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Why you can't trust the media
More competition means it’s better than ever, but you hear more about the flaws
Fresh episode of Bad Takes is out today, about the dubious claim that all our stuff is getting worse.
We live in an era of low and declining trust in the media.
Efforts to explain this usually involve pointing out the media’s flaws. But fundamentally, “trust in media is declining because the media is bad” is a fallacious explanation — explaining a change over time requires a variable that has also been changing over time. And not only is there little evidence that the media has gotten worse since the high-trust, pre-Vietnam era, I think there’s considerable evidence that it’s gotten better.
As Louis Menand explains in a recent review essay, back in “the good old days,” the press was often willfully deceptive and saw collaborating with government officials to mislead people as part of its job:
What is the track record of the press since Lippmann’s day? In “City of Newsmen: Public Lies and Professional Secrets in Cold War Washington” (Chicago), Kathryn J. McGarr weighs the performance of the Washington press corps during the first decades of the Cold War. She shows, by examining archived correspondence, that reporters in Washington knew perfectly well that Administrations were misleading them about national-security matters—about whether the United States was flying spy planes over the Soviet Union, for example, or training exiles to invade Cuba and depose Fidel Castro. To the extent that there was an agenda concealed by official claims of “containing Communist expansion”—to the extent that Middle East policy was designed to preserve Western access to oil fields, or that Central American policy was designed to make the region safe for United Fruit—reporters were not fooled.
Most members of the American elite — national security professionals, elected officials, major nonprofit leaders — believed in Cold War consensus policies, and most of the people working in journalism agreed with them. And they all worked together to promote those policies:
Many members of the Washington press, including editors and publishers, had served in the government during the Second World War—in the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the C.I.A.), in the Office of War Information, and in other capacities in Washington and London. They had been part of the war effort, and their sense of duty persisted after the war ended. Defending democracy was not just the government’s job. It was the press’s job, too.
But some of the most striking examples from this period are stories that were less policy-oriented: journalists didn’t report on JFK’s affairs, and they didn’t report on FDR’s paralysis.
Only someone whose brain has been totally poisoned by the discourse could truly believe that contemporary mainstream media institutions would sit on stories of that magnitude, even about a president they liked. Of course in exchange for this softball (by contemporary standards) coverage, journalists of yore got a lot more access. JFK did dozens of on-the-record press conferences over the course of his presidency, a tradition that faded a bit in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but which really began its death spiral once Bill Clinton started getting tons of questions about affairs rather than opportunities to tee up his policy message.
I think the basic story about declining trust in media is that the media industry became a lot more competitive to the point where it’s pretty hard to say what exactly people are referring to when they talk about “the media.”
One consequence of this increased competition is that it’s now much harder to manufacture consent. But even though coverage is better on the merits, flaws and mistakes don’t escape competitors’ notice, and every participant in the project has a strong incentive to exaggerate how bad “the media” is in order to sell their own wares. Fox News was patient zero for this, but it’s now ubiquitous. Bari Weiss isn’t going to launch the Free Press by saying “we’re going to pursue some stories and angles that I think are a little different from what most places are covering.” It’s much better for business to launch with a manifesto about how the press has abandoned its values. But that’s not really analysis — it’s marketing.
People have access to more and better information than ever before, so they’re more ambiently aware of bad stories than they used to be. After all, the point about covering up FDR’s disability is that it worked. If “the media” circa 1937 had been better, the truth would have come out and it would have made everyone involved look very bad. But because it was successfully covered up, everyone went on trusting.
What is “the media” even?
“The media” is a deliberately vague term, but it used to be possible to more or less get your mind around what it referred to.
The most important news outlets in America, in terms of audience, were the three major national television networks. All three networks ran a flagship nightly newscast focused on hard news. Their news departments also ran morning shows that did softer news, but sometimes incorporated hard news elements. ABC uniquely had Nightline, and then there were the prime time “newsmagazine” shows, of which CBS’ 60 Minutes was the most important. CNN was much smaller, but influential because it was on 24/7 for news junkies. People didn’t really read out-of-market newspapers at that time, but whichever city you lived in would have a broadsheet newspaper that had a D.C. bureau in addition to its local coverage. Your local newspaper market might also feature a tabloid paper, and you’d usually have four or five local TV news stations. There were two important wire services, Reuters and the AP, and two important weekly newsmagazines, Newsweek and Time.
Of course other media outlets existed, but those outlets were more or less “the media.”
Glenn Greenwald likes to use the anachronistic phrase “corporate media,” which was in wide currency in the ‘90s and expressed the distinction more precisely.
A person might also read something like a local alt-weekly paper or subscribe to The Nation or Mother Jones (or their conservative equivalents) or some other publication outside the mainstream corporate news sector. But a key thing about this is that even though various alternative outlets existed, they didn’t really compete head-to-head with the corporate media. The big outlets had a stranglehold on certain distribution channels — broadcast licenses, the infrastructure to deliver newspapers, placement on magazine stands — so it really mattered an enormous amount which outlet covered a story.
Of course a small publication could get a scoop that got picked up in a bigger outlet. But that only underscores the point: it mattered an enormous amount whether a finite set of television networks and broadsheet newspapers covered something, because if they didn’t, there was no way for most people to learn about it. People talk today about the difference between “freedom of speech” and “freedom of reach,” and “reach” used to be extremely constrained by modern standards. You could print whatever you wanted in your ’zine, but there was no way for it to go viral.
By the time I was a teenager, though, a significant alternative political news ecosystem had already grown up in the form of right-wing AM talk radio. This burgeoning conservative broadcast empire developed the habit of referring to “the media” as an entity that did not include itself, even though conservative talk — unlike alt weeklies or small circulation magazines — had essentially unlimited distribution. The distinction between Rush Limbaugh and “the media” was sociological and ideological, not really about technology or reach. And Fox News carried that distinction over when it launched. Somehow a widely distributed cable news channel that was a corporate sister to a major national broadcast network was something other than “the media.”
Today, of course, there are no distinctions at all. The internet platforms that control online distribution can limit the reach of various stories if they want to, but the baseline case is that they don’t want to. A story that appears in any outlet can go viral. This has two critical implications. One is that you can’t actually stop a given piece of information from reaching people just by having “mainstream” outlets ignore it. The other is that because informational blockades don’t work, outlets are under strong competitive pressure to not ignore things, even if that is their inclination.
And last but not least, if you fuck something up there, are strong incentives for everyone else to publicize that fact.
Media failures get widely publicized
People who think the media is awful really like to talk about the time CNN tried to describe a protest as “mostly peaceful” against a backdrop of burning cars.
This is sufficiently well known enough that when I typed the words “CNN mostly” into Google, predictive machine learning knew exactly what I was talking about.
And it really was a dumb thing to put on television.
It’s worth saying that it was almost certainly an accurate story, though. During the various rounds of police brutality protests in 2020, large groups of peaceful demonstrators were used as cover by relatively small numbers of looters and arsonists. This is to say the protests generally were in fact mostly peaceful, but the specific claim looks ridiculous on its face.
But the striking thing about the contemporary media landscape isn’t that nobody ever fucks up, it’s that fuckups get widely publicized.
Here’s a Fox News story about how that was dumb.
Here’s a National Review story about how that was dumb.
Here’s a Washington Examiner story about how that was dumb.
Here’s a Newsweek story about how that was dumb.
Here’s a New York Post story about how that was dumb.
The point of this mockery wasn’t just to poke fun at a single chyron but to argue that the mainstream media as a whole was trying to manufacture consent and cover up the existence of looting and arson. Having been working in a newsroom at the time, I can tell you that there is an element of truth to that. There was a move both to downplay the amount of rioting and a more absurd move to make everyone call it “unrest.” But ultimately Vox ran my piece, and the NYT published stories about riot damage —there was no cover-up.
In 1960, a coordinated effort to block coverage of something would have been more successful. And part of that success would have been that many fewer people would have heard about related journalistic flubs. In today’s more competitive environment, the coverage is better (even in bad moments), but you also hear more about the real weaknesses of the coverage and walk away with a negative impression.
The problem of the audience
None of this is to deny that plenty of bad stories run in the press, which raises the question of why.
After all, the purpose of journalism is to bring true information to light — so why are so many stories false and misleading, and why do so many true, important facts go under covered?
Here I’m afraid that the main problem is the news-reading audience, which simply does not agree that the purpose of journalism is to bring true information to light. I don’t know why people read what they read, but they are mostly not seeking actionable intelligence about the state of the world and therefore don’t care that much about accuracy.
A point that I think I recall learning from Doug Henwood’s old Left Business Observer ’zine is that you can find more frank discussion of the realities of capitalist economics in the business section of a good newspaper than in the news pages. That’s because whatever the businessmen’s biases, they really do want reliable business information. Back during the big gas price crunch, there were all kinds of nonsense about U.S. oil production running in the political press, but also a lot of really solid (albeit tedious) articles in the business press.
Something I really enjoy about my Bloomberg Opinion side gig is having Bloomberg Terminal access, which puts lots of economic data at my fingertips. But I also read Bloomberg News, which really gives you a sense of how different journalism can be when it’s bundled with economic data as an actual information service. Mostly, it makes you realize that most journalism isn’t written for people who have some actual stake in obtaining tedious-but-true facts about the world.
You really see this in the perennial complaining about 538’s election forecasts. If you think of these forecasts as business intelligence for people who like to gamble on elections, you’ll see that the forecasts are really good. They’re not good in the sense of “the candidate who they say will win always wins,” both because that’s impossible and also because that would be bad forecasting. They’re good because roughly 70% of the candidates they say have a 70% chance of winning actually end up winning. This is to say their forecasts are well-calibrated, and if you could find deep and liquid markets in which to bet on all these races, you could make money following 538’s advice. The reason people are always mad at them is that even though there’s a great deal of public interest in elections and predictions, it’s cheap talk, fandom-style interest. Few people really care about accuracy, so even though the track record is excellent, the site makes no money and is apparently on the chopping block.
I use that as an example not because 538 is the only good journalism around, but because the nature of their project is that you can actually clearly demonstrate that they are doing a good job — and it doesn’t make a difference! I bet there is some small business trade journal somewhere that has staff who are really sweating the details on trying to understand to what extent shoplifting has risen and where and what the policy drivers of it might be, but you’re definitely not going to find that in the mainstream press. The data is not collected in a systematic and consistent way that would make the story easy to execute, and there’s a certain predictable audience for both the “woke libs caused shoplifting to soar” narrative and the “conservatives are driving hysteria about a fake shoplifting surge” narrative, and ultimately the quality of your work is going to have very little to do with its success.
Either way, you’ll find plenty of articles whose angle you disagree with to get mad about, and if you peer under the hood, you’ll probably find that they’re pretty sloppy. Then you can tell all your friends, and everyone will learn more and more about why the media is worse than ever.