Why the mainstream media is so bad, and what we can do about it…

The modern U.S. news-media is terrible. They did a terrible job covering this election, and so far, the aftermath isn’t much better.

I could cite any number of facts to support this claim, but simply look at how misinformed Republicans are: 52% of them think Donald Trump won the popular vote, when in fact he lost by almost three million. And during the campaign, Trump was able to get away with all manner of lies and exaggerations because his supporters are so disconnected from the truth.

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Indeed, consider the basic trifecta of Republican economic policy: 1) tax cuts across the board (but especially the wealthy), 2) spend more on the military (even though we spend more than our next 7 or 8 closest competitors combined), and 3) pay down our debt and deficit. Something wrong here? Yep. You can’t do all of these three things at the same time, and the reason you can’t is called math. The numbers don’t work. So why doesn’t the media call out Republican politicians, like Trump, who peddle this fantasy? The answer goes to the heart of why our media fails to inform the American people about what’s actually going on.

As with most problems we face as a society, follow the money. The mainstream media exists to make money: full stop, period, end of story. And how do they make money? Advertising and sponsorship.

First, this means they need ears and eyeballs—as big an audience as possible. Second, like the pigs in Animal Farm, certain audiences are more equal than others, depending on the advertiser’s product.

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For example, if you’ve ever watched coverage of a golf tournament, you’ll notice a lot of ads for Viagra, investment services, and luxury cars, because advertisers know that the people who watch golf tournaments tend to be older, wealthier men–consumers who will be interested in those products.

And when you understand these two dynamics—that the media wants big audiences and/or certain kinds of audiences—the media’s dysfunction starts to make a whole lot of sense. Here are some of the effects:

  • There’s a strong incentive to dumb-down programming or appeal to the lowest common denominator. Someone who’s less intelligent will turn off a program he or she doesn’t understand, whereas a person who’s more intelligent may watch low-brow programming. In other words, most of the immoral goons who voted for Trump aren’t going to watch Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, but there are a lot of highly intelligent “nasty women” who might indulge in say, an episode of Real Housewives.
  • Scandal rules; content drools. An excellent example of this was that the media became obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s email saga, but failed to cover her in-depth policy speeches on really important stuff like how we could improve our mental healthcare system or what steps we could take to buoy the fortunes of the middle and lower classes. BORING! This also explains why Trump’s rallies got wall-to-wall coverage—and still do. He’s an incredibly polarizing figure and he’s likely to say something outrageous. The same can be said of conservative talk radio: even if someone knows what they say is wrong, it elicits an emotional response, which is why so much of our news coverage is scandalized.

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  • Everything must be as visceral, visual, and stimulating as possible. What’s more exciting: watching really beautiful people drink and argue, or listening to a lecture about Climate Change? Unfortunately, most people are attracted to the former, and media programmers and advertisers know it.

Worse, however, is the subtext to all of this. Because beyond simply attracting ears and eyeballs, media outlets are also implicitly discouraged or disincentivized from covering stories that run counter to their advertisers’ interests, either directly or indirectly. An example of this just happened recently, when it was announced Donald Trump would remain an executive producer of Celebrity Apprentice for NBC. While most other media organizations covered the news, “NBC’s flagship Sunday political show, Meet the Press, failed to address the story entirely on the December 11 edition.” This conflict of interests is quite obvious as in the above case, but the ramifications of this dynamic are unbelievably far-reaching.

Consider the case of Climate Change, which is a very real problem that, if unaddressed, could make the earth uninhabitable—for humans. And yet, it receives almost no attention from the mainstream media. Not even one question was asked about it during the Presidential debates, and less than a third of Americans (27%) actually acknowledge, “the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the main cause of climate change.”

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Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising. After all, who are some of the major advertisers on television and in major publications in the U.S.? Cars, most of which run on gas, and energy companies, who sell it. Think they want a big story on Climate Change, whose primary cause is the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—a direct result of driving/using petroleum, to run right before their advertisements? Probably not. And this is less of a conspiracy than a merging of interests; a tacit (unspoken) arrangement, if you will. But the effect is profound in terms of filtering what the media reports on and what it doesn’t. So keep in mind, whatever media your consuming, if it has advertisers, those advertisers have an affect on what they can or will report on, and how.

More insidious is the arrangement when it comes to politics. Here, the mainstream media has a careful line to walk: if they report just the facts, it will make certain politicians and/or political parties look bad (mainly Republicans, because they’re working for the top .1%—their campaign donors and buddies) and they’ll be accused of partisanship—hell they’re already considered the “liberal media” by anyone who’s dumb enough to enter into the modern conservative mind trap. But this is bad, right, because it could lead to less of an audience, and therefore, less profit.

So the press is strongly incentivized to adopt the logical fallacy of false equivalency, with a tendency to gloss over important facts. False equivalence is when someone holds up two obviously unequal things and says they’re equal. In the mainstream media’s political reporting, it usually revolves around some version of, “Republicans say this, Democrats say that,” and then the story ends without any analysis or explanation of who was telling the truth, or what the actual facts were regarding the situation.

And we just had as clear an example as we’re ever likely to get of just how absurd this is in the last election. That somehow, mentally, morally, logistically, people were able to equate Hillary Clinton—who yeah, technically didn’t follow the rules about how to store her emails, but was nonetheless probably the most qualified person to ever run for the office of President—with Donald Trump—a man who said openly racist and bigoted things consistently throughout his campaign, didn’t appear to understand or have read the Constitution, made fun of a disabled reporter, was caught on tape saying he sexually assaulted women (which many who had met Trump later corroborated), and who was uniquely unqualified and unfit to serve as President—is something I will never understand. Sure, partisanship played a role, but the press actively facilitated that belief in order to appear neutral, holding up Hillary’s emails and/or her perception as dishonest as equal to Donald Trump’s complete lack of morality and actual, live, everyday dishonesty.

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That’s bad.

What’s worse is that the media also has a huge incentive to keep political races close. Why? More money. If Hillary had been up in the polls 70-30, which is probably what it should’ve been if Americans were a well-informed population, neither campaign would have had much of a reason to spend any money on ads and people would’ve gone on with their lives rather than watching political coverage on television, or reading the latest newspaper reports, or going to FiveThirtyEight to check the latest poll numbers. The press would not only have lower ratings, but they’d receive less money in advertising: directly.

That’s bad.

For them. And so, whether or not it was stated directly from the top down, it seems a pretty substantial effort was made by the media to attack Clinton when she was up by more than 5 or 6 points in the polls. Don’t believe me? Go back and look at FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker–every time she got a bounce, news stories followed about her illness, the Clinton Foundation, Wikileaks, Comey and the FBI, or of course, the infamous email story.

So overall, there are a lot of reasons why the media does such a bad job delivering information—the question is what can we do about it?

Luckily, a lot, but it’s a three front war. Think of it as the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The first thing we have to do is to know where we can get good information; the second is to discredit the stuff that’s bad; and the third is to undermine those who continue to rely on the stuff that’s bad—the ugly.

But maybe that can wait for my next blog… check back tomorrow peeps.

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About The Author: Jay Scott

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