The people who say that CNN's decision to give air time to Donald Trump was an affront to journalism fail to realize one important thing: CNN isn't in the news business. Their product is infotainment. To fix journalism, audiences have to teach media outlets a lesson.
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It would be easy to pile onto CNN for its disastrous decision to hold a campaign rally town hall for Donald Trump on Wednesday night. So let’s do it!
Just kidding, of course. You come here expecting smarter takes, and that’s what you are going to get.
But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, from a journalistic point of view, CNN deserves plenty of blame. What exactly is the value of giving the guy who tried to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States (and who also happens to have been found guilty of sexual assault this week) a platform to do what he does best: lie? And why stack the audience with partisans who ensure that the event would devolve into a spectacle?
Great questions, but there is just one problem: The premise is wrong. This was no journalistic event; it was a commercial one. The value CNN was looking for was money.
And from that perspective, the “town hall” was a smashing success.
But don’t take our word for it.
Here is what Chris Licht, CNN’s CEO, told his staff the next morning: “America was served very well by what we did last night.” He is correct, if you replace “America” with “our shareholders.” Licht was also thrilled that CNN “made a LOT of news.”
Now, you may recall that it’s not the media’s job to “make news.” In any case, Trump telling a bunch of lies isn’t exactly news.
But that’s only one side of this story. The other is that most of the people in the media who are wringing their hands over this are doing exactly the same thing.
Because, let’s face it, hardly any news outlet is “serving America well” these days.
Instead, journalism is failing America.
Even worse, it’s by choice.
The main reason is that covering the news is now purely a business… and doing it well is bad for business (we’ll revisit why in a minute because chances are that you, our reader, are part of the problem).
Whereas journalism as a whole used to be something akin to a public good — and the profession itself was a calling and not a way to get rich — it’s now just about money. Part of the problem is who owns media outlets now. It used to be people who were more committed to covering the news than turning a huge profit. And journalists used to care more about getting the story than building their “brand.”
Then there is the issue of how news outlets now make their money. Like with so many other things that ail society, social media plays a major role here.
Back in the day, if you delivered quality to America’s doorsteps in the morning, people gave you their quarter each day and businesses advertised.
Now, however, speed matters above all else. That is one of the reasons why quality has deteriorated. Providing important background or nuances just slows down reporters who want to get their stories up first to get those precious pageviews.
And if reporters do get great scoops, they often hold them back for a book.
All of these are choices.
But that’s not the only problem that plagues journalism. There is also the incompetence of reporters who have either not figured out that one side is no longer acting in good faith, or who have figured that out but have not found effective ways of dealing with it (of course, there is also the possibility that they just don’t care).
As a result, even in the “good” outlets, you get a bunch of “both-sidesing” that is deteriorating quality and leaves neither side happy. The folks on the right will always feel aggrieved, while the ones on the left (who are on average much more educated) are aghast at how bad of a job news outlets are doing.
Essentially, publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, etc., are trying to make everybody happy and therefore bend over backwards to accommodate the very people who think they are “fake news” and will never change their minds about this. In the process, these news outlets, which show that they are capable of producing good journalism, are alienating the people that could be their audience.
This ridiculous “we have to hear what the people who lie to us constantly have to say” spiel is especially a problem when it comes to covering things like mass shootings. If journalists don’t call out the people who are responsible for what is happening and only offer “thoughts and prayers,” then non-crazy people will no longer want to tune in.
At the same time, this approach to journalism makes it nearly impossible to cover some of the most important issues, such as climate change. You can’t do a good job if you give credence to the side that denies that it’s a problem (or even real).
Imagine what that would look like if, for example, you were to cover the coronation of King Chuck III but feel compelled to give a voice to people who say that the United Kingdom doesn’t exist.
That brings us to the next problem: Today’s media doesn’t cover what the people need to know; it covers what it thinks the people want to know. And that’s why you get wall-to-wall coverage of nonsense like the coronation.
You Are Part of the Problem
However, not all of this is the media’s fault. Journalism also has an audience problem.
First of all, with an abundance of content available for free online, audiences no longer pay for quality. This is what we meant earlier when we said that quality journalism is bad business. If more readers/viewers were willing to pay for excellent reporting, then more outlets would deliver it.
While actual quality is lacking in today’s journalism, there is an “illusion of quality.” What we mean is that people think they are getting good journalism because it affirms what they believe. There is no better example than Fox “News.”
Everybody who lives in the real world knows that Fox delivers partisan garbage. But the people who buy into the alternate reality that the network peddles believe that it offers bold journalism and is the only place that “tackles real stories.”
In other words, now that it’s so easy for people to tailor their news consumption to their beliefs, the media cannot do one of its core jobs of confronting people with inconvenient truths. This is the reason why Republicans are not perturbed by Trump’s legal problems: They don’t even know they exist because the “news” they consume doesn’t cover them.
You Are the Only Solution
All of these problems have become worse over the past decades, and it is apparent that the media won’t fix itself.
Therefore, it is up to the consumers of news to be part of the solution. Specifically, that means to “vote with your eyeballs.” Stop watching CNN to send a message. Read longer, high-quality stories and then share them. Sign up for newsletters and substacks.
Support good journalism!
Because unless those making money off of your news consumption realize that they will profit more by providing quality instead of garbage, things are only going to get worse.
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Chris Licht caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), tanker (Walter / Wikimedia – CC BY 2.0), water (Photography and graphic design / Pixabay), nozzle (US Air Force), water (Hans / Pixabay), parking lot (Roller Coaster Philosophy / Wikimedia – CC BY 2.0), and building (Josh Hallett / Wikimedia – CC BY 2.0).