Leave it to the venerable Associated Press to arrive late to one of the most disturbing trends of these times – the deconstruction and reshaping of the business of news – and then to somehow get the history wrong and some of the context as well.
“In a chaotic media landscape, with traditional guideposts stripped away by technology and new business models, the old lines between journalism and commentary are growing ever fuzzier,” the AP reported last week in a story with a very rose-colored view of the past.
“Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we’d like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout but neither did we….
“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion….It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
One couldn’t get much deeper into the blend of journalism and commentary than to suggest how the country should end a war.
But then journalism has always been deep into opinion in its many forms: the “New Journalism” of the 1960s and 70s with it “subjective perspective,” the news analysis that followed, and the rise of “interpretative journalism” that eventually culminated in the Pulitzer Prize competition adding a category for “explanatory journalism” in 1985.
The explanatory category was basically created to reward reporters who studied hard and then wrote like they were experts on the subject matter at hand. And, for better or worse, experts invariably have opinions. It’s in the nature of trying to make sense of a tangle of black, white and gray.
Judgments must be made. Definitive truths are rare. Sir Isaac Newton thought he had one, and then humans broke the bonds of the planet and what went up didn’t come down.
Which is not to say there are no truths or that the truth shouldn’t be told, which is a whole other matter.
The problem today isn’t that journalism has changed all that much. The problem is that the trust Americans used to put in journalists is gone. The reasons why are many and complicated, and journalists are not without significant blame.
Plenty of hubris preceded this fall, and it has been a serious fall.
“Americans’ trust and confidence (in the media) hit its highest point in 1976, at 72 percent, in the wake of widely lauded examples of investigative journalism regarding Vietnam and the Watergate scandal,” Gallup, the national polling business, reported in 2016. “After staying in the low to mid-50s through the late 1990s and into the early years of the new century, Americans’ trust in the media has fallen slowly and steadily. It has consistently been below a majority level since 2007.”
The media reaction to this has been a decade of denial. Journalists have either hidden from the issue or insisted endlessly that “we’re not biased. We’re not biased. We’re really not biased.”
But, of course, we are. Humans are inherently biased. That doesn’t mean they can’t try to be fair-minded and listen to other points of view and report those accurately. That doesn’t mean they can’t talk to people and be honest with them about differences of perception.
Then again, it is probably easier to ignore all that and simply join whichever partisan tribe looks most supportive. The days of the hard-bitten, skeptical journalist who questioned everything and chased after some hard-to-define truth are pretty much over.
Who in the media wants to be her? She’s likley to end up out there all alone being attacked by all the other tribes.
Maybe everyone should have paid more attention decades ago when Britt Hume abandoned a 23-year-long career at ABC News, where he’d clearly grown uncomfortable, to join an upstart Fox News. That is sort of where this all started.
“The mainstream media have a fairly consistent set of views about a range of issues: abortion, the environment, taxes, use of military force and so on,” he would later tell Time magazine. “It’s not that they’re obsessed with them or motivated by those views to do journalism. [But] there is a pretty broad consensus. And it leads to a [homogenous] way of looking at the world. At ABC, I often saw that there were alternative ways to do stories that were every bit as newsworthy. When I proposed them, I didn’t get any resistance. It’s just that nobody but me would think of them. I wasn’t looking to proselytize any viewpoints. I was just looking to do stories in ways I thought were meaningful.”
Interestingly enough, those observations and Hume’s departure from ABC came at a time when TV news and newspaper were all about “diversity,” albeit not at the intellectual level.
As one employee of the old Anchorage Daily News put it, “yes, we want to find some people of color who think just like us.” The ADN was by then well on the way to corporate group-think.
The old idea that newsroom debates were healthy, that they made everyone think more and in the process enriched the intellectual environment, was giving way to the new kumbaya of blessed homogeneity. That “conscensus” as Hume called it that was never stated but was never to be to challenged either.
It was the beginning of the beginning of media polarization that has grown ever since. Hume, a self-confessed conservative, went to Fox News, which came to be dominated by a band of merry conservatives, which led to the launch of MSNBC, which NBC eventually turned into a home for a band of merry liberals.
This is how we got to the point where the AP’s David Bauder could lead his story with this:
Hannity is, of course, the rough and gruff face of Fox, and Maddow, the querulous queen of a snootier MSNBC.
Bauder was happy to blame them, along with President Donald Trump, for all of the rest of us “having a hard time distinguishing facts from points of view.” And along the way, he lamented the demise of traditional media control of information in the face of an internet where “there are many more voices to hear. But the loudest ones frequently get the most attention.”
That last observation is clearly subjective and arguably wrong. There are a lot of voices out there screaming loudly into the darkness and getting no attention whatsoever right now.
No one really ever knows what loud voice will get the attention of the moment, except for the barkers who are paid to stand on soap boxes in the media and internet square soliciting attention – Hannity, Maddow, Lyin’ Brian Williams (who should have never been let back into the tent after his self-promoting frauds), Jimmie Kimmel (who illustrates better than anyone how fine the line between entertainment and journalism has become), and more.
And then there are the loud voices that must be heard because they are, for better or worse, the leaders of the country – one Donald J. Trump chief among them.
He gets attention not because he is loud (the Trump Tweets that seem to cause so much furor are actually silent) but because he happens to be the President of the United States, thus making him arguably the most powerful person on the planet. Were he to unleash the entire firepower of the U.S. upon the globe, he might be able to spawn the dreaded “nuclear winter” thought capable of eliminating all human life.
There are reasons greater than volume to listen to Trump. So we watch and listen.
Those upset by what he says then rant. Those pleased by what he says cheer. Goodly parts of the country take sides. Trump fans the flames. It might be the most God awful political mess the U.S. has witnessed since our politics erupted into the horror of the Civil War.
The media ends up sucked in. It’s hard not be sucked in. Trump has problems telling the truth. There’s no two ways around that. But Lyin’ Brian had trouble telling the truth, too, and he’s back to being a media bigshot.
If you try, it’s not hard to understand why Trump supporters think there are a lot of double-standards at play here. It doesn’t help build trust in the media.
But media partisanship or perceptions of media partisanship are only part of the problem, maybe even the least of the problem at some levels.
We are today living in the Age of Information. Never have Americans had so much easy access to so much knowledge. You can in seconds Google the factual answer to settle a dining-room debate over when exactly Alaska saw its snowiest winter or who played middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 1970s.
Access to information has made a lot of news consumers more savvy. Journalists have not kept up. For a lot of reasons, many of them financial, the profession has dumbed down.
An Alaska news story that started with “two construction workers were taken to the hospital…after they fell down a wellhead and were asphyixated” about says it all.
A “wellhead” is the open top of a vertical pipe. The wellhead on your average home water well is 5- or 6-inches in diameter.
You can find wellheads with larger diameter openings in the oil fields, but even there it’s hard to find one a man could actually fall into. A baby, yes, maybe. A man, no.
Asphyixiated means to die from lack of oxygen. Dead people are not taken to the hospital.
This one sentence is a testament not only to the stumble of one reporter, but to a systemic failure of lack of backup to fix the error. The systemic failures have made it almost impossible to read a mainstream media story of any length on any topic in which you are well versed and not slap your head in disbelief at something badly wrong.
Case in point, this Alaska story from the New York Times on Tuesday: “Red salmon, a summertime pleasure that feeds residents through the winter, has failed to show up this season in most rivers.”
Well, it was sort of true a few weeks ago. The commercial fishing season for reds in Cook Inlet and on the Copper River delta has been grim. But both rivers have now met their spawning goals.
Red salmon fishing in-river in the Copper has actually been good for a couple of weeks now. And the Kenai River, which was closed to red anglers, is about to reopen.
Anyone who has been closely following the very strange fish returns in Southcentral Alaska through the years can’t help but read the Times story and think “fake news,” but it’s not fake news. Fake news is something intentionally wrong. This is just journalistic bumbling.
“Scientists, who haven’t had time to study the problem, are cautious about naming causes,” it says. “But many suspect it has to do with a recent period of warmer ocean temperatures.”
Not a scientist on the West Coast thinks the situation that simple because the picture is too confused. The Southcentral runs are weak, but they are also unusually late. If a state fish-counting sonar on the Kenai River is to be believed, more reds have entered that river in the first 21 days of August this year than entered in all of July.
That rarely happens. Historically, the midpoint of the run comes on July 23. Only twice in the last 39 years has the midpoint come later than July 30.
It peaked on Aug. 2 in 1994, and Aug. 3 in 2006. The timing of the 2018 return now looks on track to match or pass those years. No one knows why.
Far to the south, the Fraser River of British Columbia, Canada, is getting a big return of reds from young fish that would have spent much of their lives in that pool of hot, Gulf of Alaska water dubbed “The Blob.”
The picture of what went on in the ocean is very complicated. The Times story is very simple and contextually wrong with its suggestion the summer in Alaska has been destroyed by weak red runs. In many cases, the situation is actually the opposite.
The lack of sockeye that shut down commercial fishing in Cook Inlet meant large numbers of coho salmon that would have been caught as by-catch in the red fishery escaped to streams in the bustling Matanuska-Susitna Valley. It is now having one of the best fishing seasons in years and throbbing with activity.
The state even raised bag limits for anglers there. The nuances are important. The Times story has none of them. And that’s a big part of the problem. A huge part of the problem.
Reporters who once spent time on beats and learned about what they were covering are gone. Beats are largely gone as well. Their disappearance has undermined news coverage. No one is available with the knowledge to fix a hodgepodge like the Times ran.
Blame the technology that brought free entry into the business of news. The internet uncoupled news from the printing press and the television networks. Anyone could start reporting, and they did.
Suddenly the mainstream media had competition from everywhere. Some of the competitors were masters at playing the crowd; can you say fake news? Some actually knew things, bloggers in science, art, medicine, engineering, the environment, sport, politics and more.
All drained away readers.
Collectively, they were the flock of ducks that pecked the flesh off the mainstream. They stole readers here; they stole readers there. Newspaper and television stations couldn’t deliver to advertisers the exposure they’d once been able to sell.
As a result ad sales went down. Budgets had to be cut. A lot of older journalists who knew things were replaced by younger people who didn’t know as much, but were expected to know more.
Too many of them assumed that they did. And if they didn’t, they just had to fake it because they understood they were in a competition where winning is about being smarter, faster and better than all those other people out there even if you’re not.
But the 24/7 internet is often quick to spot fakery. It’s depressing to now regularly read comments below news stories correcting the errors in said stories.
And so the business spins ever downward. Every day it seems to become harder to trust the news unless, maybe, you have a favorite partisan news. The are Americans today who consider Fox News the gospel; and there Americans today who feel the same about MSNBC.
There are Americans who loathe Fox, and there are Americans who disparage MSNBC.
And the news that gets delivered is coming to be viewed more and more not by the substance of the reporting but the imprimatur of the publication. For some on the American coasts, the fact a story appears in the New York Times is enough to make it true. For some in the American heartland, the fact a story appears in the New York Times is enough to make it false, or “fake” as Trumps says again and again.
As for the many Americans caught between the two, the only is question is this: Can I trust the reporting of any media anymore?