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Sunday, January 15, 2017
The 'News' Media as We Knew It Is Finished
I don't want to shock anyone, even those who already know there is something quite awry in the contemporary news media, but I have come to realize that it is not merely a temporary condition that will soon pass away, and that the problem cannot be simply repaired.
The news media, as we have known it in the three quarters of a century since World War II, is disappearing much faster than we realize. It might soon be extinct.
I am being very specific in speaking about the "news" media. Communications, in some older and innovative forms, will continue, but what we have understood to be "the news" will come to us in other ways, perhaps primarily as data and notifications. Advertising, promotions, storytelling,editorial writing, gossip, etc., will still find their way to the citizenry in a variety of formats, many of which we know today and some of which are being now invented.
I am talking only about "hard" news – that is, the communication of events, facts and other relatively objectifiable information.
The U.S. presidential campaign of 2016 was not a sudden news reporting phenomenon of excessive bias, but it was the apotheosis of the breakdown of journalistic fairness and credibility that had been gaining acceleration in recent years. It was inevitable that the ideological polarity so evident today was a long time coming – not only in journalism, but in virtually every aspect of U.S. political life.
During the late campaign, in order to explain the specific reasons for the voter response to the confrontation between the two major political parties and their nominees, I put forward a number of concepts, including one that set out the existence of two American English languages that employed identical vocabularies but produced different meanings for two large groups. Candidate Donald Trump, in spite of his background, did not publicly speak the establishment (and elite) version of American English, the one spoken by most educated and professionals. He spoke directly to less urban, working-class voters with fewer educational experiences. The establishment print and broadcast media spoke and understood only the former and, being provoked by Trump's speaking the latter, launched a pre-emptive media coup d'état in order to sabotage his campaign against Hillary Clinton. Ironically, in the run-up to Trump securing the nomination, the same establishment media actually helped enable Trump to win – not because they knew what he was doing (and how he was adroitly using them), but because they knew he was a box office attraction and boosted ratings.
In order to eschew fair new coverage of Mr. Trump in the last four months of the 2016 campaign, the media had to abandon even the semblance of fairness. Their problem was that the media coup was entirely in the language spoken primarily by those who already had decided to vote against Mr. Trump. The biased news coverage not only failed to change the minds of pro-Trump voters, but also backfired with most undecided voters, many of whom found the media language and bias offensive and transparent.
But confidence in media news reporting had long been in decline before Donald Trump appeared on the stage. Years of incessant political correctness had been enforced in the establishment media generally, not just in news reporting, and many Americans simply did not buy this ideological product.
Self-communicating and self-congratulatory, the establishment media had little idea of how perilous their public standing was. By overplaying their hand in the autumn of 2016, they brought the whole media credibility issue to its threshold.
The media establishment did have one major clue to their fundamental problem: falling ratings, falling circulation, falling advertising. Their response has been to interpret these phenomena as simply a problem of technology, including the rise of the internet and social media. The icons of the golden age of news reporting such as The New York Times; the Washington Post; and the major TV, cable, and radio networks are today often caricatures of news reporting. They survive only because their primary audiences are in large urban centers, where their bias coincides with their readers, listeners, and viewers. For this reason, they cannot go back to fair and balanced news reporting – because their own economic bases will not let them. Outside these urban pockets, their national credibility is gone.
Thus, after Donald Trump was elected president, the media establishment has, in many cases, doubled down on its bias, including cooperating with the Democratic Party campaign to put down Mr. Trump's appointees and his stated initiatives even before he takes office. Although I might disagree with some of the Democrats' efforts, they are their proper prerogative, and, I might add in fairness, Republicans have behaved similarly in the past against Democrat presidents. But should the news media be openly cooperating with a political party?
I also want to make clear that a laudable number of those who were vehemently opposed to Mr. Trump are now adapting to the reality of his election. That does not mean they now agree with him or support him, but they are willing to give him a chance to perform in office before criticizing him. Those who are opinion journalists will, and should, continue to be critical and skeptical. No politician or elected official of any party merits an uncritical free ride, and that includes Donald Trump.
My point is that those in the establishment news media who continue to confuse the front page with the editorial page are only hastening the long-term process in which traditional news media institutions are disappearing and being replaced.