Mass Media’s 21st Century Failure
There it sat on the radiator of my middle school English classroom. The New York Times. It was my first time seeing a copy in person (ours was a Newsday family), but I could tell it was dense with information. The key to understanding the adult world. Majestic. It was 1983.
The appearance of the Times on my Brooklyn doorstep 18 years later…on the morning of September 12, 2001…provided assurance there was still stability in the world. And I knew its pages would help make sense of the calamity we had just lived through. I have similar associations with CNN: wherever I was…whether it was at a hotel, a restaurant, a bar…whether traveling about the United States or exploring overseas…CNN was a lifeline to timely, reliable information.
I don’t know if I always had it wrong or if things changed or if I changed but, these days, the only feelings that I attach to those mass media news outlets…as well as any other like Fox News or MSNBC or the NY Post…is anxiety and confusion. Discomfort and despair.
The buzz for the last few years has been about social media and its ill effects on people and our country. I don’t disagree with the notion, but I think it overlooks this nefarious influence of what is considered traditional, more-trustworthy news media, whether in print, broadcast or online form.
Traditional mass media news has failed us….or, at least, it has failed me.
It failed not because of any secret conspiracy, but because — as it became equipped with revolutionary, transformative technological capability over the last twenty years — it never evolved from what it was.
This is the reason I have not turned on cable news in the last year. This is why I use the New York Times more for cleaning our hamster cage than for understanding the world. This is why I unsubscribed from the Washington Post website.
During my childhood in the 1970s, the average person woke up; prepared for their day; maybe caught a few minutes of the morning news over breakfast; listened to the radio in the car; worked or studied or did housework or ran errands throughout the day; returned home; read some of the newspaper; prepared and/or ate dinner; prepared for bed; and maybe watched 30–60 minutes of evening news.
Assuming the wake time of such a day was 16 hours, that meant the average person was exposed to news for approximately, say, two hours.
During that time, the news…like now…focused on negative events: drama and conflict and controversy and scandal. But when most of the day was spent blissfully unaware of events beyond our physical reality, the negative impact of such negative coverage was minimal. And perhaps it made sense for our primal need to survival: we can better protect ourselves if we know where the conflicts and/or the unexpected are.
To be clear, mass media obsession with negativity arose from standard practices going farther back in American history…at least to the 1890s…with newspaper icon William Randolph Hearst who embraced the mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads.” And the origin of the broader practice of “yellow journalism” is attributed to Hearst and that other newspaper paragon, Joseph Pulitzer. They sought readership by sensationalizing events and manufacturing drama during that era. Indeed, the Spanish-American War, PBS noted in a documentary, is considered by historians to be the first press-driven war.
Nowadays, the Internet has made such negative news inescapable. We wake up, tap our phone and get a news headline in our social media feed. We read the NYTimes or the Wall Street Journal online over breakfast…or on the subway…or during a boring part of a phone call. Apple News pushes updates at us. We see more social media posts commenting on news articles. We visit any bodega or deli or restaurant or bar and they have a cable news channel locked in. And then we turn on the evening news or scroll one last time through our social media feed, we get one last hit of angst and outrage to torment our dreams. Then wake up, tap our phone….
Instead of enduring 2 hours of news and enjoying 14 hours of obliviousness (like in the 1970s), we now enjoy 2 hours of obliviousness and endure 14 hours of news.
Such unrelenting, sensationalized, triggering negative news updates are not healthy for the individual or community psyche. It’s not even necessary. None of us is the director of the CIA. None of us is the CEO of an economic pillar. For our everyday existence, we don’t need to routinely and obsessively know about much more than what’s happening among our circle of friends, family and colleagues and within our local city or hometown.
But the mass media news never adjusted their coverage. They never righted the scales to present a balanced view of our world, replete with positive news and encouraging developments. No. Instead, they doubled-down. Every hour or two, new talking heads appear to share an outraged take on the same bit of news. Every news article published or pushed hypes evermore the same topic of anxiety…with a new important twist! Enhanced advertising research of demographics discourages them from alienating their base sources of money.
More eyeballs. More viewers. More stickiness. More advertisers. More profits.
More anxiety. More anger. More confusion. More despair. More dependence.
This goes beyond the substance of the news too, especially for cable news. It’s the background music. The graphics. The transitions. The number of talking heads on a screen. All intended to grab our attention and convey a sense of crisis that we MUST pay attention because our safety and principles are at stake. I once visited a local merchant who had cable news on in the background. I couldn’t even hear what was being said but, after ten minutes, I felt anxious and under siege.
Mass media news must embrace the responsibilities that 21st century technology has foisted upon its craft: renounce its inherited practice of yellow journalism.
More specifically and more comprehensively, mass media news must reduce negativity. It must increase positivity. Pursue understanding…and extend compassion…for all people. Provide more balance and more context. Operate with more humility. Foment compromise and cooperation rather than intransigence and conflict. Summon courage to lose that share of the audience that demands drama and negativity. Proceed with self-awareness of its own limitations and biases and hypocrisies and ignorance. Stop anointing false idols and inflated villains, whether in politics, sports, entertainment or anywhere.
Start celebrating the more prosaic but transcendent heroism of everyday lives lived well.
Whether or not the mass media news chooses to do so in its presentation (and perception?) of the world, I hereby accept that responsibility for myself…for the sake of my family, my community and my country.
Until they do, those outlets have lost one more person. That’s one less set of eyeballs…one less subscriber…one less data point…one less ad dollar.
Those angling for the exit ramp, like me, increase evermore.