A brief history of U.S. journalism (and how we got to COVID-19 crap)

Plenty of bad things happen in journalism. No one knows this better than journalists.

Like soccer referees, we tend to be lightning rods for angry people — and worse, slimy people trying to “work the refs” — and we don’t get enough money to make up for it. (Perversely, in journalism, the people who do make enough money are usually people who have transitioned into talking-head status and don’t do the grunt work any more, if they ever did.) Most people do it for the love of the game. Or the love of truth. Or the power trip.

It’s a little frustrating when we hear that we’re all biased. It’s true. Just not in the ways a lot of people think, and it doesn’t get at the heart of the problems.

For 20 years, I’ve been linking to a piece at Rhetorica.net in an effort to explain the issues, and it’s still useful today. That piece shows how bias isn’t necessarily political. It’s many things:

  1. Commercial (we need to stay in business)
  2. Temporal (what happened in the last five minutes >> something that happened yesterday)
  3. Bad news (not the Spinal Tap/Rutles-ish band below featuring 3/4s of The Young Ones)

Sound familiar? Explains a lot of COVID-19 coverage, doesn’t it? And I did warn people about this 20 years ago when I did my grad-school thesis.

I also did an interesting independent study in grad school that confirmed something rather obvious that we all tend to overlook: News organizations’ commitment to objectivity or partisan bias is dictated primarily by business concerns.

Duh, right? The same market forces that led Dominos to sell pizza rather than haggis are the same market forces that made a lot of 20th century newspapers reasonable but boring, and they make cable news interesting but unreasonable.

It’s not just the revenue side. Dominos delivers pizza instead of beef wellington because it’s easier to produce and get out the door for delivery. That’s how things work in journalism as well.

Those forces have evolved over time, as such:

18th and 19th centuries: Scandal! Chicanery! Blast those (Confederates, Whigs, Free Masons, etc.) with their other newspaper. Read ours! The media market was a free-for-all. Printing was relatively inexpensive.

19th and early 20th centuries: The miracle of the telegraph! Now we can transmit news over a vast distance! Of course, that costs money, so to make it cost-effective, we’d better be able to serve this information to a wide variety of newspapers, no matter how weird their politics might be. Welcome to the era of reliably middle-of-the-road news.

1914-18: War!

1918-1939: A time to reorganize during our well-deserved peace that will extend indefinitely now that we’ve had the war to end all wa- …

1939-45: WAR!

1946-1960s: Your local newspaper is basically another utility, like your power company or phone company. (Aside to those born after 1990: The “phone company” used to be just one phone company, and you had to sign up with them to have a phone. In your house. Not your pocket.) Your paper has nice roundups of what’s going on around town, complete with a short recap of the local roller derby games and the latest gardening tips on the ladies’ page. The department stores buy plenty of large display ads, and everyone who wants to sell anything takes out a classified ad.

Rule No. 1 of journalism: Get the facts. Rule No. 2: Don’t rock the boat. (Family lore holds that my grandfather quit a job in a dispute over how to play a story involving one of the heirs to the local department store fortune.)

1960s-1970s: Vietnam and Watergate shatter the post-WWII unity in the country, and news organizations have a more difficult time appealing to everyone. Television becomes a more important news medium, especially as shocking war footage changes the country’s perception of Vietnam.

1980: CNN launches. At first, the programming is a bit like a newspaper’s sections — a news report, a money report, a sports report and a fashion report. In prime time, the TV equivalent of the op-ed page takes over with a show called Crossfire.

Mid-90s: Rupert Murdoch, the master of figuring out ways to make content cheap, launches Fox News Channel with the slogan “fair and balanced” delivered with a wink to right-wing viewers who are still bitter over Vietnam, Watergate and maybe even McCarthy. At first, though, the political stance is less important than the staffing decision. Why have the global news-gathering organization of CNN when it’s much cheaper to mimic Crossfire? Just have people shout at each other for a while. It’s entertaining, it’s cheap — what’s not to love? (Unless you’re one of those nerds who likes context, nuance and that sort of thing.)

Late 90s-2000s: The newspaper business model collapses. No one needs to buy classifieds. Department stores’ importance dwindles. Journalism goes online but ad money does not, and newspapers get smaller and smaller. TV, though, keeps marching right along. Producing cable content is still pretty cheap as long as you don’t do any reporting.

TODAY

“It bleeds, it leads” has been ramped up to extremes as news organizations fight for eyeballs.

Search-engine optimization is ruining good writing Kim Kardashian because it makes Kim Kardashian journalists re-emphasize Kim Kardashian a particular key phrase Kim Kardashian to game the Kim Kardashian system, reducing the Kim Kardashian capacity to present Kim Kardashian nuance. (Hey, I just quadrupled my traffic!)

Money for local journalism is drying up, creating “news deserts” where local governments can operate with no watchdogs. Whatever you think of the government-watchdog dynamic (Jefferson said he preferred the latter), we’re not better off with one without the other.

Money for quality journalism is drying up, in part because a generation has been conditioned to expect free “news.” (It doesn’t help that news organizations have been less than creative. If The San Francisco Chronicle has four stories that appeal to those of us outside of San Francisco, do they really expect us to subscribe just to see beyond our three freebies? No a la carte payment? No bundling with other newspapers? Why not?)

The new generation has a lot to offer but often lacks respect for the job and brings it its own agenda. That’s particularly true in sports, where people can make a name for themselves as advocates. Sometimes, they do the work and have a healthy respect for the facts. Sometimes, they don’t.

Political theater is cheap and easy, which is why PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor has been so easily duped into playing exactly the role Donald Trump wants her to play. Being “tough,” in and of itself, can be a counterproductive way to question authority.

And the big one …

It’s a lot easier for a lot of people to tell a lot of lies. In some cases, it’s because people refuse to believe any information outside their own little bubbles. The Flat Earth bubble is small but hardened. If I don’t know anyone who has died of COVID-19 and my favorite politician says it’s not a big deal, then who’s Anthony Fauci to tell me otherwise?

I’m not going to argue that each “side” of the political spectrum as defined in U.S. terms is equally to blame. They’re not. One party has chipped away at the authority of academia and the media, and now it’s come to roost. Another group has preyed upon historical and theological ignorance to propagate a perverted form of Christianity that worships money and hate.

But there’s another “bubble” as well, and it’s mostly the urban view of less-urban America. No economic classes understand each other — TV networks get a lot of mileage out of the notion that rich people are all as effete and myopic as Frasier Crane — but the urban elites absolutely misunderstand the less-urban middle classes.

And here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Absolutely, consider the perspective of someone who’s presenting information. Is that person seeing all angles? Perhaps not, but then don’t automatically dismiss everything that person is saying. If you think someone is missing part of the story, look for more reports from more angles. This is why media monopolies are bad things.
  2. Then, consider your perspective. When you scold small business-owners who want to reopen their businesses, have you really looked at it from their perspective and not simply the perspective of someone who can afford to stay at home indefinitely? Have you considered all possibilities for tip-toeing back toward normalcy?
  3. Down with slogans!
  4. Believe science. Climate change isn’t a hoax. Vaccines are thousands of times safer than going unvaccinated. The Earth isn’t flat. COVID-19 is contagious and dangerous.
  5. Question the narrative. Is the U.S. women’s soccer team really underpaid? Are we really stuck at home until a COVID-19 vaccine emerges?
  6. Then question the meta-narrative. Why have two “sides” in America defined by the pragmatic Clinton/Obama wing of the Democratic Party and whichever wing of the Republican Party is loudest at the moment? A lot of journalists have been slow to realize that we have at least five distinct political views in the USA — democratic socialism that is the majority view in many European countries, the “liberal” school led by Joe Biden (who’s more “progressive” than Sanders supporters realize but is still not AOC), what’s left of the “Never Trump” GOP movement, the libertarian-ish Tea Party (remember them?), and the authoritarians who’ve embraced Trump.

And please don’t throw up your hands and say “oh, they’re all liars” or “oh, they’re all biased.” Sure, we’re all flawed. But it’s our responsibility to weigh the preponderance of the evidence, and if you read enough, you’ll get the evidence.

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