PRESS BIAS

MATT TAIBBI

We’ve now arrived at a place where the Good morning, everybody model geared toward delivering information broadly has been switched out a model that more than ever works backwards, beginning with the audience. It’s more like demographic targeting, or audience-framing, than information delivery.
The news is not a public service. First and foremost, it’s a consumer product, like cigarettes or Twinkies. And because we’ve learned that division sells, it can be bad for you, and addicting, in the same way other consumer products can be. We worry about the food we put in our bellies, the air we breathe into our lungs. It’s time to worry about what we put in our brains as well.



The Post-Objectivity Era
Summary of "Hate Inc: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another"
Matt Taibbi
Sep 19

From a speech given this week to the McCourtney Institute of Democracy, Penn State University:
We live in a time of incredible political division. Many of us have had the experience of talking to someone whose idea of reality seems to be completely different from our own. It’s become difficult to have an argument in the traditional sense. People with differing opinions are often no longer even working from the same commonly-accepted set of facts. It’s a problem that has a lot to do with changes in how we receive and digest information, especially through the news media.

I’ve worked in the press for thirty years. In my lifetime the core commercial strategy of the news business has changed radically. At the national level, companies have moved from trying to attract one big audience to trying to capture and retain multiple small audiences.
Fundamentally, this means the press has gone from selling a vision of reality they perceive to be acceptable to a broad mean, to selling division. For technological, commercial, and political reasons this instinct has become more exaggerated with time, snowballing toward the dysfunctional state we’re in today.
A story that illustrates how the old system worked involves the first major national news broadcast, the CBS radio program anchored by the legendary Lowell Thomas.
History buffs will know Thomas. His was the iconic voice on those old WWII newsreels:
Thomas began doing a national news program in 1930 and noticed something right away. Years later he explained, “I had quickly discovered that my evening program was a perfect way to make listeners angry. You could step on millions of toes at the same time.”
Thomas had a creative background, having been an adventurer, explorer, and actor who’d toured the world doing one-man shows. He was excited about the possibilities of radio and wanted to find a way to capitalize on its provocative qualities, planning on publishing a book of listener letters called Making Millions Angry.

Thomas’s sponsors balked. One, the magazine The Literary Digest, asked him instead to “play things down the middle.” His publisher made him change Making Millions Angry to the lifeless title, Fan Mail.
Thomas committed to the “down the middle” strategy. His news show announced that it sought the widest possible audience through its famous introduction, “Good evening, everybody”:
Thomas kept his feelings out of things and let audiences supply the emotion. He later called this “letting your listeners make up their own minds.”
We’d call this the “objective” style of reporting today, and it’s important to understand, this was not about ethics. It was a commercial strategy. The news made its money by attracting the largest possible audience, then allowing advertisers to court that audience. The thinking was, once you started injecting politics into the show, it reduced the number of potential customers who’d be susceptible to advertising.
This would the template for news for about fifty years. Anchors from Thomas through Dan Rather and Jessica Savitch delivered information in a reserved monotone. Print journalism was written in an even, unemotional, third-person voice.
Beginning in the early nineties, three major changes altered the business.
The first was the development of the 24 hour news network, with CNN launching the first such broadcast:
Instead of one newspaper and one broadcast per day, media companies began to think of news as a continually evolving thing. Although the initial CNN concept was just repeating loops of half-hour broadcasts that changed maybe twice per day, eventually it evolved to capture continuous, live coverage of ongoing events.
This format put enormous stress on media companies to find new ways of creating content. You couldn’t make enough carefully-reported news to fill every hour. Outlets had to find something that could be created and put on air at the speed of thought.
One type of story that worked was putting something visually interesting on screen and having reporters talk while people watched. It could be a coming hurricane, a baby down a well, a car chase, a hostage situation, a sunken submarine, etc.
War was very useful in this respect. An anchor talking over explosions was an easy way to capture audiences. The first Gulf War in Iraq became one of the first true 24-hour stories, making stars out of live news performers like Arthur Kent, the “Scud Stud”:
The other very easy way to generate content was just to put two people on a set together and have them argue about something. News companies didn’t particularly care whether these were good arguments or not. They weren’t interested in arbitrating who was right or wrong. They just new it was an easy way to generate interest, in the same way football or boxing does.
Of course, pro sports is real competition. Crossfire was closer to pro wrestling, where the competition could be semi-scripted to seem more dramatic.
Crossfire, which started as an NBC radio show and moved to CNN, simplified politics for audiences. There were just two ideas shown, “From the left” and “From the right.” An issue would be tossed between two combatants like Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan, and they would spend a half-hour tussling over it, with a few blocs of ads wedged in between.
This side-against-side format wasn’t much different from game shows, except game shows were better TV, from the companies’ point of view. In game shows, people fight to win money and sponsored products, i.e. they’re commercials surrounded by commercials. A lot of television is designed around concepts like this.
Shows like Crossfire were a step down from sports or game shows commercially, but had the benefit of gravitas. People felt they were talking about something real, which they did not feel about Family Feud or Hollywood Squares. A key point is if a product has anything to do with news, there’s a law of diminishing returns that comes into play the further broadcasters move from reality.
As the show becomes more hyped and dramatic, you might get more eyes, but you’ll lose belief, which is essential to the enterprise. Once the audience begins to sense there’s a false element to a news show, forget about the ethical issues involved: as a commercial product, it starts to lose utility. People will just watch soap operas or cop shows instead.
The second major change was the introduction of the Internet, which forced a major alteration to the structure of the news business.
Newspapers and TV stations for decades were almost guaranteed profits, thanks to distribution advantages. Newspapers had their own trucks, boxes, paper kids, etc. If you were a local business owner and wanted to put out a want ad to hire someone, the local newspaper was the only show in town.
Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium is the Massage, predicted with uncanny accuracy what would happen if classified ads were to be lost to media firms. He said, in 1964:
The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.
TV and radio stations leased a limited number of channels from the state. There were only so many broadcast ad spots available.
As one former newspaper owner put it to me during my research for Hate Inc., “These were scarcity businesses. They were licenses to print money.”
Almost overnight, the Internet eliminated the distribution advantage. Worse, it brought floods of new content. News companies were forced to compete not just with each other but with millions of independent voices. If you were a news channel you weren’t just competing with other news channels, but with cat videos, Sasquatch sites and a thousand other things.
The news business went from being from easy money to very hard money, prompting the third change, involving the use of political slant as a moneymaking strategy.
In the sixties, seventies and eighties there began to appear new forms of talk radio, with disc jockeys like Alan Burke and Bob Grant in New York, for instance.
Mainly these were conservative talk shows that hunted big drive-time audiences. These were largely working and middle-class men who responded to content about things that frustrated them, often involving liberal politics.
Then in 1987 under Ronald Reagan, the federal government stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine, which required balance on public airwaves. This, combined with the new economic pressures, led to companies embracing the idea of selling slanted media.
In the Internet/cable era, big TV companies like Fox realized: rather than try to corral an increasingly splintered whole audience, it’s better to pick one demographic and try to dominate it. Fox hunted older, white conservative demographic by feeding it stories that reinforced the idea that America was being overrun by immigrants and minorities and criminals.
Fox chief Roger Ailes famously described Fox’s audience as “55 to dead.” These people were older, white, suburban or rural, had disposable income, and were often retired and able to spend all day watching TV, ready to shop with credit cards – the perfect ad market.
Ailes hunted these viewers by feeding them stories that reinforced their idea that America was being overrun by immigrants and minorities and criminals. They sold a horror story about Happy Days America, old-time, Greatest Generation America, under assault by contaminants out to subvert family values.
They made villains out of characters. Hillary was a perfect TV villain for conservatives – she said she wasn’t baking cookies and even though her husband was president, she wasn’t going to be Tammy Wynette and Stand By Her Man. The more Fox showed Clinton on air, the more the “family values” audience was provoked.
Heartland viewers flocked to Fox by the millions, beginning a sorting process with audiences that continues to this day, with conservatives moving to one side to Fox, and progressive or liberal audiences drifting in another direction.
Since that period in the eighties and nineties, the “objective” news formula has gradually disappeared, and has more and more replaced by Fox-style coverage that courts specific demographics.
There were some holdouts, but the change grew more pronounced over the years. Then Trump happened. I was on the campaign trail in the summer of 2015, when I started to hear reporters talk about a problem.
Trump, it seemed, was making everyone too much money. Worse, the increased media attention was pushing him to the nomination. Media companies were in a pickle. How could they keep the ratings without being accused of helping a potentially dangerous politician?
The Columbia Journalism Review later did a study that showed coverage of Trump went way up beginning in early 2016. Coverage also become significantly less policy-focused and more focused on his personality.
I don’t have any problem with negative coverage of Donald Trump, I wrote a lot of it. The problem was the new formula – described by the New York Times as “copious coverage and aggressive coverage” – fit perfectly into the commercial needs of the corporate press. Trump was the perfect modern media product.
In the post-objectivity era, media companies learned there was a consistent, dependable way to make money. First, identify an audience. Then, relentlessly feed it streams of stories that validate that audience’s belief systems.
The easiest method is to publish stories that present people your audience does not like in a negative light. Fox did this with terrorists, criminals, feminists, liberals, the French, the “New Black Panthers,” and a thousand other bugbears. The more horror stories they showed, the bigger their market share.
With Trump this effect was now easily accomplished with “liberal” audiences. Media companies figured out that all they had to do to secure high ratings was wave Trump at people all day long. This has coincided with a huge surge in profitability: cable news revenues are up 38% since Trump announced his campaign in 2015.
A converse is that media outlets lose revenue and market share when they challenge or confuse their audiences. A case in point that Cenk Uygur talked about in a documentary called All Governments Lie: in 2008, his Young Turks show built up a huge audience of people who’d fallen in love with Barack Obama during his campaign.
But in 2009, when the Young Turks began reporting negatively about Obama’s performance as president – for instance his response to the financial crisis – they lost audience.
Media companies are very aware of this dynamic, but in the Trump era it became possible to avoid this problem with ease. What’s happened since 2016 is the news landscape has split into news for people who love Trump, and people who hate him.
The world as represented in news programs is now almost exactly Crossfire. We only see two ideas. These ideas are shown to be in constant combat. There is no pretense of a hope for cooperation or accommodation. It’s constant combat.
Audiences are completely siloed. A Pew study that just came out showed that of the people who say Fox is their primary news source, 93% describe themselves as Republicans. For MSNBC, the number is 95% Democrats. The New York Times is 91% Democrats. Even NPR is now 87% Democrats.

Pew Research Center @pewresearch
Americans who name Fox News as their main source for political and election news overwhelmingly self-identify as Republican. Those who name MSNBC and several other outlets overwhelmingly self-identify as Democratic. pewrsr.ch/3ihQtBj
September 12th 2020
231 Retweets528 Likes

So one channel is talking almost exclusively to one group of people, while other channels are talking almost exclusively to another group of people.
As a business, the news media was headed this way long before Trump. However, we’ve now arrived at a place where the Good morning, everybody model geared toward delivering information broadly has been switched out a model that more than ever works backwards, beginning with the audience. It’s more like demographic targeting, or audience-framing, than information delivery.
When I entered the business in the nineties, I wasn’t aware of any of this.
My idea of journalism had been informed by watching my father, a TV reporter. He got an assignment and did it and didn’t think much beyond that. At the reporter level, no one from the business suite comes and tells you you have to shape your copy for an audience, to increase sales.
In fact, in the years before money got tight because of the Internet and other factors, most journalists were encouraged to believe they were above business concerns. The sales reps were often tucked away in separate offices or wings, literally out of sight of editorial staff.
Some years into my own career, however, I began to understand that media work involves constant unspoken pressure to highlight some facts over others. You learn to recognize almost more by smell than by thought what is and is not a “story,” what editors will and will not accept.
In my early years, I worked as a correspondent in Russia, and learned that editors loved stories about American culture being introduced into post-communist society, like American-advised elections or stock exchanges, or a KFC opening in Moscow:
Stories that were not as complimentary about the economic policies we’d advised Russia to pursue, for instance about Russia’s loss of public health care or free higher education, or its soaring crime and addiction rates, were not as desired.
In Manufacuring Consent, Noam Chomsky talked about how unspoken press pressures often involved patriotic political imperatives. American reporters could write about communists murdering a Catholic priest in Poland during the Cold War (a “worthy victim”), but not about U.S. client states in Central America doing the same thing (an “unworthy victim”).
As reporters we internalized those biases. In the post-objectivity era, we’ve come to internalize new ones as well.
If you work at Fox, you’re not going to do a climate change or police abuse story. You will do a story about corruption at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If you work at MSNBC, you won’t do a story about problems with NAFTA, or Barack Obama’s drone program.

This sounds obvious, but most people think this is a matter of politics. It is that in some cases, but it’s also very much about money. Once a company has established an editorial approach, and a political tone, departing from that approach will cost it audience, and lots and lots of money – billions in some cases – as well.
This creates an enormous risk of the tail wagging the dog. News companies make more money if they pick stories they know will get you upset, and avoid the ones that are confusing to you. They will make sure they wind you up as much as they can not just every day, but every minute. This can be very damaging to your mental health, to say nothing of what it does to society.
The news is not a public service. First and foremost, it’s a consumer product, like cigarettes or Twinkies. And because we’ve learned that division sells, it can be bad for you, and addicting, in the same way other consumer products can be. We worry about the food we put in our bellies, the air we breathe into our lungs. It’s time to worry about what we put in our brains as well.