This is, by all measures, a frightening time for American journalism. The press has a legitimate reason to fear a Trump presidency. Trump has expressed disdain for reporters, has called them “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” He has talked about “opening up” libel laws and going after news outlets that report negatively about him. He’s chosen Peter Thiel, infamous for his role in bankrupting the news blog Gawker, as an adviser. His pick for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, refused, in his confirmation hearing, to take a position on whether or not he would jail journalists who publish leaked government information. This is clearly an urgent and frightening time for the nation’s press.
That urgency, however, shouldn’t be a new story. One wonders, for instance, how much better journalists would have fared under a Hillary Clinton presidency? If her campaign behavior, and the precedents of the Obama administration are any guide, then the answer is “not much.” Trump is bombastic, certainly, and up-front in his disdain for the press. And it’s that openness that has finally brought the conversation about press freedom to the fore. But journalists have been fighting a shadow war with the Executive for far longer than one election cycle.
In fact, what is most disappointing about the current tenor of anxiety and fearfulness coming from the media is that it has arrived so late. And so it looks to the average media consumer more like partisan hand-wringing than the legitimate cry for constitutional protections. That is the first tool in the Trump administration’s handbook—dismissing all criticism as Democratic sabotage. And why shouldn’t he? The national press almost universally predicted he would lose the election, and were shown in November to be comically out of step with reality. The press laughed at Trump during the campaign, harping continually on his most ridiculous statements, and utterly fell down on their job of vetting him as a candidate who had a 50/50 shot of winning the Presidency. The bulk of the national media was openly rooting for Trump’s Democratic opponent in the election, and, again, were consistently reluctant to challenge his Democratic predecessor. The press gave Trump a cover for dismissing as partisan even their most valid criticisms, and his supporters, (who were vilified, when they weren’t ignored, by the 2016 press coverage,) are all too happy to dismiss them too.
But then, criticizing the media at this point does feel a bit like kicking a man when he’s already down. The “institution” of the national press is in tatters. The industry has been in financial dire straits for years now and we are seeing those effects play out in the quality of our journalism. Just look at this laundry list of depressing statistics describing the state of print journalism as of the end of 2015:
“Weekday circulation fell 7% and Sunday circulation fell 4%, both showing their greatest declines since 2010. At the same time, advertising revenue experienced its greatest drop since 2009, falling nearly 8% from 2014 to 2015. Fully one-fourth of advertising revenue now comes from digital advertising, but not because of growth in that area: Digital advertising revenue fell 2% in 2015. It’s just that non-digital advertising revenue fell more, dropping 10% in 2015. In 2014, the latest year for which data were available, newsroom employment also declined 10%, more than in any other year since 2009. The newspaper workforce has shrunk by about 20,000 positions, or 39%, in the last 20 years.”
Print media is on life support, but the movement to digital media hasn’t served news organizations well either. When the News industry shifted its focus to online readership, it embraced a business model that was doomed to destroy “journalism” as we knew it. We all know how that business model works. On the Internet, everything is Free–except that it isn’t. You pay for content with your eyes. The consumer accepts that he or she will see a certain number of ads on any given webpage in exchange for the information the webpage provides. This Business Model rests on two assumptions: (1) That a great number of people will see the ads, and (2) that those people will, in turn, give their business to the company advertised.
But, logically, only a small percentage of the people who visit a website will be swayed by the advertising they see. And even tinier percentage will take the extra step of clicking on the ads themselves. So it’s a game of numbers. The website requires a large number of people to visit in order for those small percentages to impress their advertisers.
Circulation and viewership aren’t new priorities, of course, for the News media. But, before the internet, it was considerably more difficult to measure how many people saw each particular story, or how they responded to it. Now, a website can post 15 different stories and see not only how many individuals clicked on each one, but whether they proceeded to post that story on Facebook, or Tweeted it to their followers. They can count how many comments each story netted on each platform, how many “likes” or “shares” each received. Armed with that information, writing the news becomes a statistical science. Articles were written with the express purpose of drawing the eye—showmanship, not analysis. “Bread and Circuses” without the bread. This is how we created “clickbait” and “Fake News.”
As people spend less time on news media homepages, favoring their Facebook or Twitter feeds, and as the desperate chaos of noisy, intrusive ads turn more consumers to ad-blockers, the market for online advertising will certainly collapse. When that happens, we will likely witness the death of scores of news media sites. And it is the behavior of the press NOW that will determine how motivated news consumers will be to intercede for the survival of their Fourth Estate.
Public trust in the News Media is at record lows, which should come as no surprise. While some outlets may still consider themselves paragons of impartiality and integrity, the public perception of “the Media” now is that of a spectrum of bias, from which the viewer may chose his preferred outlets and despise the rest. A news source that confirms the reader’s own feelings is deemed fair and honest, until it publishes something uncomfortable. Then it is a shill for the opposing team. And there will always be some media to tell you you’re right, and soothe your discomfort. After all, when you’re presented with 35 flavors of Ice Cream, who will actively seek out Spinach?
Both were. The definition of a “fair” news source became “one that agrees with what I already believe” only after such news sources became plentifully available. That was a collective failure on the part of our society. One that would seem to be irreversible, as the current trend is to greater, and not lesser, partisan pandering. And so the “Media,” combined as it is of disparate warring ideologies, was certainly biased against both Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump, and also biased in their favor. When everyone has taken a side, who can be trusted for honest reporting? Every outlet was too busy chasing Facebook “shares.” The only side to which few, if any, national media maintained allegiance was that of serious, unflinching honesty. And, of that, we should all be ashamed.
Before I get too far on my high horse, it needs reminding that there are no, were never any, “impartial” journalists. We are all humans, with our own opinions, and those opinions will certainly alter the journalism we produce, consciously or unconsciously. And that was true even before the advent of Talk Radio and Cable News. The goal of the Media shouldn’t be to hire only those journalists too ill-informed to hold any opinions whatsoever. The goal should be a newsroom that is diverse in color, creed, background, income level, and political philosophy. It should be a renewed reliance on editors, who can monitor articles for slanted perspectives. And, first and foremost, the goal should be to realign those unswerving allegiances away from party politics and onto principles—Transparency, Honesty, Constitutionality–which should not alter with the party in power.
Any newsroom with a steadfast belief in government transparency should have been screaming bloody murder throughout the Obama administration. But, while you can find hundreds of one-off articles documenting the damage done to press freedoms under that administration, those facts are never brought up by the pundits, never included in general political pieces about the former president’s “legacy,” and certainly never mentioned amidst the new alarm over Trump. Ironically, you could find far more principled, critical coverage of the Obama administration over the past eight years from decidedly left-wing sources, like Salon or Mother Jones or the Nation, than you could in any Left-Center or Center-aligned publications. And, even in those leftist sources, the din of criticism silenced to a whisper in election years.
But we’re back to a Republican president, and, since most Washington and New York-based reporters lean Democratic, we’re likely to see a great deal more oppositional news stories in the coming months and years. That’s good news. Those journalists are doing important work, necessary work, given that the current administration is openly waging war against the Press and its constitutional protections. It’s too bad that those news organizations just spent an entire election cycle shattering their reputation with the public, a weakness which Trump is all to happy to exploit. The work of rebuilding that reputation will be difficult, if not impossible, with large segments of the public. But they still have a responsibility to do their jobs, exposing and explaining the inner workings of the government. We need journalism now, more than ever.
Let’s just hope the people will listen.
Tonya Stiles is the Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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