Hanging over the heads, literally, of the reporters and editors in The Washington Post’s newsroom on K Street are leaderboards that show which stories are clicking the best with readers in the digital world.
And what do the most active consumers of the Post want? Even on big news days, Post readers reliably plus-up stories that follow a couple of simple narratives: either wicked right-wingers getting their just desserts or the plights of innocents suffering because of right-wingers’ behavior.
Even on the day of the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the biggest foreign policy story in a decade, two of the top five most read Post stories, according to the site’s public rankings, were of these kinds. One was about a Syracuse, New York, police officer suing his department for alleged racial bias, citing comments his fellow officers made about his love of gangster rap and his Tupac Shakur tattoo. But the big mover was headlined “A conservative cardinal who criticized the vaccine caught Covid. Days later, he was put on a ventilator.”
The story about the hospitalization of 73-year-old Cardinal Raymond Burke, based entirely on a press release and some old articles, was so perfect for left-wing social media that it pushed ahead of gripping stories and images from Afghanistan. The paper’s tweet of the cheap, taunting Burke story got thousands of likes and retweets as well as a river of repetitive memes and cruel contempt in the comments. Gross. But so what? If bored, angry people want to go on the internet and post fake Charles Darwin quotes and argle-bargle about religion and science, it doesn’t do the rest of us any harm.
Except for this: The argle-bargle is the business model.
The industry that produces the raw material out of which Americans are supposed to build political consensus is sick. The path to profitability and survival for much of the news business now relies on products that are mostly either superficial fluff or distortions that exploit and deepen our country’s worsening political alienation. The hatred people feel for their fellow Americans is not just a byproduct of political coverage, but a necessary component of making much of that coverage profitable.
And it’s not like you don’t know it. Anger at or concern about the health of the news business was for decades a mostly right-wing issue. The focus was on Republican perceptions of liberal bias in the mainstream press, so Democrats mostly shrugged off the alleged problems. But in the past 20 years — particularly since 2015 and the ascendance of right-wing populism — the worries about how the news business works have become a bipartisan obsession. As with so much today, though, partisans are talking past each other as they seek to exploit the problem for their own advantage. It is sadly fitting that the acrid, partisanship-soaked public discourse created by our dumb news media prevents needed repairs to the media itself.
As a journalist, I believe that what is wrong with my vocation is harming Americans left, right and center. Major players in the news business are abusing their privileges and shirking their duties, and we all pay the price.
How media companies make or, quite often, lose money is a driving force behind the many ills that Americans understandably complain about in journalism: shoddy reporting, sensationalism, a preference for conflict and now, more than at any time in recent history, bias. As news outlets struggle to find profits after the great digital disruptions of the past two decades, the same social media pressures that did them in offer a pathway back to profits. Media scholar Andrey Miroshnichenko coined the phrase “post-journalism” to describe the trend. Unable to sell large, diverse audiences to advertisers, news outlets increasingly focus on developing highly habituated users.
To make the addiction model profitable, media companies need consumers to have strong feelings. Fear, resentment and anger help news outlets create deep emotional connections to users not just as users of a product, but as members of the same tribe. As Miroshnichenko put it: “To relocate the gravity of their operation from news to values.”
Me serving up green beans to viewers who had been spoon-fed ice cream sundaes for years came as a terrible shock to their systems.
In such a competitive marketplace, riling people up against the other side isn’t enough. You’ve also got to create a safe space for consumers to plop down and contentedly contemplate ads for beet-based nutrient powders and reverse mortgages. If you challenge their assumptions or suggest that their avatars in the culture war are wrong or losing, they may leave for competitors who offer more complete protection from harsh realities.
Take it from me. Despite a successful decade as the politics editor at the Fox News Channel, I got canned after very vocal viewers — including the then-president of the United States — became furious when our Decision Desk was the first to project that Joe Biden would win the former GOP stronghold of Arizona in 2020. The call was the handwriting on the wall for Trump’s chances, and it delighted Democrats almost as much as it infuriated MAGA land. Regardless of who won, we were proud to have beaten the competition yet again and defended the title network promos had given us as “the best in-class Decision Desk.” But even in the four years since the previous presidential election, Fox viewers had become even more accustomed to flattery and less willing to hear news that challenges their expectations. Me serving up green beans to viewers who had been spoon-fed ice cream sundaes for years came as a terrible shock to their systems.
After learning the journalism trade as a print reporter, a former mentor who had joined Fox News asked me to come aboard as politics editor. It was a perfect fit. I could continue to write and help coordinate political coverage, but at a much larger scale — including joining the sanctum sanctorum of the network’s Decision Desk. What followed were some of the most enjoyable, rewarding years of my career to date.
If I had a question or wanted an interview, campaigns got right back to me. My on-air analysis made it into coverage at other outlets, and I found myself as a regular panelist on the network’s marquee political show, “Special Report” with Bret Baier. I was on-air with the people who were my idols as a young politics nerd. I treasure the friendship that I made with the great Charles Krauthammer and the time I spent in greenroom banter with George Will. My near-daily hits with Megyn Kelly, first on her daytime show and then when she moved into prime time, were the most fun I ever had on-air. Working with her, Baier and Chris Wallace on presidential debates and election night coverage was a rollicking good time. After six years at the network, I came into the summer of 2016 in the pink. Our work was good, and I had found a balance between writing, shaping coverage and yapping on-air. My hit podcast with Dana Perino, “I’ll Tell You What,” was the cherry on top. I was, of course, in for another education.
I was not blind to the harms cable news was causing the country in the years that I worked at Fox, nor to many of the problems within my own company. But I was protected, comfortable and well compensated. I worked in a bubble within the network with colleagues I adored and respected and was free to do the work I love. I easily rationalized my participation as making the product better, even as the news division kept getting steamrolled by the opinion mongers. As long as I was never asked to lie or say something I didn’t believe, I could make my peace with it. Many people called me brave for standing up for our call in 2020 against the president and his mob. I was not being brave, just abiding by the deal I made with myself to try to stay normal-ish in a highly abnormal business.
The one thing that truly separates news from entertainment is that sometimes in the news business we have to tell people what they don’t want to hear. But that runs smack into the problem that Miroshnichenko talks about in his theory of post-journalism. If you’re trying to maintain your connection with an audience on an emotional level, telling them news that’s bad for their side breaks the spell. The outlet isn’t just an impartial entity delivering some unpleasant information; it has violated the trust of its highly habituated users.
When I went on-air in 2020 to defend the Decision Desk’s call that Biden would win Arizona, I was supremely confident. The team that Arnon Mishkin — whom that year we dubbed “Q-Arnon” — had built was the best in the business. And we had better survey data than the competition, thanks to our partnership with The Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center. The irony for Fox was that the call that so infuriated Trump and so many viewers was possible only because Rupert Murdoch had four years earlier yanked Fox out of the consortium of other networks paying for exit polls. He sure wasn’t wrong. The exit polls were bad and getting worse.
The future of post-journalism America is a country divided between the ill-informed and the uninformed.
So Arnon & Company built a better mousetrap, and that was even before we found out that the coronavirus pandemic would increase the share of mail-in ballots by as much as 50 percent. You can’t do an exit poll if nobody is exiting the polls, so while our competitors were scrambling to put together a system to accommodate the change, we had already tested our superior product in the 2018 midterms. It turned out to be a capability that the network would regret developing.
The rage directed at me was so intense because so many Fox viewers had grown accustomed to the casual exaggerations and relentless happy talk from opinion shows from morning till midnight. Had viewers been given a more accurate understanding of the race over time, Trump’s loss would have been seen as a likely outcome. Instead of understanding his narrow win in 2016 as the shocking upset that it was, viewers were told to assume that polls don’t apply (unless they were good for Trump) and that forecasters like me were going to be wrong again. But that overlooked the differences in the race from four years earlier. Trump outperformed expectations again, but he was too far down for even a 2016-sized bump to take him to victory.
Amid the geyser of anger in the wake of the Arizona call, Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, called for my firing and accused me of a “cover-up.” Covering up what, exactly? We didn’t have any ballots to count and we didn’t have any electoral votes to award. We were just some guys with a cool computer, lots of polling data and a lot of nicotine gum and coffee. But if you’ve been living comfortably in the climate-controlled emotions of post-journalism, when the real thing comes along, it’s a shock to the system.
The future of post-journalism America is a country divided between addicted, hyperpartisan super-users who derive a false sense of community from their connection to the provider and dropouts who understandably avoid the news but in the process become increasingly tuned out of civic life.
In other words: On one side, the ill-informed. On the other side, the uninformed.
So what are you going to do about it?
I have three questions for you to consider as you think about how much and what kind of news you should be consuming. Just as it is the duty of journalists to do our work with the health of the republic and our civil society in mind, you have to consider those things as you consume our product. Plus, you’ve got your own well-being and happiness to think of.
Are you inoculated against Arizona syndrome?
If you are consuming free news, you are not the customer, you are the product. Free outlets want to capture your attention and keep it as long as possible. Therefore, they have intense incentives to do whatever it takes to keep you glued. This was less of a problem in the old days of consolidated broadcast media, when news outlets had to aim for big, broad audiences. The product wasn’t always great, but balance, or at least its appearance, was essential if you wanted to talk to a third of the country. But as we’ve seen, the partisan concentrations in the audiences for major outlets are so high that broad appeal would be financial suicide today.
That’s why you’ve got to pay for at least some of your news. I do not like every story yielded by my subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. But that’s OK. In my mind, I’m only paying for the ones I like.
Read, listen and watch widely. Hear other perspectives than your own. Try on other points of view regularly. If you’re conservative, put on NPR in the morning. If you’re liberal, try or seek out opinion pieces from writers like George Will, Ross Douthat and Peggy Noonan on your editorial page. You will learn a lot, and understand more about where your fellow Americans are coming from. Stick to high-quality sources, but be daring. It won’t hurt you to be exposed to other ideas.
Also, it will inoculate you against the kind of bubbled thinking that made the very predictable outcome of 2020’s election into a constitutional crisis and a riot at the Capitol. The people who were duped by Trump and his “Stop the Steal” posse wouldn’t have been such easy marks if they had had a varied news diet.
If you learn to start questioning your own assumptions when consuming news, you may learn to love your fellow Americans just a little more. You may come to see them as people like you.
Is the controversy consequential?
When the vote is unanimous, the project is completed on schedule and the planes all arrive on time, it’s not big news. When the Senate deadlocks, the budget is busted and the airports are socked in by a storm, it’s a story.
But that doesn’t mean that every controversy is newsworthy.
You know when you went to the cafeteria and they said they had turkey, but it was really “turkey loaf,” a gelatinous log of gobbler bits pressed together and cooked in a steam kettle? Today’s news business can serve up the same thing.
A good way to tell the difference between news and newsloaf is to ask this question: Does the story impart new information or does it provide information about people’s feelings? A possible follow-up: Are the people in question famous? If you’re hearing about famous people talking about their feelings, a hot slab of newsloaf is probably what’s for dinner.
If the headline is “Secretary reveals (significant new information) during hearing,” you may be in line for the real thing. If it’s “Senator goes OFF on Cabinet secretary,” it’s newsloaf all the way, my friend.
Are you being skeptical or cynical?
Our culture war is taking place between imaginary armies, and because so many Americans live in politically homogeneous neighborhoods and consume siloed media, it’s very hard for them to see reality.
That’s why you have to learn to consume news skeptically, even from reliable outlets. I’m not talking about cynicism. I’m saying we should remember what David Hume wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Your wonderful mind is too good at rationalizing why the feelings you have are right. When you “trust your gut,” it’s really your brain that’s working overtime to make the case for doing or believing exactly what you want.
That’s why, when a story about your political opponents or your own tribe lines up just perfectly with your assumptions, look out. Are your political opponents wrong because they are bad people, or do you think they are bad people because they are wrong in your eyes?
If you learn to start questioning your own assumptions when consuming news, you may learn to love your fellow Americans just a little more. You may come to see them as people like you. That could lead to mutual respect and goodwill. Who knows? Maybe even sometimes a politics of solutions, not performative outrage.
I am encouraged by the fact that so many Americans of different points of view understand the problem of division and addiction as a media profit model. These companies don’t reward bad journalism because of political bias itself, but because it is easy and profitable. Their owners enjoy the clout that comes from the news business, but Jeff Bezos would still be selling you bubble-wrapped Chinese spatulas on Amazon if you didn’t read the Post. Rupert Murdoch just as happily takes ad money for showing Spanish-language soccer matches as he does from airing Fox News opinionators warning of the immigrant menace. It’s just that all the empty partisan engagement in that turbocharged geyser of feculence is too valuable for them to pass up.
There’s large and growing dissatisfaction among American news consumers with this profitable, yet shallow, slanted coverage that drives political division and rewards outrageous conduct. But we also have to remember that this is a demand-side problem, too. For hundreds of years, journalists worked under the assumption that what the public wanted was more information, faster and better. But once we reached the point where communication was instantaneous and the volume of information was unlimited, it turned out a lot of people just wanted superficial junk. It would be like installing a new $10,000 range in your kitchen and your family asking for mac and cheese out of the box every night. As with our track record with lots of other areas of hyperabundance — addiction, obesity, etc. — we humans are struggling badly with unlimited information access.
Eventually we will probably figure out how to be better producers and consumers of news, as we did with changes like the ones that followed radio and television. But why risk it? We can all be better citizens and neighbors to each other if we pay attention to our own media diets. Understanding different points of view means having an honest understanding of the other perspective, not a fun-house mirror version from a clickbait engineer working in a newsroom under a digital leaderboard. And it’s not very interesting or fun, either.