I blame Rupert and Fox. They brought yellow journalism back to the U.S. in spades and the "news" hasn't been the same ever since. The media game changed radically and rapidly and even those with the best of intentions had to adapt and adjust or go under. It's a painful race to the bottom of the barrel and a constant struggle to create more useless content to toss into the vacuous vortex. Everyone's obliged to feed the beast. Repurposing and spinning other people's content to keep up is what has been called "churnalism" and it's rampant.
And, if you can't make it, then feel free to fake it. Just this week, a former Fox news analyst claimed that Fox News hosts regularly say things they know to be untrue just for the sake of ratings and notoriety.
Facebook execs, including Mark Zuckerberg, can't figure out why they should bar the Holocaust deniers and the other made-up conspiracy scumbags from their site (and not just the newsfeed) when 99% of their users think the answer is obvious. But then, Zuck isn't about raising the bar-- he's all about the bucks and he sucks. But the saddest part of the FB story is his constant claim that Facebook isn't a media business, which makes its living selling small slices of your attention to advertisers. He says it's just a platform that happens to bring the "news" to billions of people every day. Give me a break, Zuck, and get real.
There was a time not too long ago when there was only one inviolate rule in journalism - the absolute separation between news and opinion. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts" was the way Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it, in 1989. If you, as a journalist, followed that simple rule, you could smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish, as long as you made deadline. If your writing style was breathless (as opposed to timeless) and halfway between cheesy and choppy, well that's what editors were for. And, in your haste to beat out your buddies, you could even occasionally get your facts a little messed up.
Of course, getting the facts straight was nowhere near as hard as it is today where the process is equal parts sloppy and intentionally skewed. Getting it right takes a daily and distant backseat to getting it out first and fastest. And, what's even worse, in a social media-centric version of Gresham's Law, fake news today tends to blot out and smother any semblance of legitimate, measured and meticulous reporting. Some 75% of the American public say they can't tell the difference between real news and the fake stuff and more than 50% no longer read or watch any mainstream media. In a democracy, without a common ground and some shared basic facts, it's impossible to have any kind of useful dialogue or discussion. And when the majority tunes out entirely, you're stuck with everyone settling for their own version of their "truth".
It's pretty sad that no one trusts the media any more, but the players don't have to lend its own helping hand to this sleazy slide into the cesspool. Reporters used to pride themselves above all on their independence, their neutrality and their objectivity. The television detective Joe Friday of Dragnet wasn't the only one focused on "just the facts, Ma'am." Writers weren't supposed to inject themselves and their theories, opinions and prejudices into their stories -- that's what editorials were for. The suits sitting in the comfy suites upstairs would write their endless editorials intending to educate and edify us in so many important ways. But the guys and girls running around the city sourcing the stories just told their stories the best and most accurate way they knew how. Short, sweet and to the point. Today's digital media is quite short, but it's rarely sweet, and almost always pointless.
I'm not exactly sure when it started or what caused reporters to think that they were now mind readers and oracles, but practically every news story you read is full of reporters' snide asides, unwarranted observations and gratuitous jabs at somebody. The examples are legion, but it's not worth the time or space to list them. We read that this politician is "trying desperately to shed a certain label" or that another is only supporting certain legislative positions in order to "to position himself for higher office." Or the pieces are stuffed with fake facts, suspect statistics or phony factoids that fit the prejudices and predispositions of the writers.
The media's methods, motives and messages are all under constant attack for increasingly good reasons, but the really sad news is that it's the public's trust in just about anything that's been the most obvious and immediate victim of this wholesale rush to sensation, celebrity and notoriety. Most current surveys rank media just below politicians and used car salesmen and just a drop above pond scum.
We were also always told that there was an ironclad "Chinese wall" between the guys and girls running around the city sourcing the stories and the people selling ads and space. A sacrosanct separation between reportage and revenues - where craven cashflow considerations never seeped subtly into the deliberations or influenced the sometimes-delicate decisions about when and what the papers would be writing. It feels like the drama and hard calls made around the publication of the Pentagon Papers may have been the industry's high-water mark and that it's been all downhill since then. And, needless to say, back then, misleading and mendacious headlines weren't written with half an eye toward collecting clicks and aggregating eyeballs rather than highlighting critical content.
It's always important to highlight your material and it's still called the newspaper business because you've got to sell news, papers and advertising, and no one doubts that a great headline is still something to be valued and appreciated as it helps to launch the day's papers and websites into the hands of readers. But it never felt quite as slimy and sneaky (and cheap) as it does today-- when it's all about SEOs trying to capture anyone and everyone's attention at any cost, hijacking someone's else's triumphs or tragedies, and driving people from site to site like rats in a maze. Our cellphones may be irradiating our earlobes, but the glut and pace of digital media is turning our brains to mush.
There's no happy ending in sight for these problems. And no easy answers either. It's clear that the media can't fix itself since it's totally hooked on hype, desperate for cash, and constantly competing for clicks. And sadly, none of us has the guts to go cold turkey and try to turn all this noise off because FOMO is almost as prevalent a disease these days as any other form of addiction. So, what can we do in our own businesses to help stem the tide?
Three suggestions. First, focus on what you can control and/or fix. Don't make things worse and don't contribute to the crap. Make it about providing good information for smart decision-making rather than slick selling. Second, when you reach out to customers and clients, say exactly what you mean to do and then do exactly what you said you would. Living well may be the best revenge but living up to your promises and delivering the goods is what makes for lifelong connections and a great business. And finally, make something every day that you can be proud of. Something you can stand by and for, that makes a difference, and that sometime soon, you can point out to your kids and say, "I made this".
Anyone who thinks that the misguided mopes who are writing clever copy, snarky headlines, and "news that no one needs" feel good about themselves or what they're doing is kidding themselves. They may be cynical, but even they aren't that stupid. They know they're just adding trash to the pile. But what they may not know is that when you do something every day that you don't believe in, it takes a little bit of your soul away and a sad soul can kill you quicker than any infection.