Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
For NBC contributor Matt Lauer, the Commander-in-Chief Forum was supposed to be a shining moment. Instead, it turned into one of the most lackluster moderator performances in recent memory, perhaps one he’d soon like to forget.
“This is embarrassingly bad,” wrote Tommy Vietor, a former aide to President Obama. “[Matt Lauer] should have been prepared for this,” insisted Glenn Kessler, chief fact checker at The Washington Post. “This is NBC, once again, tilting in the direction of show business instead of journalism,” bemoaned David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun.
This is hardly the first time people have been critical of the mainstream media, let alone NBC. Often times it’s conservatives who use the phrase “mainstream media” (even “lamestream media”) as a bludgeon to knock down the arguments of liberals. Yet, media bias is by no means decried by only conservatives. New media outlets like The Young Turks, Secular Talk, and Mother Jones have emerged for liberals and progressives wary of the corporate bias they perceive in outlets like CNN, The New York Times, and even other online outlets like Vox.
This flight from the mainstream media has taken its toll. Newsstand sales for Time, The Economist, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker have plummeted since 2008. And newspapers have been closing down and downsizing for the past ten years.
So who’s to blame for this? In short, everyone. The media, the politicians, and us.
How false equivalence turned into “objectivity”
The easy culprit in all of this is a media on the verge of obsession with being “fair and balanced.” Across the political spectrum, but especially on the left, the almost maddening equivalence between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump portrayed by the media is constantly decried. Back in March, The New York Times ran a story titled “2 Front-Runners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Find Their Words Can Be Weapons.” What words exactly? Well, Mr. Trump’s use of the words “bimbo,” “dog,” and “fat pig” to describe women he disliked, and Mrs. Clinton’s declaration that her energy plan would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Clearly, the two are on par: Mr. Trump uses schoolyard bullying tactics and name-calling, and Mrs. Clinton displays slight callousness towards working class Americans. It’s a wash, right?
Perhaps the most egregious example of this desire to appear unbiased is the way the media describes climate change. Let’s be clear here. There is only one set of facts when it comes to climate change. These facts, as interpreted by 97% of climate scientists and 99.9% of peer-reviewed journal articles, demonstrate that climate change is not only real, but is causing devastating environmental catastrophes right now.
So let’s give equal time and platform to both climate change scientists and climate change deniers (or “doubters”, as the AP calls them). The result? A Gallup poll in March showed that only 33% of Americans were worried a “great deal” about climate change. Those who worried “only a little/not at all,” 40%. No wonder politicians do nothing about it.
This attempt at equality hasn’t worked. A USA Today poll last year showed only 24% of Americans believed the news media “tries to report the news without bias.”
But the media isn’t solely at fault for this mess.
Using access as a weapon
Everyone hates politicians, or so the colloquialism goes. To a certain degree, they should, because politicians aren’t blameless in the demise of the mainstream media. Over the course of our history, the news media has played a crucial role in breaking stories on Washington’s worst, from the Pentagon Papers, to Watergate, all the way to Edward Snowden and the NSA.
So how have politicians fought back? By restricting access. As much as liberals like President Obama, his administration has been one of the most opaque in modern history. In fact, in March of last year, the President rescinded a regulation requiring the administration to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. The administration has also limited the access of reporters to White House events and to the President.
But the problem goes much deeper than the top. Local government officials often simply refuse to speak to reporters or journalists they dislike. Candidates for office at all levels of government restrict the media to “press areas,” ensuring that their conversations are not overheard.
Perhaps most appalling is Trump’s campaign, which has already taken away press passes from numerous news organizations. Trump has publicly vowed to “open up” libel laws so he can go after news outlets that report negatively about him. This has caused the reporters who are still allowed at his events to fear “losing access,” as former “Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones put it.
And they should fear. For many media outlets, this restriction of access can be a death sentence. Less access means fewer stories broken, which means fewer article hits online and fewer newspapers sold on the street. Revenue inevitably plummets.
News was never free – but now we expect it to be
No one is blameless for the demise of the mainstream press, but much of the responsibility sits at our feet. Newspapers have been losing significant chunks of revenue for the past decade. This primarily stems from the fact that print ads just aren’t as popular as they used to be, coupled with the fact that online ads don’t generate nearly as much revenue. In fact, between 2004 and 2014, online ad revenue for newspapers rose $2 billion, while print ad revenue fell $30 billion. That’s a $28 billion net loss. This has taken a huge toll on local newspapers, causing as many as 35% of them to go under. So it’s hardly surprising that many news outlets simply run “clickbait” headlines in an effort to generate more revenue.
But this isn’t surprising considering that a Reuters poll of readers from April found that a whopping 66% said they wouldn’t be willing to pay for any online news, regardless of quality. Everyone wants news outlets they can trust, but no one wants to pay for them. In the age of the Internet, we’ve all come to expect news to be free. But the reality is that it isn’t. Journalists certainly aren’t free, and neither are editors or management.
All of us—media, politicians, and citizens—must work to bring the Fourth Estate back to its once-glorious perch, because change comes from the bottom up. If we really are a society that prides itself on keeping our politicians in check, perhaps we should start to pay our press so they can do exactly that.
Featured image courtesy of the AP.