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William Cooper: The frenemy of the people

President Trump’s claim that the media is the enemy of the people is absurd. But that doesn’t mean it is the people’s best friend. The media is, instead, more like the frenemy of the people: its impact on society is a mix of good and bad.

The media’s positive impact on society is well understood (in part because journalists consistently remind us about it). The media is, to be sure, a fundamental bulwark against concentrated power — in both the government and the private sector — that consistently brings to light important facts. The media also, at its best, produces high-quality analysis about significant subjects.

The media’s negative impact on society is less understood (in part because the media does not talk about it very often). It’s deficiencies, however, are fundamental.

First, the media is partisan. A strong majority of journalists are liberal; there’s a robust conservative minority; and in between is an apolitical middle. This mix of ideologies interacts in a modern media ecosystem that has devolved into a fragmented echo chamber of bias and prejudgment.

The near-unlimited menu of news content — on television, radio, the Internet, and print — allows people to gravitate towards what they want. It also insulates them from what they don’t want. The hyper-partisanship of modern times rages on because most people rarely confront the unfiltered views of those with whom they disagree.

Second, the media’s incentive structure is misaligned. Journalists goals are often at odds with accurate reporting. They are motivated to become famous; to win awards; to create buzzworthy headlines; to sell the news. Boring stories that objectively explain slow-moving or unexciting subject matter — no matter how important — do not generate excitement. And positive or congratulatory articles about people in power — no matter how impressive their accomplishments — are snoozers likely to be ignored.

Controversy sells. Substance does not. The bigger the controversy, the more the eyeballs; the more the eyeballs, the more the clicks; the more the clicks, the more the advertising revenue. And so on.

This flywheel has accelerated exponentially in the modern age of unlimited content, deep fragmentation, and decreasing media-company profit margins. The 24-hour news cycle is fueled not by thorough and objective analysis but instead by the snap-shot partisanship that people crave.

Finally, the media produces oversimplified narratives. By its very nature — short and abbreviated explanations of large and complicated subject matter — much of today’s journalism is misleading and lacks context.

It is essential that the public is apprised of important facts regarding society. All too often, however, journalists weave these facts into incomplete or inaccurate storylines. Waiting for all the facts to emerge when your competition already tweeted its headline is simply not an option. It took Robert Mueller two years to opine on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. The media did not have that luxury.

The frenetic competition to generate more clicks — to perpetually fill the 24-hour news cycle with stimulating content — forces media institutions to publish the best of what’s known, even if it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Put simply: You publish the story you have, not the story you might want.

Despite these problems, the media is not the enemy of the people. It is, instead, the frenemy of the people: it serves an indispensable function in our democracy while, at the same time, having its own set of deficiencies. Trump’s criticism of the media goes way too far. But those who underplay its systemic problems have it wrong, too.

William Cooper lives in Truckee.


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