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Modern News Media is a Business

Published by marco on

The article The Post-Objectivity Era by Matt Taibbi (SubStack) is based on the transcript of a speech he gave.[1] It is an excellent summary of both the history of U.S. media and its current business model.

The basic thrust is that the media has always been in it for the money. There is no golden age of principled objectivity to which to return, in that sense. The news was more objective in olden days, but only because it made more sense to be that way. The media catered to the broadest possible audience for two reasons:

  1. The technology and data weren’t yet available to enable them to target audiences more precisely
  2. Until 1987, the Fairness Doctrine required balance on public airwaves

After 1987, the Reagan administration released the media’s id and it could finally make a ton of money appealing to the lowest common denominator of market segments. As with any other entertainment, it took some “preparation” of those markets—with advertising and messaging that amount to brainwashing—but the markets were very amenable to having everything boiled down to a satisfying “us vs. them” basis.

It’s just easier that way, isn’t it? And who has the time and energy for anything more complicated?

The conservative media dove much more quickly into this business model—but that was only because the liberal media had some trouble finding reliable bait with which to enrage its own audience. There were a few ideas here and there, but nothing with the staying power to build a powerful, slavering cult as the right side of the aisle had.

That all changed in 2015 when Trump hit the campaign trail.

“Media companies figured out that all they had to do to secure high ratings was wave Trump at people all day long.”

With Trump, the news media emerged from its chrysalis, transformed to what is essentially the WWE—with just as much veracity.

“What’s happened since 2016 is the news landscape has split into news for people who love Trump, and people who hate him.

“The world as represented in news programs is now almost exactly Crossfire. We only see two ideas. These ideas are shown to be in constant combat. There is no pretense of a hope for cooperation or accommodation. (Emphasis added.)”

The final sentence is the crux: there is no hope of reconciliation because neither side offers a reasonable way out for the other side. (A) there are only two sides and (B) each side views the other as irredeemably evil.

This, of course, has a strong effect on people working in the industry, some of whom would have principles, but all of whom have to pay rent. When rent is due, the landlord doesn’t take payment in principle. With media in this state, though, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that it attracts employees who know which side their bread is buttered on.

This affects not only the employees, but very much the businesses themselves.

“If you work at Fox, you’re not going to do a climate change or police abuse story. You will do a story about corruption at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If you work at MSNBC, you won’t do a story about problems with NAFTA, or Barack Obama’s drone program.

“This sounds obvious, but most people think this is a matter of politics. It is that in some cases, but it’s also very much about money. Once a company has established an editorial approach, and a political tone, departing from that approach will cost it audience, and lots and lots of money – billions in some cases – as well.”

Understood in this way, the media has painted itself into a corner from which it cannot escape in any meaningful sense—at least under a purely capitalist model. The only escape would be a state-supported media model as we have in Switzerland or the British have with the BBC. There will still be bias, but decoupling the profit imperative from journalism is, at least, a potential escape valve from the worst ravages of it.

Taibbi writes that, as it stands,

“Audiences are completely siloed. A Pew study that just came out showed that of the people who say Fox is their primary news source, 93% describe themselves as Republicans. For MSNBC, the number is 95% Democrats. The New York Times is 91% Democrats. Even NPR is now 87% Democrats.”

That means that most Americans rarely, if ever, hear anything approaching an opposing point of view. They only ever hear information that they a-priori agree with. This is catastrophic and engenders an unthinking, uncritical herd mentality rather than anything approaching individual opinions.

This also makes things so much easier for media companies. Because they have ensured that audience opinion is more-or-less uniform, they no longer run the risk of alienating anyone who matters to their bottom line. In fact, pissing off “the other side” is red meat for its loyal viewers and costs it nothing.

To ensure loyalty and to continue to titillate, though, media companies travel further along the axis they’ve chosen for their audience, ending up at the near-lunatic extremism we have in the U.S. today.

The media landscape in the States,

“[…] creates an enormous risk of the tail wagging the dog. News companies make more money if they pick stories they know will get you upset, and avoid the ones that are confusing to you. They will make sure they wind you up as much as they can not just every day, but every minute. This can be very damaging to your mental health, to say nothing of what it does to society.”

Not only is it unhealthy for the media companies, but news dissemination does exactly the opposite of a what a functioning republic needs for it to do: inform the citizenry. Not only is the citizenry uninformed, it is misinformed—with no heed for how damaging that is for those people.

People end up recklessly endangering their health in a pandemic and actively support measures that impoverish their own neighborhoods, endanger their livelihoods, and destabilize their own lives. They support ideas that make them insecure—financially, if nothing else—and blame the other side for their woe.

This self-destruction among so many citizens is a side-effect of the media wanting to make money. The wealthy wield the media as a weapon to keep the peons in line. They never see the misery they cause, while directly profiting from it.

Taibbi wraps things up with,

“The news is not a public service. First and foremost, it’s a consumer product, like cigarettes or Twinkies. And because we’ve learned that division sells, it can be bad for you, and addicting, in the same way other consumer products can be. We worry about the food we put in our bellies, the air we breathe into our lungs. It’s time to worry about what we put in our brains as well.”

The mainstream media in the U.S. is not serving any useful societal function; it’s a cult.

[1] His site only has a (possibly soft) paywall. I subscribe to his site and find it well worth it.