The fourth estate has been a protected part of the US since its inception. The idea of protecting free speech was to make people more aware of events around them. Thomas Jefferson said “A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.”
Great. I problem I’ve long observed as it related to publicly held entities with news offerings and with television news in general is that they are not designed to perform their original task of informing. Not on a pure level. The cable news networks are entertainment (Relax, I’m talking about all of them and not singling out the one your or your crazy uncle watch.) OK. They’re not very entertaining most of the time, but they are measured the same way we measure reality shows or icanhaz.com. This is a problem.
Because CNN is selling ads based on ratings, they’re not incentivized to invest in hard hitting journalism. They are incentivized to invest in whatever gets or holds viewers. That might be Anderson Cooper talking to celebrities, even as real news is breaking somewhere in the country or world.
Watch your local news and pay attention to the stories. They follow a very predictable and specific order. Bloody terror in your home state, national event with stunning pictures, short blippy stories on national news, the unlikely deadly threat posed by some local oversight, sports, feel good story about an animal, child or local cause. Not much room in there for hard-hitting journalism. It’s meant to keep people watching through commercial breaks.
If the news then is not focused on providing news, what does it provide?
Looking at the news through the lens of entertainment, we should then think about the way studio entertainment is created. First thought is the intended audience. TV executives don’t produce anything without an audience demographic in mind. Your local news has an audience in mind. It’s also pretty clear that 24-hour news networks have a specific audience for whom they’re creating content. This is obvious. And it’s the real problem.
Those audience have been getting more and more niche. As American monoculture has faded, we have fewer shared entertainment sources. There’s almost a unique content path for every adult in the country. News is no different.
Forget the founding fathers. Despite being plugged in to more news sources than ever, the truth has never been more blurry. We rely on journalists to keep us abreast of the events happening around us, and more directly – to us in Washington, DC and in state capitols.
The break in media happens when the dominant news sources go niche. In appealing to a set audience, and not to the general ‘citizenry,’ it becomes programming and not news. When the writers of a Netflix show make decisions, they’re choosing events that will keep their viewers watching and recommending the show. Great for Stranger Things, super messed up for news.
Go talk to people around you. At the office, the school, your local Applebee’s. There’s a 50/50 chance they don’t agree with you on a given issue. But there’s a much lower chance that they approach a conversation about the issue with the life-or-death vitriol that we see on the coverage of a story by CNN vs. FoxNews. By hiring, writing and producing for the audiences that draw advertising dollars, they’ve created skewed realities that appeal to the edges. And it makes business sense; it’s better TV. If they were both airing neutral reporting of the same news stories, there would be no audience differentiators. There would be less shock. There would be less sharable content.
Neutral isn’t dramatic. Divisiveness is. Unfortunately, the cable news options we have are more akin to pro-wrestling promotions than journalistic endeavors. They each trot out a face and a heel for a given story – here’s the right side and the wrong side according to you, our faithful viewers. Pay attention to how little actual reporting shows up. How rarely a reporter has researched a story rather than just reads a tweet or quotes someone.
The goal is no longer to inform as Jefferson had hoped. The goal is to milk for the last of the advertising dollars. And they don’t care if they divide us while they’re reporting to shareholders.