Journalism as those over 30 have known it might not be dead yet, but it is on its death bed.
Anyone who has any doubts needs to get out of his or her news bubble and spend an entire evening surfing the main cable news channels – Fox News, MSNBC and CNN – with maybe a dip into OAN and Newsmax just for fun.
Even when they are reporting the same story, it is sometimes hard to impossible to tell they are reporting the same story.
Admittedly the situation has been trending this way since 1996 when Britt Hume – a respected, 23-year veteran of then powerful ABC News – jumped ship for the newly created Fox , saying he wanted to work somewhere with a more “balanced” view of the political news.
Over the course of the next decade, Fox went from an upstart challenger to CNN to number one in cable news, and though it sometimes spun its stories more conservative than the other more liberal networks, they all basically covered the same stories in much the same way.
Liberals viewers greeted Fox with complaints it was horribly biased – part of that “vast, rightwing conspiracy” that Hillary Clinton thought somehow had something to do with her husband, President Bill Clinton, having sex with a White House intern – but most of those viewers never watched enough Fox to know what it was or wasn’t.
What it was was the same news with a few more conservative voices and a few less liberal voices, which is pretty much what all news was to lesser or greater extents all across the country whether considered a conservative version or a liberal version.
The news is now radically different. Fox is covering what might best be described as a House of Representative’s attempt to thwart the will of the people and overthrow a duly elected President Donald Trump, and MSNBC is reporting on an attempt to rid the White House of the devil, said devil being Trump.
In online media, it is no different, and you can expect this to get worse before it gets better.
Two words: “Metrics” and “money.”
They see you watching
The New York Times has now turned left for the same reason Breitbart went right. There are audiences on both sides willing to pay for a product. And this fracturing of the middle is only going to increase as more and more of the old, mainstream news organizations install paywalls or tighten them up as the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) did recently.
No news organization was ever perfect at staying out of partisan ditches. That’s just about impossible. Journalists are human, and their good intentions coupled to their constant need for reward tend to push them toward the liberal camp if for no other reason than that the way to win big awards is to write stories that result in government action.
No one is ever going to win a Pulitzer for a series of stories on how the country would benefit from less government. But despite these pressures, the old media generally made an effort to try to steer for the middle of the road.
Paywalls make that harder and harder for no other reason than that they inherently shift news coverage. This is where metrics come in. The news now knows what you are reading. News organizations monitor web traffic.
It tells them what their readers want. This knowledge creates a feedback loop sure to shift coverage over time in the partisan America of today. Some Alaska conservatives say they have already abandoned the ADN. That right there changes the metrics.
The numbers for the stories that might be read more by a conservative audience than a more liberal audience go down and vice versa. Coverage moves accordingly to provide the market what it wants.
And journalists themselves begin to fall victim to the bubble in which they live.
They’re doing what they think right for their readers, and the people who might disagree with them, well, they are simply wrong or wrongheaded or, God forbid in the moment, Trump supporters.
Trump appears to have become something of a litmus test for some news consumers, especially those who lean left. If you even suggest to them you’re not totally freaked out by the Trump presidency, you become suspect to having come under the influence of the devil.
Personally, I’m not a Trump fan. The late Charles Krauthammer pretty well summed my view:
“Trump’s hypersensitivity and unedited, untempered Pavlovian responses are, shall we say, unusual in both ferocity and predictability.
“This is beyond narcissism….(It’s) an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that can never be satisfied. He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value — indeed exists — only insofar as it sustains and inflates him.
“Most politicians seek approval. But Trump lives for the adoration. He doesn’t even try to hide it, boasting incessantly about his crowds, his standing ovations, his TV ratings, his poll numbers, his primary victories. The latter are most prized because they offer empirical evidence of how loved and admired he is.
“Prized also because, in our politics, success is self-validating. A candidacy that started out as a joke, as a self-aggrandizing exercise in xenophobia, struck a chord in a certain constituency and took off.”
The sitting president is a badly flawed individual, but he has got some things right. Mainly he is right about China which has been waging – with some help from corporate America – a subversive, economic war against this country for a long time, as foreign policy expert Leslie Gelb warned in a Foreign Affairs almost a decade ago.
“Because Beijing has been playing the new economic game at a maestro level–staying out of wars and political confrontations and zeroing in on business–its global influence far exceeds its existing economic strength,” he wrote then. “China gains extra power from others’ expectations of its future growth. The country has become a global economic giant without becoming a global military power. Nations do not fear China’s military might; they fear its ability to give or withhold trade and investments.
“The United States…must adjust its approach to recognize that economics is now at the center of geopolitics. Washington’s failure to do so has already cost it in blood, treasure, and influence. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, leaders in Washington proclaim their awareness of the new economic order but lack any semblance of a new national security strategy to embrace it.”
Trump is the first president to seriously take note. One can argue with his methods. Tariffs are a crude tool, not a fine instrument. But at least he acted in the national interest and stood up against China despite our broad desire as Americans to buy cheap, knock-off products from that country.
I personally plead guilty. I’ve bought many dirt cheap but very serviceable LED headlamps and bike lights from China because it is dark in the winter in Alaska, and these lights produce a lot of lumens for a minimum amount of money. And they are so cheap that if they break, you can simply throw them away without a thought and buy another.
That is not the case with the $100 or $200 headlamps the Chinese copied, and that’s what the Chinese do. They copy. They copy very well.
“China…is perceived to be the country where technology mysteriously transfers from in-coming companies with know-how to companies which want to know how,” the BBC reported in 2011. “That, at least, is the pervasive view of influential German business leaders.
“Artur Fischer, for example, is the head of the Berlin stock-exchange who got his fingers burnt in China.
“‘We gave them our description of the product we wanted – all the photographs, everything we used in order to sell it over here in Germany,’ he says, recalling how a company he was involved with started making components in China.
“‘We asked them to manufacture it. They did that, but after half a year very, proudly they came back to us and showed us their own product, which they intended to sell in Germany.
“‘And it was a copy-cat of what we did, so they copied all our material. They took our photographs. They took our descriptions. Everything.'”
So I’m not a Trump fan, but I do like at least one of the things Trump has done. This has been my view on most politicians over time. I’m not anybody’s fanboy, though I can understand why others might be.
Personability as much or more than politics is what gets people elected in this country, and Trump has personality. As former Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly observes in “Commander in Cheat,” a book about Trump’s golf game, “three and a half hours later—sometimes less—the round will be over and you’ll have no idea what he shot or you shot, but it’ll be fun.”
Reilly is no Trump fan and believes Trump’s over-the-top cheating at golf says a lot about the man in general. It might also says he’s a perfect American politician. Nearly all of them are likable on a personal level, but few are trustworthy. They invariably follow politically expedient paths.
You can forget what they promise to do because if the politics, in their view, point in a different direction they will go that way. Fans of Bill Clinton, another golf cheat, called this pragmatism a virtue. Critics saw it differently.
“With the Clintons at the helm of the ‘New Democrats,’ their strident anti-crime policies, like their assault on welfare, reflected a cynical attempt to win back centrist white voters, especially those from Dixie and the South Central United States,” Donna Murch wrote in The New Republic.
“A true paradox lies at the heart of the Clinton legacy. Both Hillary and Bill continue to enjoy enormous popularity among African Americans despite the devastating legacy of a presidency that resulted in the impoverishment and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class black people. Most shockingly, the total numbers of state and federal inmates grew more rapidly under Bill Clinton than under any other president, including the notorious Republican drug warriors Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.”
Black lives didn’t matter.
Bill Clinton, still loved by many, was in some ways little more than a publicly polished, more liberal version of Trump. It’s not hard to imagine Bill thinking the kinds of thoughts Trump Tweets, but having the sense to keep them to himself. Bill spent his life in politics where every word is watched and weighed.
Trump spent his life as a crude talking, wheeler and dealer in a business world where flamboyance had value. I know some Trump supporters. Some of them think Trump is the most honest politician they’ve seen come along in their lifetimes.
Because despite his lying ways, what you see is what you get. Trump might say one thing today and do the opposite tomorrow, as he did with a planned retaliatory raid against Iran in June, but he’s not going to make public statements that leave you wondering what he said.
Americans, especially blue-collar Americans, tired of listening to mealymouthed politicians like this about Trump. That Trump’s behavior irritates the country’s ruling elite only makes them like Trump more. That they think the mainstream media is a tool of the ruling elite and has been out get Trump ever since he got elected, only further reinforces his base.
The Trump supporters I know are not at all like Trump. Some of them are among the most honest and upright people I’ve ever met. They lack the arrogance of some of my old liberal friends, and they’d never even think about engaging in Trumpesque behavior.
The media problem
All of this creates a problem for old-school journalists who consider simple honesty the ultimate virtue and are thus infuriated by Trump. Witness all those “fact-checking” websites that appear largely a waste of time.
Journalists can’t help themselves. All true journalists detest liars even if there are more than a few liars in journalism.
That a politician lies, is fact-checked, is proven wrong and keeps on lying drives them nuts. That a politician’s life becomes a pattern of lies could, in the view of endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, make them chemically imbalanced.
“Trump confabulates, and America conflagrates,” Lustig wrote at Medpage Today in July of last year. His take on what is called Trump Derangement Syndrome is intriguing.
“Many have remarked that Trump operates out of his ‘lizard brain’. Rather, I would argue that Trump has turned our brains reptilian,” Lustig writes. “The two emotions that belie this effect — greed and fear — are the same two emotions that govern Wall Street’s behavior. No surprise.”
Lustig argues that “Trump jacks up our dopamine (levels) the same way a roller coaster does,” and the “chronic overstimulation drives severe irritability, as chronic cocaine users can attest to.”
At the same time, “fear activates the amygdala, which sends corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) signals throughout the central nervous system. CRH drives cortisol, which stymies our prefrontal cortex (PFC) the executive function center….which sits just above the eyes and serves as our internal compass.”
“The cortisol/PFC response on dopaminergic activity is enough to alter human behavior in predictable, if socially undesirable, ways. Witness the episode of ‘The View’ last week when Whoopi Goldberg popped off at Judge Jeanine Pirro.
“In other words, many of us have now become Trump. The more dopamine and cortisol, the more we lose our ability to discern truth from post-truth, the more irritable we become, and the more we abandon our cognitive control and with little regard for the consequences.”
Think about that, a whole country full of Trumps.
The natural result? America’s old, partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans has escalated into a partisan war with the old media caught in the middle. The middle is a hard position to hold in a situation like this.
From the looks of the media landscape at the moment, it might well be an impossible position to hold on the national level, and what’s happening nationally is trickling down into almost everything.
Compromise has become a dirty word. Alaska polebrity Sarah Palin’s old admonishment “Don’t retreat, reload!” has become the battle cry of politicians (and too many Americans) on both sides of the aisle on the national, state and local levels.
Politics is becoming a street fight between the momma grizzlies and the pitbulls in lipstick to steal a couple more of the favorite phrases of Alaska’s former, half-term governor and one-time candidate for vice president.
We are now in a situation where gay, liberal celebrity Ellen Degeneres is Twitter shamed for being friendly with conservative former President George W. Bush. We have become so tribal that those with whom we disagree are to be viewed not as people with different views but as enemies.
Trump can take some of the credit for this as can Palin, who sort of built the model. But a lot of politicians and too many average Americans have now joined the shitshow. It has become a minefield for old media while much of the new media has feasted on the carnage.
Increasingly, the response of once rich and now financially struggling mainstream journalism has been to become more like the new media, and they are becoming more and more like the new media every day. It’s hard to blame them. The old media is fighting to survive and partisanship is where the money is.
It is radically changing “journalism” as older Americans have known it all their lives. Where it all ends up is anyone’s guess but this much is clear:
The journalism of tomorrow is not going to be the journalism you once knew. The country appears clearly headed back toward the days of the penny press of more than 100 years ago.
If you don’t believe me, go surf those cable news channels. Do the experiment and see what you find. There is no longer a common journalistic reality. There are separate realities.