What led to the collapse of news reporting and more importantly, how do we recover? The problems mostly have to do with money and bubbles. The solutions are yet to be determined.
First of all, it is important to distinguish the different types of media and the forces that drive their production. There is broadcast media, print media and now web media. Most broadcast and print outlets also have a web presence and some outlets are web only. All media is supported by advertising or subscription, or a combination of both.
Network and cable news, being television, are all about advertising revenue and ratings. Therefore, they give you the kind of programming that brings viewers. The sad fact of the matter is that people don’t watch cable news for information, they watch it for sensation, for spectacle.
For proof of this look no further that CBS Chairman Les Moonves who, in reference to the Presidential primaries, famously said in February 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it is damn good for CBS.” Moonves went on to muse,
“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having now?”
“The money’s rolling in and this is fun!”
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Donald Trump’s candidacy was a ratings cash cow. For whatever reasons, whether one sees him as a hero and source of elation or one sees him as a train wreck and source of dread, people will tune their TV to watch Donald Trump. So much so, that he was given an estimated $2 billion worth of free coverage, about three times as much as it has been estimated Hillary Clinton received. The more we watched, the more the networks charged for advertising slots.
How do you trust television news when the executives in charge, the gatekeepers, are so blatant in their financial motivations over any sense of institutional duty to inform the populace? The answer is, you don’t. I personally don’t watch much television news, but when I do I am extremely skeptical and I always call out the bull crap. Literally, I scream at the television and my family hates it.
Print media, in terms of news, has been in a natural decline since the rise of the World Wide Web. Younger people simply don’t read newspapers and they never will. Nor are they inclined to read established papers online because most are locked behind pay walls. I don’t fault the papers for this. Thoughtful, properly-investigated news-reporting costs money. It’s very important that people are fairly compensated for their work.
Funding news outlets in order to get fair and accurate journalism will continue to be a struggle. How do you get an entire generation of people who didn’t have to pay for music to pay for news and information online? For now, they are getting information from sites that don’t cost money. The reliability of these sites need to be evaluated.
Another reason many have been sliding into such a quagmire of mistrust is the rise of right-wing media. As a reaction to the perception of a liberal bias in many mainstream outlets [and this is not something I will deny exists, though I may argue as to the actual extent and intent and effect thereof—another time of course] media outlets from a conservative perspective began to proliferate after the demise of The Fairness Doctrine in the late 80s.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. After all, if one believes that network television news is too biased in favor of left wing ideals, there is no reason a person should not seek out sources of information that align with their conservative viewpoint. A problem does arise, however, if that same person eschews all media other than this viewpoint. It is especially bad if they lack the skills needed to differentiate between news and opinion.
It got even worse when some of the loudest voices in right-wing media chose to back Trump during the primaries and that led to a schism between them and the so-called #NeverTrumpers. Right-wing media has gotten so good in the last 20 years at telling their audience that any other sources but themselves are lying and not to be trusted, that now there is rampant mistrust of even conservatives that do not back now-President-Elect Donald Trump.
In an August article from Business Insider, conservative radio host and author Charlie Sykes—and it should be noted, not a Trump fan—laments this reality,
One of the chief problems, Sykes said, was that it had become impossible to prove to listeners that Trump was telling falsehoods because over the past several decades, the conservative news media had “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers.”
“There’s nobody,” he lamented. “Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bulls—.’ There’s nobody — you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.'”
“And I have to say that’s one of the disorienting realities of this political year. You can be in this alternative media reality and there’s no way to break through it,” Sykes continued. “And I swim upstream because if I don’t say these things from some of these websites, then suddenly I have sold out. Then they’ll ask what’s wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true.”
The entire article is highly recommended and available here.
Conservative media consumers are not the only ones sticking to their echo-chamber. Many liberals are equally guilty of living in a media bubble as well. People need to get out of their comfort zone and dialogue with others who have a different viewpoint.
Another problem with the state of information reliability is that too many people have also been led to not believe in any fact-checking sources. I think it’s okay to wary of fact-checking sources but to immediately dismiss any one of them off the bat shows a severe lack of common sense.
Let’s start with Snopes. Snopes began as, and is still more inclined towards, debunking urban legends and those awful forwarded e-mails we used to get before the rise of social media. The contents of those emails have now become Facebook posts that are liked and shared ad infinitum, so Snopes is researching and confirming/debunking their content as well.
The number one reason I have encountered for not believing anything from Snopes? Because it is a propaganda site owned by George Soros, who as you know is a nefarious billionaire who made his money selling out fellow Jews in WWII and is currently using his untold wealth to create a one world government on behalf of reptoid aliens from the trans-dimensional evil galactic empire. Or something like that.
The exact nature of Soros’ insidious presence in the world changes over time and I have not kept up since crawling out of the “conspiracies everywhere!” internet rabbit hole about 15 years ago. Don’t want to go back there.
*Looks over shoulder*
No matter what you think of George Soros, the fact is that there is no reliable evidence that he is beind or funding Snopes.com.
PolitiFact is another fact-checking site that has come under legitimate criticism. PolitiFact started as a project of the Tampa Bay Times and has expanded to include other journalists from various newspaper outlets. So knowing that, one should approach PolitiFact findings with the same healthy skepticism one would any newspaper or reporter: What is the exact claim that is being fact-checked? Are there any misleading conclusions that may not be readily apparent?
Like any source of information, just being cautious and knowing how to spot potential bias goes a long way. Completely rejecting everything an organization says is not doing anything good for you.
FactCheck.org is a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the Annenberg School for Communication at The University of Pennsylvania. This is my personal favorite as it seems to be the most objective in nature. That doesn’t stop some people from saying it is biased.
I came across one “article” on some random site I will not link that claimed FactCheck has a liberal bias because even though Walter Annenberg was a Republican who supported Ronald Reagan, the foundation that bears his name also granted money to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a public-school initiative that has ties to bomb-making communist William Ayres and additionally, Barack Obama. Well. I am not going to dignify that twisted logic with a response because association fallacy.
I read it a lot, “Who checks the Fact-checkers? Well, WE do. The people reading the analyses do. Use your media literacy skills to detect any biases or misleading assertions. There is no legitimacy to the wholesale repudiation of any legitimate news organization. Do your due diligence. Being well-informed is work.
The answer to how we can possibly recover from this near-universal mistrust of news sources is another thing entirely. I obviously think that media literacy is one way, but how do we convince people to learn these skills? It’s my feeling that this is going to be the topic of many thinkpieces in the future. I will likely be writing some of them. Apparently I already am.