Skipping the news
On September 14, 1987 the Sunday edition of the New York Times ran to a record 1,612 pages and weighed 12 pounds. With retrospect that moment seems to belong to a forgotten era. At the time digital news that could be fed instantaneously to billions of handheld devices that were permanently online seemed unimaginable. In the new century, however, we have come to accept a transformed media landscape as inevitable, rarely pausing to consider the effects of distributing decontextualized entertainment, gossip, misinformation and hard news through the same digital networks.
A new book by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian, considers the consequences of ceding the moral authority of traditional news-gathering and informed commentary to the outrage machines that rule the new media landscape. In his introduction Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters, Rusbridger takes an example from February 2017 – one that could easily have been replaced with scores of others – in which President Trump repeats xenophobic propaganda from Fox News after listening to a piece on Sweden, which aired on Tucker Carlson’s show, from Ami Horowitz (‘someone we might call a media controversialist’ notes Rusbridger) – a former investment banker who reinvented himself as a ‘gonzo filmmaker’. The following day Trump talks about Horowitz’s thinly sourced story about an alleged surge of immigrant-related crime in Sweden as though it is hard news. Shortly afterwards, as Rusbridger notes, “there is rioting in the northern suburbs of the Swedish capital, Stockholm. No smoke without a fire? But which was the smoke and which the fire?”
In 1979 the American journalist David Broder memorably described a newspaper as “a partial, hasty incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past twenty-four hours—distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias—by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour.” Nevertheless, he continued, “If we labelled the product accurately, then we could immediately add: ‘But it’s the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow, with a corrected and updated version.’
When quality newspapers like the Guardian started shifting their coverage to the internet, they had high hopes for interactive exchanges with their readership, for a collaborative “open journalism” that would extend their coverage into new areas. Despite a few occasional successes, this turned out to be a dream. In a review of
Rusbridger’s book, the journalist James Meek concludes that: “Open journalism was based on the idea that non-journalists would help news organisations navigate their way to an objective truth, when the world we’re actually in is one where different sets of people subscribe to different geographies of truth altogether.”
Having watched the collapse of traditional media from the inside of a distinguished newspaper, Rusbridger has a clear sense of how it all went wrong: “In a world of too much to absorb and never enough time, people skipped the story.” As the audiences left, so did the advertisers. Between 2000 and 2016, the annual ad revenue in US newspapers fell by US$45 billion (from $63.5 to $18 billion) even though, according to the Pew Research Center, circulation revenue has climbed steadily since the 1960s. In the interim the corporations who took over control of the so-called ‘legacy media’ began to treat it as an extension of their entertainment holdings, and insist that it produce comparable returns on investment.
One of the least desirable outcomes of the new ‘infotainment’ was that the old media often chased its own tail, covering social media rather than risk being ignored by it. This further eroded the line between news, commentary, opinion and conspiracy theories – to the point at which most of the world’s news now reaches us via Facebook, Twitter and Google and the US president, the most powerful man on the planet, routinely shares wild theories, misinformation and outright lies as though they are legitimate news.
In 1962 the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas warned that the post-Enlightenment public sphere which empowered citizens in the wake of the American and French Revolutions had gradually been ‘refeudalised’ in the late nineteenth century by private and corporate interests. Habermas’ analysis, which built on the Frankfurt School’s general scepticism towards a ‘culture industry’ that functioned as a form of social and political control, seems extraordinarily prescient about the loss of the media’s moral authority in the age of ‘fake news’. Today the 24/7 digital news has largely discarded the ‘corrected and updated version’ that used to redeem the errors in Broder’s time. Errors, exaggerations and propaganda pass into the public sphere uncorrected. Meanwhile the new gatekeepers – as shown by the recent revelations about Facebook – contain whatever is needed to avoid the moral responsibility and regulatory oversight that used to constrain traditional publishers. It is a dispiriting state of affairs, certainly, but one that we have largely brought upon ourselves.