Behind the Woodshed with the Media’s Matters
America’s media will leave this presidential election cycle much diminished in stature after a discarding a proud history dating to before the American Revolution. Sadly, it collectively has no one to blame but itself.
The past 18 months have nearly severed the media’s special relationship with the American people. The Fourth Estate has become the lapdog of government rather than a watchdog for the public trust.
For a number of years, media observers have noted the slide towards self-destructive behavior of journalists. While by no means the first, Dan Rather of CBS Television marked a turning point when his 60 Minutes’ forgeries about President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service first hit the airways in September 2004.
Dan Rather — unlike many who have later emulated or exceeded his bad behavior — was fired by his employer. Unlike today, serious discussion, a retraction and an apology followed from the TV network’s boss.
Skip forward 12 years and we have scores of well-documented journalistic ethical breaches and indiscretions from which to choose as examples, committed by scores of journalists and others. Here are just a few:
The New York Times sat on the Donald Trump bus audiotape for months, choosing to release it as an October surprise after the Republican’s chose Trump as their candidate. Democratic operative turned CNN consultant Donna Brazil fed a presidential debate moderator questions to the Hillary Clinton campaign. WikiLeaks released hacked emails documenting cozy relationships and quid-pro-quo trades of leaks and information by journalists, columnists and opinion writers at CNN, CNBC, the Washington Post, and other media outlets too numerous to count. Violating journalism’s code of ethics became business as usual.
Ethical journalism in America is suffering another of its periodic low ebbs. Too few outlets with high standards exist, too many reporters and media executives are tempted to compromise their morals and the quest for money is polluting the Fourth Estate.
We should have been on guard when we noticed the proclivity of media to build up heroes only to tear them down. From Michael Phelps to Bernie Madow, the public watched with fascination the clamoring hoards of reporters chasing scandal subjects on live TV, but never noticed the move from tabloid to Main Street. With each over-the-top climax, the public asked for greater sins to be revealed, more perp walks and more public shamings.
Modern media in America more closely resembles an open-air theater of Elizabethan England in Shakespeare’s time than it does news journalism in the Edgar R. Murrow or even Walter Cronkite era. The public, standing before the media stage, is watching not actors but the town fool, looking to mock and shame him as their higher peers in balcony seats above look down and laugh at the spectacle of the lower classes.
We have built a modern media by serving a privileged elite at the cost of the general public that pays the media’s bills. Rather than stay clear of bias, today’s media embraces and clothes itself in righteous fervor for its winners while mocking, tearing down and dissecting its losers.
By carving its audience into “us” and “them” categories, the fundamental economic model of mass media corrodes, decays and ultimately becomes untenable. It is self-destruction on steroids.
One media mogul might gladly give away five percent of his audience to favor the other 95 percent, but quickly lost control of the lists of friends and enemies. Soon, newspapers, radio, television and other outlets were taunting, deceiving and publicly shaming 35%, 40% or even 50 or more percent of their potential audiences.
To what effect, were they currying favors you might well ask; certainly, to the ruin of their reputations, balance sheets and income statements. The shamed don’t advertise their products and services with media that mocks them, lies to them, caricatures them, or calls them names, and they don’t buy products from those who advertise and support their bullies and tormentors.
Would any sane businessman or woman willingly give up a third to a half or more of their customers without a fight? Media did in the past and and regularly does today.
Further, the media forced those against whom they were allied to find workarounds, new paths, and competitive alliances to reach their audiences and customers. In the end, they found avenues that made the media itself superfluous. Viewership and readership dropped as the public shifted to alternatives, and the rock beneath the very foundations of their media enterprises began to crumble.
In acts that can only be called reckless and misguided, the media’s leaders doubled down and poured vitriol on those they despised and sought every-more-grand news and stories to capture remnants of their waning audiences. Print subscriptions cancelled in a flood as viewers went off the grid to Hulu, NetFlix and AppleTV or hit skip for commercials on their DVRs.
And thus we come to the election cycle of 2016.
We are left with a wounded and diminished media, still harboring a glimmer of hope for redemption like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.
The media will emerge torn and battered after the election and will struggle on, but there’s not a shred of evidence these outlets learned the slightest lesson from the beating they inflicted upon themselves, nor will they ever restore the full faith and trust of those whom they alienated.