One million monkeys: A loss of faith in traditional media was inevitable. But what has replaced it? | The Monthly

A loss of faith in traditional media was inevitable. But what has replaced it?


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

August 23, 2018

One million monkeys

By Richard Cooke
A loss of faith in traditional media was inevitable. But what has replaced it?

Unity is a sign of weakness as often as it is of strength. Football teams form huddles, but so do the recently traumatised. So it was when almost 350 newspapers across America editorialised against the president’s attacks on the press, and in favour of the First Amendment. It was a singular event, but not one that seemed to leave much of an impression, even among the media itself. Some expressed surprise that there were 350 newspapers still up and running, let alone ready to fight.

The traditional media hasn’t presented such a unified front since November, 2016, and then their target was much the same – in favour of norms, and against Donald J. Trump. The result was similarly impotent. By one count, a mere 26 newspapers endorsed Trump as a candidate (and only two with circulations greater than 100,000). Meanwhile, more than 380 editorial boards recommended Clinton, many breaking long traditions of supporting the Republican Party, or of remaining unaligned. Between them, The Arizona Republic, The Detroit News, The Dallas Morning News and The Columbus Dispatch had backed GOP candidates for a combined total of 444 years. They ended this half-millennium of loyalty by not endorsing Trump, but Arizona, Michigan, Texas and Ohio all voted for him anyway.

Journalists (privately) and political scientists (publicly) never had much faith in the impact of newspaper endorsements. No other natural experiment has demonstrated this so starkly, though, and the traditional media finds itself in a bind: it must argue for its ongoing relevance, but with a voice of diminishing influence. Not surprisingly, the result is a panic that extends to the rest of the publishing world as well. It’s common to hear statements from interested parties that books, the news media, libraries etc., are more important than they have ever been. But anyone who’s not fooling themselves must look at the internet and admit that these are less important than they have ever been, at least as means of disseminating information. The importance harked after is really authority, and that’s not coming back any time soon.

When the legacy media’s points of failure are itemised, it’s usually the business model that’s implicated. In the olden days, an audience needed information, newspapers provided it; advertisers needed an audience, newspapers provided it. The internet gave this audience access to information immediately and for free, then let advertisers reach audiences with similar ease, and newspapers were in trouble. The coincidence of wants that had led to their rise was over. You know the story.

But it is not the whole story, and the business model is not so irretrievably broken after all (at least for the time being). Those classifieds haven’t come back, but major news institutions are rehiring journalists, funded by digital advertising and money from readers, which readers dispense more like a sponsorship than a subscription. Costs have also been reduced. Walmart ads no longer “pays for the Baghdad bureau”, because there isn’t one.

Many media organisations have survived intact, but trust in them is at a record low. Perhaps because journalists like talking about themselves, the role and experience of readers during this transition have been less examined. It was obvious long before the internet that technology would democratise the means of media production. As early as 1979, JG Ballard realised that the man of the future would “have all the resources of a modern TV studio at his fingertips, coupled with data processing devices of incredible sophistication and power”. Once the product of this “studio” could also be broadcast, a hopeful faith developed that citizen journalists could step into the breach as their professional counterparts faltered. In theory, the more rudimentary forms of “round” journalism, like reporting on courts or council meetings, could be done from the public gallery, by the public.

But Ballard also guessed that self-broadcast would not be in the service of the public interest. It would instead be about personal realisation, and personal fantasy. Most people aren’t interested in courts or council meetings, and these semi-specialised, often dull, and rarely read forms of writing disappeared more often than they were replaced. Few people dreamed about recording larceny proceedings in shorthand, and the novelty of intimate interaction with the media tapered off quickly. In 2017, CNN abandoned its iReport experiment in audience story-sourcing, and the last assignment (posted in 2016) sounded the defeat: “Share your photos of space and the stars”. Groundbreaking. The citizen-journalists had become citizen photojournalists, useless for everything but moongazing, and the best had headed to Instagram anyway, to take photos not for CNN but for themselves.

In what should have been recognised as an ominous sign, the most successful iReports weren’t reporting at all, but individual reflections performed to camera: a 10-year-old boy describing life with autism; a shooting survivor’s personal essay. In competition terms, legacy media’s true weaknesses lay not in news, but in editorial (a phenomenon still unreckoned with – the phrase “citizen opinion journalism” returns only three hits on Google). In newspapers, it was recognised that readers wanted to discuss the news as well as read it, so there were letters pages. They wanted proxies appointed to discuss it for them too, so there were columnists and editorial writers. These bits were important enough to sit at the centre of the newspaper. They represented a keystone, almost a logic, that held the news together.

The internet destroyed that logic, but not instantly. You often hear people indulge in prophylactic nostalgia about the “smell of books”, as though they inhale novels instead of reading them. This doesn’t work for newspapers, perhaps because they are less aesthetically pleasing (The Atlantic had a shot at valorising “nostalgia for ink on paper and the rustle of pages”, not exactly Proustian). There is, though, an element of material command missing from newspapers-on-the-internet. In the past, only the most dedicated and wealthy anti-establishment types, Lyndon LaRouche, say, or the Reverend Moon, could furnish and supply whole newspapers that looked like the real deal. But today, when a civilian posts on social media, and a legacy media organisation posts on social media, the posts look largely the same.

The internet turned readers not just into writers, but into publishers as well, and this textual inflation would have diminished the importance of news – and especially individual editorials and opinion pieces – all by itself. But social media created other ulcers, some self-inflicted. When Twitter was fresh, interacting with celebrities produced an astonishment that’s laughable in retrospect. I remember marvelling at talking to Ashton Kutcher (of all people), with the same kind of yokellish awe that early radio audiences must have had. It felt promising and humane, and turned out to be all too human. Journalists have always been despised, but once exuded some conscientiousness (an illusion often created after the fact by subeditors, the first people dispensed with). Social media showed them to be often bumbling, not very intelligent, and, worst of all, on a personal journey.

Reporters broadcast their personal views and their stories from the same accounts, and, especially in the early days of Twitter, combined these with something like a diary of mundane activities. This made a lucky few look more human and charismatic, but in aggregate, the media were amateurising themselves, and showing their often sketchy workings.

At the same time, many legacy organisations made a “pivot to video”, as YouTube ate at their audiences. The result was untrained and often uninterested media personnel, broadcasting to an ambivalent readership that had suddenly turned into a de facto viewership. It look like an afterthought because it was – no television station would put out a newspaper on a whim like this – and the outcome was something like a professionally branded equivalent of community television. Hobbyists decided they could do better, and they were right.

The golden age of media was error-prone, but the errors were well hidden. No longer. The physicist Murray Gell-Mann described reading articles on topics he knew well, and realising the journalist’s reasoning was not only wrong, but backwards. The Gell-Mann amnesia effect, named after the physicist, described the experience of reading one of these “wet streets cause rain” stories, then turning the page and somehow forgetting how it undermines the authority of the rest of the publication. It has been summarised as “I believe everything the media tells me except for anything for which I have direct personal knowledge, which they always get wrong.”

This amnesia cannot survive in the social media era. As traditional media tried to hang on to its relevance, it turned to haste and urgency, a pace that induced stumbles. Audience-seeking headlines cried wolf. The term “clickbait” emerged to describe a reader experience that is inherently disappointing, a bait-and-switch where headlines take on the beseeching tone of informercials, and lose their cachet accordingly. Dedicated critics point these mistakes out, and broadcast them to an audience of their own. Just because they are doing this in bad faith does not stop them making good points.

Ironically, many readers now share a sense of romance that reporters once relied on: that they are plucky underdogs, combining nous and chance to take down shadowy institutions against the odds. But the shadowy institutions are the legacy media themselves. The legacy media are unsure how to bring back the light, but there are no choices left except accountability and transparency. Pollyanna predictions about the democratising effects of the internet were wrong – the Arab Spring turned to the Arab Winter – but at least in America, a modicum of faith in the media has been restored in the last year. That glimmer will need to grow.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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