“The media” is our favorite whipping boy. It’s shallow, petty and often stupid. It misses points, focuses on the wrong things, and completely ignores the bigger issues. It’s prone to obsess on trivial rivalries and scandals instead of thoughtful substantive discussions about things which affect us most.
Essentially, the media is a mirror of us.
We’re shallow, petty and often stupid. We miss points – focusing on the wrong things and completely ignoring the bigger issues. We’re prone to obsess on trivial rivalries and scandals instead of thoughtful substantive discussions about things which affect us most.
Especially in America where the vast majority of our media is profit and ratings driven – the media is programmed by us to give us what we want. Whether we like to admit it’s what we want or not (think stories about whoever is filling the role of a Kardashian or a Bieber).
“The media” isn’t some monolith in lockstep. Maybe there was a time when generalities applied. The press didn’t dish about polio-afflicted President Franklin Roosevelt’s pain. They never ran pictures of him in his wheelchair at his famed whistle stops. It could be said that there was a conspiracy by the press not to highlight the personal struggle of the president. But that was then…
Now there are over nine 24-hour news channels (the big three and their spin-offs). Plus places to watch foreign news like BBC and Al-Jazeera English all over what used to be “the dial.” With the inclusion of ousted MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann going to Al Gore owned Current TV this month – it appears there will be yet another channel for people to turn to for their news.
Then there’s the Internet: The latest figure is over 50 million blogs worldwide are being updated at a near-constant rate. Even if most of those blogs are about inane personal escapades and obscure hobbies – there still could be ten million or so blogs in the world dedicated to news. And what drives traffic to the most widely read blogs in the world? Search engine optimization (SEO) about whoever is filling the role of a Kardashian or a Bieber.
If we wanted a somber and serious Edward R. Murrow to deliver the important news of the day – we’d all tune in and the ratings would be gangbusters. But we don’t. Most media criticism comes from the assumption that we want Murrow but we get TMZ – instead of the empirical (and slightly embarrassing) fact: We want TMZ.
Like any other business, the media is driven by consumption. We choose to click on the links about baby bumps and Anthony Weiner’s namesake appendage, so more stories like those get produced. We swarm to tidbits about Sarah Palin’s feuds with public figures – and even with history itself. Most of us don’t want serious news – we want sagas of nip slips and sports scores. Editors know this, anguish over it and sometimes give in. Which is why you see major metropolitan newspapers complying with the demand of a celebrity-obsessed public – it’s an attempt to up their readership by any means necessary.
The media and the press have never been more democratized than they are now. Anyone can be a journalist. Anyone can read or start a blog. Anyone can be a part of what is known as “crowdsourcing” or what Wikileaks’ Julian Assange calls “scientific journalism.” And yet, when we talk about the media, we act like it’s something separate from us – like we, as consumers, don’t play the most vital role in “the press.”
Not all news or even popular news today is only celebrity gossip or niche partisan hackery. We even make some decent choices. NPR, the go-to example of hard-hitting comprehensive thoughtful news, has 27 million listeners each day. Their show Morning Edition reaches 13 million people daily. Contrast that with Fox News Channel, the highest rated cable news channel averages 1.75 million per show. The highest rated of the networks’ evening news programs (right now, NBC) only reaches around eight million nightly.
These ratings are ultimately our fault. Yes, there are millions of choices, and ultimately – to borrow a phrase – they report and we decide.
Carrying Eternal Vigilance Too Far