – YOU’VE HEARD THE TERM; NOW FIND OUT WHAT IT MEANS
Fake news has been around from the beginning as well. We even have names for some of it, stemming from past examples. Remember the term “yellow journalism”?
It was toward the end of the 19th century. Or, if you are like me and get confused by that term, it was the late 1800s. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst published sensationalist stories in the newspapers that they ran. Stories that exaggerated Spanish treatment of Cubans, then under Spanish rule. You know the deal. Claiming a bunch of atrocities that did not really happen. Or weren’t as bad as the papers made them out to be. Stuff like that.
Cuba eventually revolted against Spain. A U.S. naval vessel, the U.S.S. Maine, was sent to protect U.S. interests in Cuba. The ship exploded in Havana Harbor. It sank quickly, killing many of her crew. A board of inquiry investigated but could not reach a definitive conclusion about what caused the sinking. Let’s remember. The ship burned coal. It had a munitions magazine. Combustibility and explosiveness already there. Just one mistake, and boom! There were many possible explanations for the explosion. Most of which required no outside influence whatsoever.
Nevertheless, Pulitzer and Hearst’s papers chose to not let facts get in the way and rushed to blame the sinking on Spanish plotting. It is debatable how much influence those papers actually had on U.S. decision-making. But fake news was used to try to propel the U.S. entry into the Spanish-American War. And to stir up the American populace to back that war. And go to war, the U.S. did. That, my friends, was called “yellow journalism.”
I could digress into why specifically the term “yellow journalism” was coined. As opposed to describing it as some other kind of journalism. But that really is not important right now. And this article is long enough as it is. So, let’s keep moving along, shall we?
EXAMPLES FROM THE MORE RECENT PAST
For more current examples, for decades people eagerly gobbled up print tabloids and their false headlines while waiting in long checkout lines at grocery stores.
Elvis spotted in Kalamazoo McDonald’s. A celebrity gave birth to an alien baby. An 80-foot dinosaur ate a reporter alive in the Brazilian jungle.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but none of those stories is true.
And tabloid reporting still exists. Some of those tabloids are still in that same checkout location to this day. Some are online only. All still waiting for us to gobble up their headlines.
Which leads to another aspect in play. Fake news hasn’t just been part of reporting for a long time. The public has willingly sought it out. The news has been, and remains to this day, a form of entertainment.
Throughout the history of the press, people have devoured fake news stories for entertainment, if nothing else. In 1835 a New York paper called the New York Sun published, as fact, a series of articles about the discovery of several creatures living on the moon through the use of a special, new telescope. The articles reported the discoveries by a well-known astronomer of the day, which no doubt added some veracity to the story. The stories were later revealed to be a hoax. However, the paper never printed a retraction and apparently faced zero consequences. Most of its readers knew or suspected as much. They kept reading out of amusement. They sought it out. Fake news’ existence was already built into their expectations.
So, once again, we see that an often-cited fault of the modern media really is not modern.
In summary, a lot of the complaints about the media aren’t really all that new. Sure, there are some new twists and wrinkles. The internet and the proliferation of media sources and information does change the dynamic a bit. What we see in the media now may have different costumes and stage effects, but in the end, it’s still the same old song and dance.
DISTRUST OF THE MEDIA IS OFTEN QUALIFIED
As discussed above, the media has had, and continues to have, faults. And some of these faults seem to be just part of the nature of the beast.
People’s distrust and skepticism about the media is clearly not unfounded. However, for all that political leaders and ideologues foster and encourage that distrust, many people still do trust the media. Or at least certain of the media.
Because those are viewed as being “right” and “true”. While all the others are “biased” and “false”. So, while some people distrust the New York Times, or CNN or whatever, they might accept without any reserve the information from Fox News, or Breitbart. It goes the other way too, by the way. I am not trying to single out any particular ideology in this regard.
Almost everyone I have ever encountered who indicated they did not trust the media had some media source they do trust. To paraphrase, “When I said I distrust the media, I didn’t mean all of it.” Apparently.
Many of those members of the public don’t seem to recognize the dichotomy. If one person trying to sell you something is not to be trusted, why should this other person who is doing the same thing? Shouldn’t both be worthy of skepticism?
Furthermore, this response to distrust does not actually address the underlying concern. You know. That stuff that gave rise to the distrust in the first place.
We distrust because we believe we are being lied to. Or manipulated. But, say, in response we narrow our focus to what only one, or a few sources of information are saying. Because we trust only them. And we pre-dismiss all others. Because they are obviously biased.
In so doing, we close ourselves from information sources. We only get one view. Only what one group is trying to sell. Thus, we become more susceptible to manipulation and lies, not less.
PRE-SELECTING NEWS FOR OUR COMFORT
This tendency to pre-select our news sources is unsurprising. It is actually part of normal human behavior. Even those of us who relish facing challenges still have comfort zones we don’t want violated. From time to time we still want to curl up on the couch and eat chocolate ice cream. Or sit on the porch looking out over a quiet afternoon while drinking a good whiskey. When we do those things, we don’t want interruptions. We don’t want to change our course.
And for some that means not being challenged by presentations made in the press.
I point this out not as an accusation, but rather a recognition of how natural it is. So easy to do. Some of us may not even notice we have done it.
I confess there are news sources I do not like to read or watch. It’s hard to not close myself off from certain information sources simply because I don’t like what they are saying. But that would not make them wrong. And it would leave me susceptible to manipulation by only one point of view.
I have encountered articles in which I don’t like what they are saying at all. I have stopped reading. But I always make myself go back. I recognize that maybe this article has vital information for me. A different view. I’ll never know unless I read on. It’s not easy, but it is necessary if I want to actually be informed regarding a subject about which I have passionate feelings.
REJECTING OUR CONFIRMATION BIAS
We also tend toward varying degrees of confirmation bias. We have preconceived notions. We feel good when those are confirmed. If there is a news source that does that, we naturally don’t want to have to look beyond it. If that news source continues to support our other preconceptions, we naturally look on it more favorably and wish to rely on it. But again, that does not make it accurate.
If I do not like President Trump, and I saw an article using a sensationalist headline about how something he did was terrible, the temptation is to stop right there. The reporting matches my point of view. If that reporting misrepresents events or is just plain wrong, I have no way of knowing. I leave myself open to manipulation based on falsehoods. Or I could just keep going and look at other sources with differing viewpoints. And thus, become aware of both the inaccuracies and the manipulation.
Let me give you an example. If you’ve read my other blog articles, you probably can guess I actually am not really a fan of the current President. Recently, someone shared an article with me about how Germany had made an “historic statement” against the U.S. because of Trump’s positions. Given my feelings about Trump, I could have stopped right there. But I did not.
I first checked general news feeds to see what other media reporting there was, if any. Zilch. Zip. Nada.
Then I entered some key words from the headline into an internet search. What do you know? First thing that popped up was a Snopes article indicating that the article originated from a left-wing site, was mostly false, and otherwise exaggerated statements made a while ago. Had I stopped looking I would have remained misinformed.
But I didn’t stop looking. Please don’t stop looking either.
It may be comfortable to stick with media that expresses points of view with which we already agree. But it leaves us open to some pretty bad stuff. We are better off moving out of that comfort zone and challenging ourselves. To look beyond and verify what is going on from media sources with differing points of view.
NEWS PRESENTED ALONG FACTIONAL LINES
By the way, even the following of news sources along factional lines is not new. The famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral stemmed from factionalism that had divided Tombstone and the surrounding countryside. The local papers covering it and its aftermath were also split along those same lines. One paper tended to report favorably towards one faction. The other paper reportedly favorably toward the other faction. The papers’ readership tended to fall along those same divisions too. The readers were pre-selecting their news source to be from the paper that “was on their side.”
This is also another example of media as a business. The factional support the papers threw around was most likely based less on ideological agreement and more on monetary necessities. Gotta make money to stay in business. Therefore, gotta pick a side and sell to it.
JOURNALISTIC INTEGRITY – A MORE RECENT DEVELOPMENT THAN YOU MIGHT THINK
In fact, believe it or not, the lofty ideal that media should be unbiased is a fairly new concept. For most of its existence, media and bias have walked hand in hand. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the idea of “journalistic ethics” coupled with “unbiased reporting” truly began to emerge.
Even so, it was not until the 1900’s that U.S. newspapers really started shifting away from being simply mirrors of their publishers’ opinions. Remember my example of “yellow journalism” from the late 1800s? That kind of behavior was less an exception and more a norm.
But the shift occurred. And eventually the public began to have some faith in the fairness of newspaper reporting. Later that came to include television reporting. But such faith was not really established until we entered the second half of the 1900’s. By coincidence (or not), in 1949 the Fairness Doctrine began requiring broadcasters to present important issues in a manner that was honest, fair and balanced.
And by the late 1990’s, that faith had already begun to fade. By coincidence (or not), the FCC eliminated the fairness doctrine in 1987.
As an aside, how much the loss of the Fairness Doctrine and resulting developments in broadcast media has driven the current distrust of the media and its quality is up to some debate. But, arguably, it clearly has some, given the flourishing of extremely biased news sources. All the same, one should also not discount the rise of independent and varied internet media sources having a similar effect all on its own. But, again, this article is long enough without getting into that discussion.
More to the point, while you may have thought the standard of unbiased media has long been set in stone, it has not. Nor has the window of confidence in it been open for very long. Less than 50 years. And that window of public opinion began to close about 20 years ago. Not quite the cornerstone of journalism you thought? Me neither.
If it has always been so bad, then what good is the media? And how do we deal with the bad?
I get to that in part 2.