Listening to a Herald of Doom

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Years ago, I made it through graduate school in journalism without ever taking a course in media theory. I wasn’t interested in it; I wanted training so I could work on a newspaper. Looking back after 37 years in the news industry, I don’t regret that decision. My brief encounters with media theory have left me annoyed with its puffy rhetoric and its neo-Marxist assumptions that class interests determine coverage.

In my retirement, I have been working on a book of local history. In doing that, I encountered a bit of media theory directly relevant to my research: “Choosing Silence: A Case of Reverse Agenda Setting in Depression News Coverage,” from the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 1991. The author, Sandra Haarsager of the University of Idaho, had read the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer from November 1930 to November 1932. In the gloomiest period of the Great Depression, Haarsager argued, the two Seattle dailies had written of the economic situation with happy talk to such an extent that “the average Seattle reader might not know from reading his or her daily newspaper a Depression was occurring.” She declared that the publishers had suppressed honest coverage of the unemployed because it would have promoted political radicalism. Using the terms of leftist sociologist Todd Gitlin, she concluded that “the prevailing hegemony, the safeguarding of existing power structures from above and within, operated to construct reality . . .” She labeled the publishers’ policy as “strategic silence.”

The publishers I knew wanted their papers to be successful, fat with ads and recipients of Pulitzer Prizes.

 

For the history I’m writing, I’ve read all the same papers Haarsager did. I can confirm what she says about the optimism of those two newspapers, though I doubt if it left the readers in as deep a shadow as she supposes. The newspapers’ optimism was even more pronounced in the first year of the Depression, November 1929 to November 1930. But cut the publishers of those days a break: people in 1930 and 1931 had no idea how bad the Depression was going to be. The previous depression, of 1920–21, had lasted only a year and a half. To call their optimism “strategic silence” implies a political intention that is not there. It is not how publishers think. The publishers I knew wanted their papers to be successful, fat with ads and recipients of Pulitzer Prizes.

The most famous argument about capitalist newspapers suppressing the Left comes out of a 1988 book called Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. I haven’t read the book. I have a bias against Noam Chomsky. I remember him as the most prominent American intellectual to deny or excuse the Khmer Rouge terror in Cambodia, and I don’t want anything to do with him. That said, I gather that Herman and Chomsky argue in their tome that in America, market forces push the commercial media to serve the political interests of capital. The media do this by treating readers as consumers and “manufacturing” the public’s consent to the capitalist order.

To readers who have complained for years about liberal bias in the media, the Chomsky thesis may sound weird. Libertarians and conservatives were not wrong about the media’s bias, which came from reporters and editors. But the bias of the media looks different from different places. To accuse commercial newspapers of addressing readers as happy consumers rather than pre-revolutionary workers was not wrong if you stood where Chomsky was. From the left, the media did look like that. From where I was, it didn’t.

For much of the ’80s and ’90s I was a business reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I covered strikes, mergers, takeover fights, bankruptcies and bank failures, the raising of buildings, and the launching of fishing boats. I had a column on the business page, and later on the editorial page, and could make propaganda there, but I was careful to keep it out of news coverage. I attacked businesses a few times, and when the issue arose of public subsidy for Seattle’s baseball and football stadiums, I condemned the subsidy as a violation of the state constitution even though hometown sports teams put money in the newspaper’s pockets. These columns were outliers. Newspaper reporters are generally in sympathy with the beats they cover, because they were attracted to those beats in the first place, and I was no exception. If I had to explain all this to Chomsky, I expect he would reply, “If you were a Marxist, you wouldn’t have held the job you did.” And he would be right.

Libertarians and conservatives were not wrong about the media’s bias, which came from reporters and editors. But the bias of the media looks different from different places.

 

Years ago, the Post-Intelligencer did hire a leftist to work on the business page. He was a good reporter, but he was not in sympathy with the people he covered, and eventually he couldn’t stand it anymore. He purged himself and went to work for a university.

With these thoughts in mind, I recently read Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers, a self-published book by Andrey Mir, a Russian-Canadian media analyst. (Actually his name is Andrey Miroshnichenko, but he has simplified it, I assume, for purposes of marketing.)

Postjournalism was my first venture into media theory in a long time, but it seems to be attracting the attention of other people as well. It is an academic’s book, and reading much of it felt like slogging through Conan Doyle’s Grimpen Mire, searching for solid ground. For example:

The capacity of a factoid to gain significance simply because of dissemination (as opposed to old-fashioned ‘dissemination because of significance’) also exposes an important trait of factoids in terms of structural semantics: a factoid is self-referential. In Saussurean terms, for a factoid, the signified appears after the signifier gets disseminated. Or, using the more complex Ogden & Richards’ semiotic triangle complete with connotative meaning, it can be said that a factoid does not need a referent (denotation) or thought of referent (signification), as its signification appears after its connotation (attitude value) creates a sufficient mass of dissemination. (118)

Here’s another patch of rhetorical quicksand, from page 127:

Media evolution is ‘set’ to implode the outer environment into the user’s operationality. What once was the flow of common-to-all alienated events must become the internalized flow of sensations within the induced reality centered by the user.

The man’s thoughts do come through clearly, however, in the first one-tenth of the book, and in a few solid spots thereafter. Mir boldly prophesies that newspapers “will exist as an industrial product for no longer than the mid-2030s at the latest,” which is “the time left for the last newspaper generation to live.” He goes on: “The industry’s collapse will be instantaneous due to the technical aspects of production and distribution . . .” He refers here to the high fixed cost — the cost that has to be paid no matter what the circulation is — so that when enough of the readers die, circulation falls and the business loses money. “This tectonic event will happen in about mid-to-late 2020s. Thereafter, a long trail of residual newspaper shutdowns will continue until the mid-2030s . . . The newspaper industry is therefore heading towards five years of agony followed by 10 years of convulsions, before its death” (14).

There’s plenty of free stuff on the internet, and to too many Americans, free is an offer too good to refuse.

 

The cause of this mass extinction, Mir writes, is the internet, which has taken away the ad money. This includes the classifieds, which peaked in 2000 at about one-third of newspaper revenue and have migrated to eBay and Craigslist, except for the obits. Ads of all kinds once paid 80% of newspaper revenue. In total, ad revenue of US newspapers fell from $63.5 billion in 2000 to $8.8 billion in 2020, a plunge in inflation-adjusted dollars of 91%.

Newspapers have done several things to save themselves. They have put up paywalls. This has seemed to work, sort of, for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and a few others, but for the smaller dailies it has been a disappointment. There’s plenty of free stuff on the internet, and to too many Americans, free is an offer too good to refuse. In addition to the paywalls, newspapers have turned to foundation funding. In my hometown, the sole surviving daily newspaper has used foundation money to fund a team to write about the homeless.

Mir is skeptical of these solutions. He doesn’t think they’re going to work, and inasmuch as they do, he thinks they will have bad effects. By going after nonprofit money, he writes, “the media surrender a part of their newsroom autonomy to foundations.” And by pitching digital subscriptions — essentially small donations — he argues that they surrender part of the newsroom’s autonomy to subscribers. Editors begin to think up stories that will increase donations. The stories that work best are those that exaggerate evils, alarm readers, and divide the public into camps. Donor funding, Mir argues, pushes journalism “to take a political side to produce polarization and anger in order to trigger the audience’s loyalty and donations in the form of subscription.” This causes journalism to “mutate into propaganda” (171).

Compared with the shift in newspapers’ funding from advertisers to donors, he argues, the sale of newspapers to billionaires — the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, for example — is a small concern. “Billionaires can understand the public significance of the media,” he writes. “The market does not” (144). Mir defines “the market” as the realm of the purely commercial. I would argue that Bezos is part of the market no matter what his motives were.

Journalists can begin by discarding the belief that a foundation is morally superior to a retailer of automobiles, groceries, or men’s pants.

 

For all of his genuflecting to leftist scholars — and he does a lot of it — Mir argues that in hindsight, the ad-funded newspapers they criticize were good for journalism. Advertisers wanted as many eyeballs on the page as they could get. “The desire to increase circulation forced the media to address as broad an audience as possible,” Mir writes. “The media funded by ad money cohered, depoliticized and united people.” It mostly produced journalism that strove to be professional and objective.

He proclaims that this model is dead — then pays it homage by writing, “The only neutral way to support the profession of independent journalist is a market-funded paycheck” (152–53). It’s an interesting admission from a guy who spends so much ink quoting Herman and Chomsky.

It’s true about the old model. For years, newspaper reporters and editors mostly ignored the advertisers. There were exceptions. In my time as a business reporter at Hearst Corporation’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a story critical of Safeway, Macy’s, or Nordstrom would have to get high-level approval before we would run it, because those companies bought full-page and double-page ads, week after week, and they might pull their ads for a while. Still, there was a whole universe of companies I was free to write about.

There was also the “Chinese wall” between advertising and news. Mir writes, “To guard against advertisers influencing content, the industry and the profession established ethical and operational standards: autonomy, objectivity, transparency, fact-checking, a many-sources approach in investigations, a both-sides look at conflicts, a wall between the newsroom and ad sales, etc.” I was bound by those things. The system wasn’t perfect, but most of the time it worked.

The new sources of money are smaller than the old ones. They leave newspapers poor; and in business, when you’re poor, it’s harder to say no.

 

Journalists should try to keep those rules. They can begin by discarding the belief that a foundation is morally superior to a retailer of automobiles, groceries, or men’s pants. They’re all selling something, either things or thoughts. And for this reason, the foundation may be more likely to interfere in what journalists do.

I’m not in the newspaper industry anymore, and am not privy to the inside dope. It may be that Mir oversimplifies the risk of the donor model, just as Herman and Chomsky oversimplified the risk of newspapers funded by ads. Media critics have an economic interest in raising an alarm. It’s part of what they sell. Still, there is sense in what Mir says. The switch from ad revenue to donor revenue is not a happy development for journalism. The new sources of money are smaller than the old ones. They leave newspapers poor; and in business, when you’re poor, it’s harder to say no.

Still, the donor model may be the best of a bad lot. I never would have thought the donor drives on National Public Radio were a preview of journalism’s future, but maybe they were.

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