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Why the Press Sucks So Bad, Part One: A Look Back

Going back a few years (like 20), I was helping take care of a North Carolina bookstore for an ailing owner. Days were often quiet. It was a small place, easy to miss, not much foot traffic. So I read a lot. I’d poke around, find something I’d never heard of that looked interesting and dive in. One day I picked up a book called Who Killed CBS?. It was about the history of CBS news. Sure, why not, I thought. The writing was pretty solid, and I learned a fair bit about TV news and its relatively rapid shift from the sober seriousness of the 50s and 60s to the crass infotainment that crept in during the 70s, then exploded in the 80s and now seems to be never-ending. I had always hated TV news and stopped watching it altogether in my late teens. But that move was an instinctive thing. I didn’t really have a well-thought-through rationale. In the ensuing years though, I’ve given the broader journalism issue a lot of thought and a certain amount of study. And all that thinking has had a big impact on how I get my news and analysis — and how I put it in perspective once I get it.

To get at the current nature of TV news and the way it distracts, inflames and misinforms, I think it’s a good idea to look at what laid the foundation for it. Click To Tweet So, please forgive me. We have to go back a ways.

A little backstory

When you dig into the history of the American Revolution, the formation of the country, the letters of the early elites, the Federalist/Anti-Federalist Papers and the debate framing the Constitution, you get an idea of how conflicted, skeptical and downright fearful the Founding Fathers were about a broad-based democracy. That’s one of the reasons we wound up with the complicated multi-branch system of representative government we have. One of the Founders’ most democratic instincts, though, lay in their collective belief that a strong, independent and aggressive press was necessary to inform the citizenry and act as a check on power (there’s a reason we call the press ‘the fourth estate’ — they are essentially the semi-unspoken fourth branch of our government).

Even if those same founders hated the press once they became a part of the new American government, you have to give them props for recognizing and empowering the press in our foundational laws. They backed up their words to a significant extent too, because they didn’t just protect the press in the First Amendment and thoughtful libel and defamation laws, they funded it (in part).

Have you heard of the U.S. Postal Act of 1792? In addition to creating the role of Postmaster General and making the Postal Service part of the government, the act created government funding that paid for a significant share of the costs of distributing newspapers to readers near and far through the mail. And hell, if you were a publisher and you sent your newspaper to another publisher in a different town or state for them to sell, it was freakin’ free! Among other things, this allowed newspapers to control the costs they asked readers to pay for their content, a huge help. (as an aside, Nixon ended all of this in 1970 when, in response to a major postal workers strike, he signed a law that dismantled this system and turned the Post Office into a for-profit company that gets no budget from the government).

The trouble of funding and the obstacle of advertising

Despite all the early support given the press in this country, here’s the rub. The subsidies the government provided for newspaper distribution was certainly helpful, especially as printing technology improved, got cheaper and a more diverse group of people could publish. Noam Chomsky loves to talk about how many different types of press outlets there were in, say, the late 1800s. But as the press, along with American society, grew and got more complex it started costing real money to run a newspaper (or later, a radio or TV network). Civil servants, Congress, the President, and the Judiciary all get paid through our taxes. How do you pay the salaries of journalists and editors? They’re not part of the government. Sure, you’ve got what the readers paid for the journalism, but newspapers were and are pretty cheap. That revenue wasn’t always enough. So where do you get the money? Well, that was left up to the private market.

And what did that mean? Three main things, which have, over time, ended up seriously curtailing the check on power journalism was originally envisioned to be:

1. People with serious capital started to own and operate newspapers, consolidating them to create sizable profit-seeking corporations. These people (in the past, for example, the Hearsts or the Grahams, today the likes of Jeff Bezos) essentially became oligarchs. And, oligarchs have power interests that differ from the interests of ordinary citizens. They rub shoulders with people in the government and private sector they’re supposed to be critical of and keep at arm’s length. Even with halfway decent intentions, they can’t help but start skewing (or, often fabricating) the news to advance their priorities and the priorities of the people and institutions they hob-knob with. This is a horrible incentive structure for journalism.

2. Sensationalism. If a newspaper becomes a profit-seeking corporation, that means it has shareholders that exert power over it as well. They, along with the paper’s owner, expect a return on their investment — and that means the paper has to be in a constant state of growth. That cements changes in the objective of journalism from being a democratic watchdog that educates the public to being the seller of widgets, and as many as possible. The easiest road to greater sales quickly became lowest-common-denominator shit. Tabloid headlines. Lurid illustrations. Playing fast and loose with the facts. Hyperbole. Hysteria. Ginning up peoples’ emotions en masse. Remember that TV executive who basically said: “yeah, Trump’s a dipshit, but being so controversial, he‘s great for business”? That one statement is a shining neon example of how sensationalism brings customers, which brings profits, which has nothing to do with the original aim of educating the public and providing key oversight for an ostensibly democratic society.

3. Advertising. The critical source of revenue for newspapers became the market — a big part of that market was and is advertising for private businesses in the form of coupons, the classifieds (until the Internet) and, of course, ads. So not only did many newspapers need to turn a profit, since they’d become full-fledged companies, but their missions, as I alluded to in the paragraph above, changes from public education and democratic watchdogging to getting as many people as possible to see the ads that all the businesses paid for. On top of that, now the newspaper needed the companies that placed the ads. Better not run stories that piss them off, or they’ll pull their ads and fuck up your revenue. Also, many of the companies that placed the ads happened to be run by, yup, powerful or aspiring local and national oligarchs who aren’t that much different from the folks who owned and ran the newspapers. And they all knew each other, invested in each other, etc., etc. The takeaway? With this type of business model, it’s really hard to be a genuine check on power.

All of this stuff was firmly in place before we even got radio or TV. True, it wasn’t monolithic. By the 1890s, we had anti-trust laws that were enforced and that kept the corporate papers from getting too, too big. We had plenty of small presses and magazines that got by on sales and subscriptions more than ad revenue. But the predominant business model structured the press in such a way that we see obstacle upon obstacle being thrown up for actually fulfilling the promise of the press as a critical part of the functioning of a democracy.

It would have been great if the Founding Fathers had a little more foresight about how all this would go down. Or if Congress had seen fit to create public funding mechanisms for journalism, it being the hallowed fourth estate and all. But the American Revolution was driven by men of property who believed in private enterprise, emphasis on the private. In that light, it’s kind of remarkable they went as far as they did to create conditions for a robust, oppositional press in this country. Much of the rest is up to us.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll get into how these pre-existing structures started to lean towards the powerful even more as the reality of mass communication and propaganda (driven by large radio, magazine and newspaper networks) collided with the U.S. becoming a world power. In part 3, we’ll take a look at how the experience of TV news, its actual aesthetic, has a profound effect on our ability to think things through. Stay tuned.

“All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.” ― Will Rogers

Stephen Boni
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Stephen Boni

Stephen Boni is a writer of socio-political missives, children’s books and emails. Lots and lots of emails. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.
Stephen Boni
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