The Post-Objectivity Era
Summary of "Hate Inc: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another"
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 be 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, several major changes altered the business forever:
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This really was an excellent piece. I think the problem is more aggressively exacerbated by two facts: 1) both parties facilitate the interests of the oligarchy by different means, but at different points in history, for whatever reason, one party does so more effectively (and it goes in cycles) and 2) the eradication of the middle class and the associated economic problems enhances the polarization, and by extension, determines allegiances to particular media outlets and perspectives much more aggressively.
Regarding the first point, there is no longer a meaningful political party dedicated to working people, and both parties are contributing to the annihilation of meaningful economic opportunities for the working class. Generally speaking, the Democrats support globalization, immigration, and the growth of a captured regulatory state that has annihilated the value of labor throughout the country, and Republicans support taxing economic rents less than income derived by work and ridiculous and expensive foreign boondoggles (at least until Trump).
However, for whatever reason, the mantle of who is going to hammer the middle harder switches every decade or so. For example, there’s no question in my mind that George Bush’s Republican Party of 2000-2008 was the far greater evil of the two parties at that time. The Iraq War, bailouts for the super rich, etc did more meaningful harm to working people than the Democratic alternatives of the day (even though they also would have served the interests of the oligarchy if they came to power, but I can’t imagine Al Gore, John Kerry or Obama (first term) wrecking things as badly).
In contrast, today, the Democratic Party is more dangerous because what is really crippling the country is the diminished value of labor, and education isn’t the answer. There is no way for you to specialize out of the problem when everything is open to insourcing and outsourcing, and there are only so many jobs in finance and consulting. Obviously, the Republican tax policy is absurd, especially in light of the recent bailouts, but what are increased taxes going to do if Bezos is the only employer (exaggerating obviously, but you get the point). The tax dollars are going to fund a larger bureaucracy staffed by people that want to eventually work for the entities they regulate, and by extension, assist in the gutter concentration of wealth and power?
Of course, a cynical view is that there is no longer any meaningful choice and the two parties are just one apparatus, with puppet masters pulling the strings. (People laugh at conspiracy theorists, but the older I get, the more plausible this theory becomes). Nevertheless, even if this is true, even if there is no real substantive difference, when the population votes for the guy or gal at least paying lip service to their concerns at a particular time, it at least serves as a vehicle of expressing frustration or protest.
The cyclical nature of when the population feels the pain of the poor decisions of one of the two parties likely determines permanent allegiances. If you watched Sean Hannity lie through his teeth about the Iraq War and you experienced the financial devastation associated with (or at least catalyzed by) the Iraq War, you are likely going to be MSNBC for life. In contrast, if during the Obama years you began to really feel the accelerated impact of globalization and immigration on the labor market, whether you are an engineer for an American tech company or a blue collar worker, and the Democrats call you a racist because you are voicing a legitimate economic concern, well now you are a Tucker Carlson guy, and aren’t going to be interested in what MSNBC has to say.
This leads into my second point that the economic condition is leading to the polarization because both sides are contributing to it, but people feel differently depending on where they are on the economic ladder. Democratic trade and labor policy and Republican tax policy have jointly resulted in the end of opportunity in this country, and depending on which team you owe your allegiance to (which is largely determined by where you got hit big in the cycle) is going to result on what information exclusively reenforces your view on why the country is in the toilet. If you listen to MSNBC, you will focus on Republican tax policy. If you listen to Tucker Carlson, you’ll likely focus on trade and labor policy.
A penultimate point, I may be getting conned on my end or it may be where my bias falls because of how the cycle impacted me, but I feel as if there is genuine populist reform on the right and nothing of the sort on the left. Tucker Carlson has repeatedly stated it’s absurd that billionaires pay less taxes than working people, and there was even a spat between him and Hannity on the point (with Hannity having to back down on social media). He did a ten minute segment on how Republicans should primary seven Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham, because they support H1B1 visas as the pandemic rages on and workers are having a difficult time finding work as it stands. I see no acknowledgement of any kind by prominent leftist media people about these problems. If you are against illegal immigration or globalization, you are a racist. Period and end of story. There are people on the left in the media that discuss these issues with great nuance, but nothing in the main stream.
Finally, economic issues are more important than anything else in keeping a society united. The polarization of media tastes and the surrounding economic model related therewith is a symptom, not the disease. The elites of both parties made a really, really bad bet. They bet that globalization would force societies like China to become more open and democratic, but the opposite happened. Why? Because no one gives a shit about freedom, people care about prosperity. This is why China is unified and growing, and as the country grows stronger, it is imposing more draconian political repression. No one wants to come to the United States because of “freedom,” all peoples of different races, creeds and religions want (or wanted) to come here because this was the land of opportunity and it’s still running on that reputation (whether it still is, is another matter). As the economic conditions worsen, so will the polarization.
The TV paradigm provided us with a canon that offered us a relatively balanced structure comprised of four non-submersible narrative voices: Ads, News, Arts Entertainment and Sports. Thus, we could inject any subject into that structure and be assured of a diverse perspective. For example, steroids:
Ads - you should buy steroids
News - This is what Steroids are, these are the pros and cons of steroids, here is a study.
Sports - Don't do steroids
Arts Entertainment - Here is a story about some guy who gets 'roid rage and punches people
When the Internet arrived, it dissolved those boundaries and raised television up to the status of being an art form for the first time in its history (with all the accompanying wide-screens, high definition and mega-films). Marshall McLuhan would have noted here that TV had suddenly evolved from being a low definition or "cool" medium into a HD "hot" medium. A hot medium is home to despots and shouters, so where Joe McCrathy quickly burnt out on TV in the 1960's, he would be very much at home with the Hitler types on todays television.
As a consequence, we can no longer use the TV canon or structure and hope to find any perspective. It's all theatre now. Adsportsnewsartsentertainment. The sports is ads and news, News anchors are entertainers and comedians are doing the news. And it's all riddled with the copywriters from Madison Avenue.
The WWF of the early 1980's was a herald of the future. This is Hulk Hogan's world now - just ask Peter Thiel.