How news failed: SMPA's town hall clarified

Last week, The George Washington University‘s School of Media and Public Affairs had the pleasure of hosting guests with some serious credentials. Former CNN contributors, a NPR correspondent, and a Congressman were among the panel for the SMPA’s “Media & Politics” town hall. The discussion revisited many uncomfortable American sentiments:

1. Current events are sensationalized instead of explained by the news,

2. Our obnoxious President fuels the media shitshow, and

3. Media imprisons us within our biases despite its pluralization.

Panelists from left to right: Jeffrey Blount, Hadas Gold, Howard Opinsky, Mara Liaison, and Cornell Belcher. Photo taken by Shanni Alon

Panelists from left to right: Jeffrey Blount, Hadas Gold, Howard Opinsky, Mara Liaison, and Cornell Belcher. Photo taken by Shanni Alon

So when and how did things start sucking?

The easiest place to start looking is the effect of technology on modern life. Algorithims used by social media giants tailor content to people’s preferences. Only op-eds and news briefings that a user ideologically supports appear frequently, if not exclusively, in their newsfeed. We experience culture shock when we meet others’ with opposing opinions, having explored little the validity of their arguments with our media.

A second, similar bubble grows inside the newsroom. The media-market demand for digital journalism has inadvertently given major news a liberal bent. Politico shares that ”73 percent of all internet publishing jobs” have concentrated on the coasts. The article continues stating that news like the , “Cannot be divorced from the ethos of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced,” according to a former editor. It is therefore unsurprising when Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight writes, in Politico, that “only 7 percent of [journalists] identified as Republicans.” No wonder we were flabbergasted when Hillary Clinton lost the presidency. The people from the news who told us she would had no touch with, in the words of panelist Howard Opinsky, former national press secretary for Sen. John McCain, the conservative sentiment “outside the beltway.”

So the news neglects America’s heterogeneity. It also covers current events in a toxic manner.

Two catalysts brought the news industry to the latter point. 1) The change of journalism’s revenue model, along with something town hall panelist Cornell Belcher and former CNN contributor touched on. 2) The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) unwinding of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.

Here’s why: no longer do cable and print subscriptions prop up what used to be the mega-profitable news industry. Advertisers can target their products or services for specific web user demographics instead of paying to reach mass audiences. News advertising revenue has steadily fallen from $63.5 billion in 2000 to $18 billion in 2016. To generate ad revenue from online traffic, journalists, “aggressively hype and promote the original, sensationalistic false stories, ensuring that they go viral” as noted by internet-based business developer and magazine editor Sean Blanda. And they’re allowed to do that. The FCC used to require that broadcasting must cover issues of public importance with fairness and allow opposing opinions to be voiced. The FCC eventually decided the Fairness Doctrine wasn’t required. Competition in mass media increased. Unfortunately, the result has been more bullshit instead of more fair reporting, as noted by last week's town hall.

The FCC eventually decided the Fairness Doctrine wasn’t required. Competition in mass media increased.

The SMPA's panel also raised concerns with the news's audience-confusion with opinion instead of issue-explanation. The press does this for strategic competitive advantage. CNN is a prime example. Fox keeps “the homes of conservatives warm,” MSNBC is “the consoling voice of perpetual liberal outrage,” and CNN needs to trumpet its own cable personality. To do this, CNN's architect is president Jeff Zucker - also the ex-president of NBC who decided to broadcast “The Apprentice.” His philosophy, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable.” Their opportunity, Donald Trump – whose name was mentioned “nearly eight times more frequently than that of the second-place finisher, Ted Cruz, during the primaries.” Blanda recalls how CNN’s business interests sidelined fair-reporting when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s calls for solidarity were taken out of context. Only Schwarzenegger’s “stop whining” statement made their headlines.

It’s not just CNN. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who acquired The Washington Post, explicitly recognized that the Post had to be “attractive to a lot of people” to survive financially. There’s also Buzzfeed, which uses “identity content” tailored to “tribalism” and competitive advantage.

Perhaps that’s why those, again, “outside the beltway” have been deeply disaffected; their stories simply aren’t heard on the national level. They’re drowned out by the noise of big media corporations.

Becoming hooked on crap-content has America's more problems. Specifically, the panel touched on how local voice, through local news events, is overlooked no matter how important to national conversation. According to Brookings, the number of employed journalists has decreased from 59,000 in 1989 to 36,000 in 2012. This decline continues, hitting the smaller, local TV news particularly hard as cable became “the main news source by a greater portion of voters.”

Perhaps that’s why those, again, “outside the beltway” have been deeply disaffected; their stories simply aren’t heard on the national level. They’re drowned out by the noise of big media corporations.

There is a slow creep of corruption that has permeated all branches of government. Extremely harrowing for the media – sometimes considered our “fourth branch” - is its own idiosyncratic perversions. To prevent our institutions from imploding, we cannot let ourselves bend or lose faith. If our demands for change go unrecognized, let's rebuild the twisted press we inherit.

Originally published by Allen Wang at gw.therival.news on 9.21.17
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