“It’s the meeeeeeee-dia’s fault.”
Back in the 1990s, Chris Rock had a famous-albeit-controversial bit. It dealt with negative stereotypes in the black community, and those who sought to lay the sole blame for them at the feet of the media. He lambasted that view, claiming he wasn’t worried about Ted Koppel when he was at an ATM at night. t goes on from there.
Rock’s refrain — blame the meeeeeeeeeee-dia — can be heard today. Some commentators accuse the media of not doggedly dogging Gov. Paul LePage enough. President Donald Trump has created a neologism — “fake news” — questioning the objectivity of the fourth estate. And the American public’s faith in traditional news outlets continues to flirt with all-time lows.
But, in the same way Ted Koppel wasn’t Chris Rock’s nighttime fear, not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the media.
For most of American history, some amount of capital was necessary for the distribution of information. Printing presses, ink, and paper weren’t free; they required individuals or groups to put their money where their metaphorical mouth was. Later years saw the advent of Federal Communications Commission licenses and broadcasting equipment, both significant costs.
When the supply of information was more limited, prices increased. This meant those large news agencies could charge for access to their information, which begat profit, which paid for employees to acquire information worth purchasing. That lead to a descent into yellow journalism between publishers fighting for the most salacious news.
That same path has been worn today. If you have some form of electricity and a means to access the internet, you can style yourself a journalist or access information compiled by others. The more salacious, the more clicks, the more ad revenue, the more money. Accuracy is simply a happy accident.
As technology continues to democratize means of communication, the greater the challenge faced by the older, capital-intensive outlets who had a profit incentive to report relevant, informative information worth buying. That isn’t the media’s fault; it is simple reality.
However, that does not absolve the media from blame. The revolving door between news outlets and political positions gives credence to the idea of bias. Former reporters turn up in the employ of politicians, offering sharp, partisan soundbites to their old colleagues.
The reality is the idea of an “objective” media is ephemeral. Everything from word choice to the choice of topic is informed by the outlook, principles, and experience of the news organization and reporter. Owning up to those biases inherent in simple humanity shows a way forward. Fox News and MSNBC are examples of television outlets who do not shy away from their ideological perspective, but they are not alone in that approach.
After years of decline, two American news institutions are seeing growth: The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. You can probably guess without much effort the sides of the ideological spectrum they each lean towards. In several ways, they are unabashed in their viewpoint; you know the vantage they view the story from and readers can apply the level of skepticism they deem appropriate.
That may be a model from our past which holds promise for the future. The papers of the 1800s followed their parties; you were not going to read nice words about John Adams in a paper published by Thomas Jefferson’s supporters. Today, we know the Wall Street Journal is going to offer a center-right perspective and they are gaining readership doing it.
So, instead of blaming the media for the issue du jour, let’s give them license to regain their humanity and disclose their perspectives. “Objectivity” is not possible. We needn’t decry outlets for not doing whatever we subjectively deem “enough” against our political opponents. Instead, we can accept them for their inherent, human biases and apply the appropriate level of skepticism to their reporting.
Or we can just wait for Ted Koppel to sneak up behind us at the ATM.