This is MediaPost, right?
Then please forgive me for posting about media -- not about marketing, not about reach, not about engagement, but something more fundamental. Namely: why bother?
I ask this during a moment that I probably should be savoring -- details below -- but which instead has me propelled me into a dark chamber of doubt and despair.
When I got into this business, just shy of 40 years ago, the answer to the "why bother" question seemed so obvious, and immutable. We do what we do to inform, entertain, educate, exchange ideas, deliver escape, hash out differences, illuminate dark places, enrich civic and intellectual life, stimulate the imagination, right wrongs, and of course, see what Seinfeld is up to this week. There is you and there is the rest of the whole wide world, and we are the media, the middlemen.
On the one hand, even factoring out the entertainment world, media had a pretty big portfolio. But if you notice the list above, there is one common thread: all of the roles involve adding something to the life of the audience -- whether information, context, argument or just salient questions. If you read, listened to or watched the news, you came away with something you didn’t have before.
Those were the days.
In the course of my career, two things have happened. First, on television especially, news and information went from being a loss leader to a profit center, and ever since the line between journalism and entertainment has grown ever thinner. The second thing is fragmentation -- first cable, then the Internet offering every flavor of news imaginable. If you liked rum raisin, it was there for you. If you liked pistachio, that was there, too. Not because they were better for you -- just more to your taste.
This explains the Great Right Wing Media Sector, an archipelago of news about opinion built in direct and explicit opposition to the mainstream status quo. Audiences embittered by the leftist slant they perceived in The New York Times, CBS News, CNN, NPR and so on found comfort in the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, Matt Drudge, Washington Times, Glenn Beck, The Daily Caller, Ann Coulter, Fox News Channel et al. -- characterized less by original reporting than by rage, resentment and ad hominem.
Then, largely in reaction to the reaction, a somewhat comparable Left Wing Sector began to flourish: The Nation, MSNBC, Huffington Post, Salon, The Intercept and more.Their journalism is far more rigorous and rational than their counterparts on the right, but they are no less polemical and self-righteous, which can be hard to take.
Why bring this up? Oh, because of me.
In one of my (several) other lives, I co-host public radio’s On the Media, a weekly hour of criticism and context that looks at the society, and especially its governance and politics, through the prism of media. On the current show, you will find an interview I did with Scott M. Greer, deputy editor of The Daily Caller, about the coverage of Democratic Convention speaker Khizr Khan.
Khan, a lawyer, lost his son -- Army Captain Humayun Khan -- in Iraq. The grieving father made quite an impact in his 7-minute speech, hectoring Donald J. Trump for stereotyping Muslims and immigrants as a threat to America. What has Trump sacrificed for his country? "Nothing and no one," Khan said.
It was as poignant a repudiation as ever you’ll see, and an eloquent expression of the majesty of the American melting pot. And that’s where it would have rested, had Trump not immediately shot back at Khizr Khan. That latest bit of Trumpian pettiness triggered one of the larger bipartisan pilings on of the campaign.
So what did The Daily Caller do? Well, like many of the right-wing outlets in the above list, it started trying to dig up dirt on Khizr Khan. Failing that, it found in his background utterly innocent facts that, if presented in a certain way to an audience predisposed to despise him, would imply sinister doings. As such, his practice as an immigration lawyer was linked (by nothing) to "selling citizenship." A student paper he wrote in 1983 about sharia law was falsely presented as an endorsement of sharia law, presumably even here in the U.S.
The interview with Greer is a bizarre voyage through silly rationalization, illogic, naked racism and journalistic sleaze. The reason I should be savoring it is that my Twitter feed blew up with praise for my heroic courage and courageous heroism. Hundreds and hundreds of 140-character high fives, which I briefly puffed myself up on and then very quickly deflated. Because, really… courageous? I wish, but, no, it was just a tongue lashing, of the sort I conduct routinely at no risk to myself. I’m not a hero, either. Just fed up.
But here’s the thing about all that Twitter traffic. About 1% of it was from fringe right-wingers, including avowed white supremacists, who dismissed me as jackass media Jew. The other 99% was from people who delighted in the confrontation because they share my sentiments, because they find validation in my worldview, because they took vicarious satisfaction in me saying what they are thinking.
They liked the flavor, which for Greer turned out to be rocky road.
But were they informed? Educated? Provided context? Were they enriched? Did they come away with anything they didn’t have before? Or were they merely entertained?
And if the answer to that is "yes," I repeat the question: Why bother?
Why bother, indeed! Most Americans absorb media that supports and validates their current beliefs.
I would not be so quick, Bob, nor so cynical, to disdain that 99%. It's likely that the great, great majority of them are more or less well-enlightened citizens happy to hear bullshit being called out publicly. This is not today's Turkey, say, so you're not likely to be hauled out and imprisoned anytime soon. But it is at least one instance why, speaking truth publicly, you don't have that fear and so don't have to be either heroically courageous or courageously heroic to do so.
Terrific column, Bob, and I think it points to a very real issue with the media today–– what the hell do we believe?
When every POV can be confirmed and echoed, when every conspiracy theory can be validated, when so much information is disinformation and so much news propaganda, it's not that we can't handle the truth, but we don't know what is actually true.
Once, truth was the job of media, now, we're all left to curate our own personal truth.
Great column, Bob! I'm a political junkie, so I read and watch a lot about politics and policy, but I've come to agree with Bill Maher: We are incredibly lazy, self-righteous citizens of this democracy, and we are getting exactly the government we deserve. In fact, at times it does appear that our democracy is failing, albeit in very slow motion, due to our failure to demand and support an objective press. The loss of journalistic objectivity to corporate profiteering could not be better exemplified than in the deft-but-gross manipulation of the press by a man completely without morals or integrity, and the many Americans willing to accept and endorse their surrender.
Oh, and thanks, Bob, for the hilarious reference to the classic board game Clue!
Really interesting column. It is not easy to take a step back and be able to evaluate one's own experience in the current media soup. (I guess I am thinking of Talk Soup, so I'll give credit where it is due.) My impression as a media observer is that it is almost impossible not to be pulled into the Us versus Them mentality of the Great Right Wing Media Sector, as you call them. When everything is seen through the prism of We Are Right and They Are Wrong, nobody wins.
Mr. Garfield: In the spirit of your article, I'll preface my comment by saying the obvious; ... it's just my opinion.
My list of "trusted voices in journalism" is very short. Walter Cronkite (who coincidently predicted our current news problem when he said that making broadcast news profitable would severely wound, or kill it, or words to that effect) is at the top of that short list.
Based on your work, and especially this article, you are now on that list, too.