The failure of the American press

posted by Jeff | Monday, February 29, 2016, 1:00 PM | comments: 0

I think it's pretty safe to say that American politics have hit an all-time low. This presidential race, the Republican side in particular, has been an embarrassment to the nation. That Donald Trump could actually have a shot at the GOP nomination is absurd. He represents everything wrong with our culture, not worthy of being elected as the local dog catcher. I can certainly blame the fearful idiots among the population who think that a message of fear and hate is admirable, sure, but the thing I've noticed this election cycle is that the press is easily complicit in the Trump problem.

The American press, and by that I mean the bona fide journalistic institutions of the last two centuries, used to have an interesting scarcity problem. Even as late as the mid-90's, we essentially had three major TV networks, and a handful of newspapers that had national reach. Despite the relative power of this scarcity, I believe there was a sincere effort to honor the responsibility of that power. It's something uniquely American. The press made it their mission to investigate the facts and get the reporting right. While they tried to be fair, it doesn't mean that they never took a position on things. Editorial staffs would debate the merits of these positions, knowing full well that they could influence the public.

Perhaps it's my idealism and college journalism school experience that colors my perception, but this arrangement led to a far more moderate culture when I was growing up. Granted, the decades prior to my birth were pretty ugly, as the civil rights movement was a period 100 years in the making, and even our 80's and 90's didn't get it entirely right, but it was progress. From what I remember of Reagan-era politics, and certainly Bill Clinton-era politics, both sides were considerably more moderate than they are today. It's not even close.

The Internet brought with it the potential for unlimited voices. In my mind, this was supposed to be the thing that changed us for the better. In theory, anyone could have a voice, and if the cultural institutions were getting in the way or progress, we could look elsewhere. Not only that, but individuals would be empowered to seek fact and truth, because the filter of the gatekeeping press would be gone. That's how it was supposed to work.

Unfortunately, two things happened. First, people were quite content to only seek out the information that confirmed their own biases. I suppose that's not completely unexpected human nature, but it's disappointing, to say the least. Second, and perhaps even worse, the press no longer had a business or the power associated with scarcity, so it started in large part pandering to the pools of individual confirmation bias. We know this as cable "news" and thousands of web sites that link bait their followers in with "I knew its."

To be fair, the big three nightly news TV programs try to be what the news used to be, but they're so concerned about being grouped into the crap that's on cable that they tend to lack the depth or position that they had even 20 years ago. In the case of Trump, they won't call him out for being racist or xenophobic. They won't call out either side for pandering to fear, whether it's fear of brown people or rich people. Instead they endlessly report polls results and sound bites, and virtually nothing about policy or background on the candidates.

It's also an example of where citizen journalism doesn't scale. It works great for reporting on the street in a violent protest, but you do need significant resources to investigate and travel and get it done.

In an enormous fit of irony, Fox News, which is 24 hours of talking heads and not news (let alone "fair and balanced"), is starting to acknowledge that this is a train wreck. Maybe it's because Trump went after one of their own "anchors."

I'm not sure what the solution to this is, but news directors need to nut up and call the absurdity out. I'm tired of all this nonsense about how much the country sucks, when frankly it's actually a pretty damn good place to be. We can make America better, but "great again?" What the hell do people want to go back to, exactly?


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