So I had the opportunity, over the weekend, to speak to a hack from a top-tier news outlet. This guy leans left, as do almost all of the hackery, no matter what they might claim about being neutral or unbiased or not taking sides. And this guy was talking about Gabrielle Giffords and tut-tutting and blaming Palin and Limbaugh. I was like, Dude, do you not realize that you are part of the problem? Yes, even you. All of you. Your whole friggin industry. The guy was dumbstruck. Like, honestly, this had never occurred to him.
So I explained.
The problem in media goes much wider than Palin and Limbaugh and Beck. The entire media business needs to do some soul-searching. News in general, in all forms, has become so debased and vulgar and unserious. Now all of us are paying the price. Because maybe it sounds pious to say that news is important to a culture. We’ve all had our fill of hacks who take themselves and their “profession” too seriously. But on the other hand, there was a time, in the days of Walter Cronkite, say, when reporting news was something that people took seriously, and maybe I’m just an “old,” but you know what? We were better off in those days.
The problem began when news became tied to profits. The networks at one time used to run news as a loss leader, subsidized by entertainment. When that changed, and news started chasing ratings (and dollars), the problem began. When dollars started to dry up, things only got worse. Networks became desperate and resorted to making the news more like entertainment.
The Internet made things worse, in two ways. First, the Internet exacerbated the decline in revenues, and heightened the desperation in the news business. Trust me, I’m in a position to know, because I’m in the business of seeing just how far I can make news people bend in order to keep getting my advertising dollars. That influence is stronger now than it has ever been. The TV networks and magazines and newspapers are desperate and terrified. Stuff that 10 years ago they would have thrown back in our face they now do willingly — in fact, they don’t even wait for us to suggest it. They suggest it themselves.
But second, and more important, the Internet created an outlet for competing and often crazy voices. It gave birth to a new kind of “news.” Despite what the new-media pundits claim, the much-celebrated “citizen journalism” was all too often just noisy crap and propaganda.
The first example of this that I can remember is DailyKos. That was the first political site that really took off on the Internet. Remember how powerful that site once was? I was always struck by how coarse and vulgar it was. Bush and other right-wing pols were demonized, compared to Hitler, and so forth. I mean, I hated Bush as much as anyone, but Hitler? Okay. Let’s all take a deep breath.
But Kos became a kind of template for other political coverage online. Drudge on the right was just as unfair and slanted and crappy as Kos on the left. But then, to make things worse, the mainstream media began copying the Internet, and this kind of noisy, personal, ugly kind of news spread onto cable TV. Fox News came first. MSNBC became its mirror image.
So today much of what we call “news” is really entertainment, and entertainment of the worst sort. Beck, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Olbermann, Ed Schultz. It’s not right or left. It’s both. It’s shouting, and name-calling, and demonization, and it’s all fun and games until someone gets shot.
As for the Internet, let’s just be honest: Much of what we now call “news” online isn’t even entertainment, it’s garbage.
There. I said it.
It’s garbage precisely because online news sites are not primarily created to report news. They’re created to make money. Problem is, it’s nearly impossible to make money doing what they do. So they resort to ever more desperate tricks.
Why is so much online “news” reported in slideshow format? To gin up clicks. Not because it is a better way to consume news, because, please. Why is HuffPo so crowded with sensationalistic tabloid junk about celebrity boobs and fluffy “lists” of “the deadliest ice creams.” (And just about everyone else, too. )
Why is so much online news just driven by whatever SEO crap the portals (MSNBC, Yahoo) happen to want at any given moment? Why do journalists now start their day looking at Google search results to see what’s “hot” and then deciding what to write about based on that?
The news business has descended into the gutter in a pathetic attempt to stay alive. It’s been a horrible race to the bottom. This is turn has polluted our politics, and now we’re seeing the result of it.
Fortunately for the world, we’re going to change all that, with iPad and the apps model. But that’s a story for another day.