Who Is The Villain Here?

Updated: Sep 16, 2018

“The Media is the Villain – for Creating a World Dumb Enough for Trump”

Such was a highly-shared headline of a Rolling Stone opinion piece by Matt Taibbi, a writer whose in-depth stories I tend to point to when fellow communications enthusiasts ask me for an example of a journalist who is doing things the right way.

My commentary on this piece isn’t meant to be about politics.  It’s about the conclusion Mr. Taibbi comes to with this piece. After excoriating the media for selling “dumber and more alarmist” content over the “complex and nuanced,” Taibbi likens the U.S. president’s mind to “a parody of the average American media consumer: credulous, self-centered, manic, sex-obsessed, unfocused, and glued to stories that appeal to his sense of outrage and victimhood.”

My issue is not with where Taibbi ended up. It’s with how we got there.

Not long after graduating from college with a Journalism & Mass Communications degree, I got my first advertising job at a Madison Avenue firm. Within days, I witnessed plenty to challenge my academic idea of how the media business should run. The first one that gave me an awful case of cognitive dissonance was the concept of the “advertorial.” (For those relatively new to the business, an advertorial is a print version of native advertising.) For years, I had heard about the separation between advertising and editorial over and over again, and it was a principle I held dear.

Another bit of academia I clung to was the social responsibility theory of the mass media. All that “fourth branch of the government” stuff, plus this bit about maintaining financial independence so as to avoid the pressures of special interests. More on that in a minute.

I took that Madison Avenue job just as the Internet was starting to explode as a commercial medium. Indeed, one of the first projects I worked on was the recommendation for my client’s website. All of a sudden, consumer attention began to fragment like we’d hadn’t seen since cable TV achieved critical mass.

It hasn’t stopped.

In 1994 when I started in advertising, we would brag about television audiences in the hundreds of millions of viewers – the final episode of MASH or your typical audience for the Super Bowl. There were magazines with circulations in the tens of millions. Newspapers reached a significant percentage of their DMA.

These days, when we’re bragging about huge television audiences, we brag about live viewership of 12 million or so for the season finale of Game of Thrones this year. There are no magazines with circulations in the tens of millions, unless you want to count the free publications mailed to members by the likes of AARP and CostCo. Newspapers continue to struggle and the Village Voice abandoned its print edition last week.

Now, think about that obligation on the part of the news media to maintain financial independence. How the heck do you do that when your audience is a tenth of what it was just a decade or two ago?  When people are investing their media attention over not just your content, but that of the hundreds of new direct competitors that sprung up out of the blue?

Taibbi isn’t wrong. Yes, the news media is more sensational, lowest common denominator-ish, clickbait-y or whatever you’d like to call it. But it has always been in the attention business. We eliminated the cost of entry to publishing, so garnering attention in an endless sea of content necessitates publishing content that provokes reactions.

The villainy lies not in the content production, but in the business of media. It’s not an unending desire to publish lowbrow content, but an inability to innovate new business models and revenue generation that’s at fault. We got here not because one day the news media decided to take it down a few notches on the intellectual ladder, but because content publishing became a business that makes razor-thin margins, if any money at all, so content needed to latch on to whatever audience it could garner.

Your villain is not the news media itself. It’s the news media’s lack of innovation.