Sunday, January 24, 2021

Bad News for America

Some parts of Martin Gurri’s City Journal analysis of the current state of American journalism are interesting. Some are dubious.

At the least, he provides a framework within which to examine the current state of the American media. More importantly, he shows what has happened to the New York Times, now making a living by publishing agitprop-- agitation propaganda.

Gurri begins with a cynical, rather leftist analysis of the newspaper business. For example:

Traditional newspapers never sold news; they sold an audience to advertisers. To a considerable degree, this commercial imperative determined the journalistic style, with its impersonal voice and pretense of objectivity. The aim was to herd the audience into a passive consumerist mass. Opinion, which divided readers, was treated like a volatile substance and fenced off from “factual” reporting.

The digital age exploded this business model. Advertisers fled to online platforms, never to return. For most newspapers, no alternative sources of revenue existed: as circulation plummets to the lowest numbers on record, more than 2,000 dailies have gone silent since the turn of the century. The survival of the rest remains an open question.

Not to be overly churlish but many newspapers did value journalistic integrity. They used advertising to pay the rent, but they did not compromise journalistic standards in order to do so. Some of the reporting was objective. Some was not. Many people would simply not have read the newspapers if they did not feel that it was providing factually accurate information. As it happens, the American news media has lost the respect of the majority of the citizenry, because everyone knows that it has become agitprop.

Among the weak points in Gurri’s argument is this-- he ignores the business press, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, for instance. As Noam Chomsky once said, at least with the business press you can trust the facts. Chomsky understood that subscribers to the business press make business decisions based, at least in part, on the information they glean from newspapers. If the Journal and the FT were lying, they would lose their subscribers. 

Obviously, social media and techno gadgets play an important role in disseminating information. And are doing their own version of agitprop. But, we should not underestimate the rank stupidity of the people who are reading today’s newspapers. And we should not overestimate the intelligence of the new generation of young news people who have been hired by these companies.

The 1619 Project is wildly ignorant of history. All competent historians denounced it as a bunch of lies and fabrications and prevarications. And yet, the project won a Pulitzer Prize and is being taught in the nation’s classrooms. 

Today’s woke millennials are woefully incompetent. They do not know how to distinguish fact from theory because they were taught that there are no such things as facts. To hear them inveigh against the Trump administration for skewing facts is pathetic.

It takes a higher level of intelligence and a more serious education to learn how to evaluate facts and to present objective reporting. The American educational system has dumbed down the citizenry. Ergo, the news media who hire its products will reflect the same mindlessness. The worst part is that the new generation of newspaper readers is as ignorant as today’s journalists.

Anyway, the Trump administration saved the New York Times. It became the locus for Trump hatred, but also for delegitimizing the Trump presidency. Now, of course, it is trying to cancel anyone who would dare question the legitimacy of the Biden presidency. They have no real sense of shame, no sense of integrity, no journalistic standards.

To add another reason, these young people have been brought up in a therapy culture that tells them to feel deeply, to wallow in their emotions and to express their feelings, openly, honestly and shamelessly. 

But, when you are just a bundle of inchoate emotions, and have no objective reference to judge the validity of said emotions, you are going to need constant affirmation that you are not completely out of your mind. Not only does the paper routinely skew the facts, it editorializes on the news pages. Thereby it allows readers to feel like they belong to an intellectual elite that holds to the right opinions and feels the right feelings. That, the New York Times has happily provided for its readers. 

Gurri calls it post-journalism, all opinion all the time. 

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Times stumbled onto a possible answer. It entailed a wrenching pivot from a journalism of fact to a “post-journalism” of opinion—a term coined, in his book of that title, by media scholar Andrey Mir. Rather than news, the paper began to sell what was, in effect, a creed, an agenda, to a congregation of like-minded souls. Post-journalism “mixes open ideological intentions with a hidden business necessity required for the media to survive,” Mir observes. The new business model required a new style of reporting. Its language aimed to commodify polarization and threat: journalists had to “scare the audience to make it donate.” At stake was survival in the digital storm.

Andrey Mir believes that the goal of post-journalism is to produce angry citizens. Obviously, this is not true. It worked long and hard to produce boundless love for Barack Obama and is doing the same for senile old Joe Biden. Rather, it is affirming membership in a cult of true believers, of people who all think the same way.

It is not novel, but it belongs to an internet culture that allows people, as Tara Isabella Burton explained in her fine book Strange Rites, to go online and to find a group of people who think exactly the same thoughts and who hold to the same beliefs. It makes people feel like they belong to a pagan cult, one that provides a sense of social solidarity in the midst of a broken country.

In Burton’s words:

For a whole generation of millennials—many of whom, in marrying and having children later, are foregoing traditional markers of rootedness—the Internet provides highly specialized alternative communities, allowing people to find friends or partners who aren’t merely like-minded, but almost identically minded. It disincentivizes compromise and conformity, even as it promises the bespoke ideal: people who think and feel and act just like you.

As for the Times, it went beyond the call of duty to produce thousands of articles about Trump and Russian collusion. A newspaper that had a sense of shame would have fired the editorial staff. The Times just moved on to the impeachment narrative and the anti-racism narrative.

The total number of articles on the topic [of Russian collusion] produced by the Times is difficult to measure, but a Google search suggests that it was more than 3,000—the equivalent, if accurate, of multiple articles per day for the period in question. This was journalism as if conducted under the impulse of an obsessive-compulsive personality. Virtually every report either implied or proclaimed culpability. Every day in the news marked the beginning of the Trumpian End Times.

Unfortunately, it was good for business.

Yet what looked like journalistic failure was, in fact, an astonishing post-journalistic success. The intent of post-journalism was never to represent reality or inform the public but to arouse enough political fervor in readers that they wished to enter the paywall in support of the cause. This was ideology by the numbers—and the numbers were striking. Digital subscriptions to the New York Times, which had been stagnant, nearly doubled in the first year of Trump’s presidency. By August 2020, the paper had 6 million digital subscribers—six times the number on Election Day 2016 and the most in the world for any newspaper. The Russian collusion story, though refuted objectively, had been validated subjectively, by the growth in the congregation of the paying faithful.

Consider the last phrase-- the congregation of the paying faithful. The new media has been producing true religious believers and cult followers. It is not good news for America.


Sam L. said...

I despise, detest, and totally distrust the NYT and the WaPoo. They are the "establishment press" (the "IN with the IN Crowd" press/media). As I keep saying, I don't know if the media is/are a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Dem Party, or if it's the other way round, but it is OBVIOUS that they are in CAHOOTS.

The NYT and NYC, as I see it, is a cult, that incorporates the Dem Party into itselves. Rather like the group that was waiting in the desert for the flying saucers to pick them up and take them to paradise, except they believe they are already in "paradise", poor deluded fools they are.

Uncle Max said...

Good analysis. I find the rationale of why folks stopped reading newspapers revealing... as something that was taught as canon to a student instead of someone of age old enough to remember reading papers and seeing their demise. It wasn't the internet and the jump to digital ads. It was the steady decline in " news " without alternative. The 80's and 90's consolidation boom in big papers, the steady used of AP stories with a local paragraph added on. The lack of local content and even-handed news that really, IMO, went bonkers in the Clinton years.

Then , same time, internet forums , pages , gave folks places to go. There was no revenue for digital ads back then, but folks canceled newspapers as they found online places to read. It took another 10 years for the s to hit the ad fan with car dealers and big stores realizing they didn't need to buy big Sunday edition ads anymore. That with craigslist and others killing off the want-ads, the revenue for papers was done.

The game the young journalists think is canon is, get clicks, follow the herd, repeat the narrative of the correct folks and get noticed/clicks. The hive mind is crazy. It's all narrative now. The worst thing that happened to newspapers was Watergate and the idea that journalism was no longer a blue-collar job, but a professional class one, requiring credentials and college.

Sam L. said...

Angry citizen here! Angry, because the "media" is/are lying to us.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn’t discount the influence of the accelerated ‘news cycle’ itself. With the rise of ‘cell phone’ reporters with a handful of followers who can make an ‘engaging’ story turn viral in short order; Objective, Measured, and Considered reporting flew out the window to be replaced with a ‘scoop’ mentality. “facts & objectivity be damned, we need to report the ‘story du jour’ before anyone else can assert their version and control the narrative surrounding the events of said story”!