The problem with media isn't a filter bubble. It's deeper than that.
Systemic challenges are exactly that: systemic. Challenge those, and we can improve.
Some housekeeping: So I am *pretty* sure I will be taking next week “off” (funny phrase, ain’t it, as I’m technically not working so every day is technically “off”). It’s been 7 months of writing every day (minus that one week in August when I also “took off”), something I haven’t done in many years. So I’m going to take a little R&R. (Sorry, Yuhas, for the ampersand.)
With Thanksgiving a few days away, even under these very weird circumstances, there is plenty to be grateful for. When I started this newsletter, I never thought anyone would subscribe, let alone 3,519 people. It was essentially an exercise to keep myself occupied while I foolishly thought I’d find a job quickly. But then April turned to May turned to August turned to the doorstep of December, and yet here we are! I am grateful for all of you who have signed up, read, shared, discussed. I’ve gotten to know a good number of you through our emails, and I am thankful that there is a little community blossoming from this newsletter. Have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving.
On with the show.
Earlier today, Axios’s Jim VandeHei wrote a piece titled “Blunt 2020 lessons for media, America” that was pockmarked with good intentions and even directionally accurate, but reveals a point of view that belies the argument that media’s problems stem from not understanding America better.
While there are legitimate arguments here, particularly around the effect of social platforms on society (more on this in a second), readers need to be skeptical when reading criticism of that amorphous beast, “the media.”
The media filter bubble is getting worse, not better. Look at what’s unfolding in real-time: Trump supporters feel like Fox isn’t pro-Trump enough, while reporters and columnists bolted The New York Times, Vox Media and others because they were not “woke” enough.
This point is both a) not accurate, and b) undermines his whole entire point. For starters, reporters and columnists haven’t left those publications because they were not ‘woke’ enough. There are myriad reasons why people leave, and while one could go out on a limb to guess, it would be foolish to ascribe a singular motivating factor, outside of something horrible. Wokeness ain’t it.
And sure, some big names have left their publications. But as we talked about a few months ago, this is not a strategy for all. In the last month, Glenn Greenwald left his several hundred thousand dollar a year gig at the Intercept because he didn’t like being edited (pardon me as I sit here playing the world’s tiniest violin); Matt Yglesias left Vox because there was a tension between being a founder of a site and an independent journalist (ok, whatever that means); and it’s been reported today that Ezra Klein is also leaving Vox to join the NYT.
(Which, whoa! That means that over the last 12 months, the Gray Lady has poached the editors-in-chief of BuzzFeed, Vox, and Quartz; not bad for a legacy print publication, eh?)
Second, and more important, the construction of this is both sides-ism at its best. The curious “media filter bubble” isn’t the reporting of the NYT or Vox, but the disinformation peddled by the Breitbarts and Gateway Pundits of the world. I keep thinking about what Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin of CheckyMyAds said in my interview with them:
we reframe the conversation from left vs right, which is how a lot of marketers think in terms of media bias charts. These are not helpful indicators; we tell them to leave behind right versus left and think in terms of information vs propaganda. We know signs of propaganda, like obscuring ownership or creating narratives that villainizes a certain group.
This media filter bubble isn’t a Right vs Left issue, but a fact vs lie issue, and it’s one that publications are having a difficult time grasping. It’s why it’s incredibly frustrating watching the political press (see, this is how you critique; it’s not “the media” but a specific subset of) grant anonymity to political operatives who blatantly lie, who are doing everything they can to undermine institutions, and doing it with glee. This is a direct result of Steve Bannon’s assault on the media (here, he literally means anyone who finds answers for a living) by throwing as much shit as possible.
It’s why we get headlines like this:
The challenge we face as an industry is the separation of knowable truths versus finding the closest thing to the truth. We know the sky is blue. Yet if a reporter asks a source, “what color is the sky” and the source says “green,” the reporter, in order to appear objective, will write that “some say the sky is green” when we know that’s demonstrably not true.
And over the last four years, as reporters -- political press, sports press, trade press, whatever -- have suffered an occupational whiplash from the amplified spread of disinformation from the rot of society, the social platforms, some of the very basic tenets of journalism have eroded.
Take for instance the recent super viral thread of the South Dakota nurse, Jodi Doering, which tells a frightening tale of folks denying that the coronavirus exists while literally dying from it.
Doering’s tweet got picked up across every major news outlet. But perhaps reporters needed to take a moment to pause, to think about the foundational aspect of journalism: to question, to verify, to get to the closest thing as possible to the truth.
Wired’s David Zweig zigged when everyone else zagged:
Doering’s statement that she’s watched “so many” people die from the disease even as they deny its very existence, endlessly repeated on social media and presented by news outlets without corroboration, would seem to represent a broader phenomenon.
But other nurses who work in similar settings say they’ve seen nothing of the kind.
I called a number of hospitals in the same part of South Dakota to ask emergency room nurses if they’d noticed the same, disturbing phenomenon. At Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital, about 20 minutes from Doering’s hometown of Woonsocket, an ER nurse told me, “I have not had that experience here.” At my request, Kim Rieger, the VP for communications and marketing at Huron Regional Medical Center, one of the four medical facilities where Doering works, spoke with several nurses at Huron to get their reactions to the CNN interview. None said they’d interacted with Covid patients who denied having the disease. “Most patients are grateful, and thankful for our help,” one told her. “I have not experienced this, nor have I been told of this experience, ever,” another said.
This in no way means that Doering’s account is untrue. But it provides, at minimum, some important context that was completely absent from the CNN interview and from all the media amplification that followed. Little or no effort was made to assess the scope of the problem that Doering so memorably described. How many Covid-19 patients in South Dakota are really so blinkered by disinformation that they're enraged at their caregivers and, in their final moments on earth, still dispute what’s happening? No one bothered to find out.
The point is this: part of the credibility problem that journalism faces right now is due to the way information easily spreads across the platforms without reporters doing the due diligence to corroborate, to dig, to question.
But when there is a viral tweet and a publication can gin up some pageviews to hit some arbitrary ad impression goal, or a reporter has to hit some arbitrary story quota, the corners that get cut, over time, lead to that distrust in journalism.
The social platforms are engineered to push stories that people read, and people read stories that make them feel a certain way, whether true or not. It’s why clickbait blossomed. And here, VandeHei is spot on:
Twitter is a mass-reality-distortion field for liberals and reporters. The group-think and liberal high-fiving was as bad as ever and continues to be a massive trap and distraction for journalists.
Facebook is a mass-reality-distortion field for conservatives. Look at the content pages that get the most daily interaction (shares, likes, etc.) and it's all right-wing catnip. It’s not all fake or conspiratorial, but a lot of it sure is. This is a huge problem.
YouTube is a mass-reality-distortion field for people of all stripes. Videos endorsing election fraud were viewed more than 138 million times on the week of Nov. 3, according to a new report cited by The New York Times.
Media criticism is necessary, but it doesn’t mean a hill of beans if those running news organizations internalize those criticisms.
VandeHei is correct: there is a war on truth. But it’s not coming from a lack of understanding, as he says, “the America that exists outside of the big cities, where most political writers and editors live,” but instead from the systemic challenges news organizations refuse to change (inequality, racism, etc) and the fight against the wrong opponent.
If we really want to take on the fact vs fiction fight, we need to fight the creators and spreaders of disinformation.
Thank you for allowing me in your inbox, today and every day. If you have tips or thoughts on the newsletter, drop me a line. Or you can follow me on Twitter. If you appreciated this edition, please consider sharing this across your social networks (and yes, as always, I see the irony in this). Again, thank you for reading and have a great holiday. Since I will not be with my parents this year, I will share with you our Thanksgiving tradition: the 12:00 pm airing of “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant”