Big Smoke

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The Achilles Heel of the Free Press

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A quick and dirty guide to propagandizing in America, in three steps:

Step 1: The Craven

Unlike a number of other countries, our news media is entirely composed of private for-profit enterprises, which is why historically the city with the most newspapers – New York – is the one that invented what we call “yellow journalism” in the name of business competition and was a strong example of “tabloid journalism:” Fact-neutral sensationalism crafted specifically to entice readers, not necessarily impart information, so as to maximize newspaper sales, subscriptions and ad revenue. The name of the game was profit margins, as evinced in the very terms themselves: ‘Yellow’ because the cheap paper the news was printed on was yellow and ‘tabloid’ because the newpapers themselves were smaller with condensed print; both cost-saving adjustments incidental to the pejorative definitions they picked up.

In the enterprises on this front – in which the New York market exemplified but other markets also followed – competition required and requires slavish adherence to two principles:

a) The need to scoop stories the fastest, which puts pressure on fact-checking.

b) Embellishment and hyperbole just a hair’s breath short of the legal definition of libel.

There is a third principle, not strictly necessary but can be helpful, which is that of partaking in an overt political stance, where a paper can generate a market niche by catering to a constituency that no other paper caters to. This is not to say that such a political stance is necessarily ideological on the part of the paper’s publisher – quite the opposite; it is often-times business decision, a mercenary undertaking that can and has been shifted as markets themselves have – but it also has a bearing on how the news can be colored if not compromised.

While journalistic standards have since been codified – after all, the publisher Joseph Pulitzer who owned the New York World, a scion of sensationalist pablum, also established an award for integrity in reporting – if not universally enforced, the profit motive has never gone away, and we see it in varying degrees in just about every paper still in print, which means journalistic integrity has, is, and will always take second priority to financial profit.

By comparison the market for national television news was somewhat less competitive, being more of a cabal between the Big Three – NBC, CBS and ABC and their local affiliates – but it was Ted Turner in Atlanta that revolutionized the market and the manner in which television news was shown through the creation of the CNN, whose innovation was that of the 24-hour News Cycle. That cycle, unlike morning and evening papers or the evening television news, didn’t change reporting – because fact-finding can only happen but so fast – but it did change how the information was disseminated. Emphasis was given to two sectors, which are quite similar to the original principles, and indeed similarly non-conducive to journalistic standards:

a) The excruciatingly short deadline to be the first to report on a piece of news.

b) The need to fill all 24 hours with stuff that will glue people to seats.

The former has obvious effects on fact-checking – there is no incentive at all to fact-check, as it doesn’t matter how wrong a story is if it is incredibly popular and thus promotes ad revenue; it can always be “corrected” later on – but the latter only magnified the need for sensationalism. The network created shows like Crossfire and the Situation Room, in which any and all issues are depicted as “controversial,” with two opposing viewpoints, with equal treatment of pundits on each side of the issues discussed. This can be gamed, which is exactly what CNN’s progeny and main competitors Fox News and MSNBC did, which brings us to the second step.

Step 2: The Stupid

In cases of issues in which natural controversy cannot adequately fill the time – because there is already an expert consensus for one stance that cannot be answered by the opposition – the controversy must then be manufactured. The easiest and cheapest solution is to undermine expert opinion by literally giving time to opposing arguments, no matter how banal or insipid, and thus “even the playing field” by presenting conclusive scientific, sociological, legal or political analysis as unproven, if but for the sake of continuing the debate and thus granting a reason to keep watching.

This is lucrative so long as the opposing view has a market; ie: an audience. They will tune in to see their worldview defended, as political stances can indeed be sold – though in this case the media enterprise attempts to butter its bread on both sides by presenting both sides.

This of course has the adverse effect of undermining facts themselves, as by definition in this format they cannot end a debate with a clear victor, for that would cause one half of the audience to stop watching (and, arguably, the other half as well for after the controversy is concluded there is no ‘news’ to watch). Indeed, nothing can end the debate, because the debate itself is profitable for the private media organization: In fact, the more extreme the stance, the more emotional the response, and the more likely people will watch it. Scholarship is debased by design.

Step 3: The Evil

With such a system in place, it becomes patently easy for interested parties and propagandists to game media sources that are amenable and suppress the few that attempt to resist. The best way to defend a lie is to attack the very idea of truth, which is child’s play in the format by which Americans receive their news.

Need an expert? Pay somebody to pose as one. Fox News has so many discredited “experts” that an entire cottage industry – Late Nite contemporaries of Jon Stewart – has risen to quantify and criticize them, but that industry has had absolutely no effect on Fox News’ popularity or viewership: It merely profits off of the opposing view, for the simple reason that the debate is never concluded. If no expert is willing to lie on television, launder source material by reporting on reporting of bloggers and lumpenpundits: Effectively, wallow in rumor and hearsay.

Need to muddle an issue? Run counter-articles and claim that the opposition is lying and/or compromised. Because the industry runs on confirmation bias, people will accept what is effectively an auto-immune disease for investigative journalism because it bolsters their preconceptions. Breitbart and the Drudge Report have taken extreme stances that even the New York Post and the Washington Times have failed to venture, knowing full well that their readership will never abandon them, to the point where they will regurgitate articles from RT – the modern Pravda – derived almost entirely of anecdotes, misrepresented statistics or straight lies. Alternatively, simply just out-shout the competition: Internet memes, as evinced by the racist Pepe the Frog character, have been weaponized and can be produced and disseminated faster than anything ever before.

The danger of this situation is that its solution is not fact-based high quality reporting, because by its very nature it is quicker on the draw, cheaper and thus far more prolific than the effort and expense required for quality. It drags truth down on equal footing to lies and then outproduces its competition. It is still, at heart, a business venture. This is also why counter-propaganda fails to work: Liberal venues such as Buzzfeed, Vox and the Huffington Post have established their business models on this phenomenon, but they are not nearly as large, rich or as numerous as those on the right: They simply can’t compete for volume, though they have proven that even self-described free-thinking liberals can fall victim to confirmation bias, as in their zeal they also play fast and loose with fact-checking.

In such a manner these enterprises not only profit off markets all too willing to hear what they want to hear, but they have the effect of maintaining and cultivating those markets, creating a self-supporting propaganda machine that puts our facile and blundering attempts in the Cold War and the Second World War to shame, and absolutely dwarfs our comparatively cute attempts in the last century.

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One Response to “The Achilles Heel of the Free Press”


  1. Jambe
    on Mar 30th, 2017
    @ 3:47 am

    Good to see more writing from you.

    Dara O’Briain did a skit about science and media tropes some years ago:

    “You never see that balance thing with really hard science like physics; you never see a guy from NASA talking about a space station, and they go, ‘That’s very interesting, but for the sake of balance, we must now turn to Barry, who believes the sky is a carpet painted by God.'”

    In the intervening years the situation has become that farcical. Filter bubbles compound the issue and most people are unaware of that issue, so we unwittingly reinforce our prejudices and prune away countervailing thought and opinion simply by frequenting our sites of choice and by engaging within rather than across artificially-bounded social media circles.

    It would be problematic enough if we only had the ever-increasing granularity of media to deal with, but on top of that we have search and content-promotion norms which prioritize likeness. In concert with data fusion this drives the friction of advertising ever downward. If you have a highly-trafficked platform you want to monetize, your main incentives are 1) assembling as thorough a picture of users’ specific habits as possible and 2) sensitizing them as much as possible to what they already think and enjoy. This maximizes your long-tail money-fountain.

    There’s a huge profit motive in making people feel comfortable and correct, and as you indicate, it’s indifferent to truth and morality.

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