The Media is the Message

This war has served to accelerate a trend in news media that has been going on for some time. Let's lay some groundwork first, however. If you look back at the US newspapers of the colonial period, you will see that they were seldom objective. This remained true through the 1800's (civil war reporting was far from objective) and into the early 1900's. The very idea of objective journalism seems to have been a product of the consolodation of the newspapers in the early to mid 1900's. With more and more areas having fewer and fewer newspapers, the corporations that were consolodating the market needed to reassure the people that the truth would out, because their journalists had no axe to grind. They would just tell the objective truth.

This was hogwash, of course. Nobody can be completely objective for several reasons. First, everyone is the sum of all that has happened to them, so everyone will process incoming information against a different personal database. More importantly, complete objectivity would call for complete information and no one but God can lay a claim to knowing the complete story. It's also worth noting that no news story stands in a vacuum. It's the product of one or more writers, plus one or more editors. The story is going to be seen in the context of both its era and the stories that surround it. Even if the individual reporter could be completely objective, the final result would not be.

As the twentieth century wore on, new media came into being. Both radio and television, however, were expensive to deliver and they soon conglomerated into a relatively few outlets. The resulting fierce competition amongst the few choices again made the message of objectivity a necessity: "watch our network, we'll tell you everything you need to know because we're all about the objective truth." Each media outlet needed a large, mainstream percentage of the market because their costs were high and their investments large. Pandering to any opinion outside of the mainstream would sink them.

The idea of journalistic objectivity was still hogwash, of course. Over the course of thirty years, from the sixties through the eighties, no new media were invented. The existing news media settled into comfortable positions. "Sure, sure," they said, "we're objective... no doubt about it... why everyone knows that journalism is all about objectivity... now here, watch this news report that's just as good as all the others because they all say the same thing anyway." The media became complacent in their positions. Objectivity was the accepted norm, so they didn't really need to strive for it. Soon, they all learned to stay on the same message of social liberalism mixed with corporate boosterism and suspicion of all information delivered by any alternate to Big Media.

This was satisfying to a good percentage of the US population, and, even better, those who weren't satisfied had few alternatives. Sure there were a few radical weeklies and the odd newsletter or magazine, but Big Media controlled the message completely.

Suddenly (by historical standards), two things upset the apple cart: cable TV and the internet. At first, they were small and ignored by Big Media. By the end of the 1900's, however, they had become impossible to ignore. The real problem wasn't that there was new media. That had happened before, first with radio, then with television. The problem was that the new media weren't terribly expensive to operate. Any yahoo could get a website or blog off the ground. Only a middling amount of capital was needed to start a cable news outlet; nothing like the capital needed to start a real television network. Consolidation need not happen.

The new media upstarts needed to steal audience from the existing media and they struck at the core vulnerability of the existing Big Media: objectivity. The new, smaller media could afford the luxury of appealing to a particular audience, rather than the universe of opinion. Their costs were lower and they could afford to play to a subset of the audience. Fox's cable news could slant to the right while CNN slanted to the left. Drudge could pull conservative page hits from ABC news while Salon pulled the liberal page hits to their site. Suddenly, Big Media is in a heap of trouble and I doubt they'll really recover. Instead, they'll have to find attitudes of their own and try to convince audiences to climb aboard those attitudes.

Finally, back to the war. It's a huge media event. Careers and fortunes will be made and destroyed in the media. The gloves are off and objectivity was the first casualty. Here's the wonderful secret, though:

This is a really good thing.

Objectivity was worthless to start with. Much more truth will come out when multiple media compete to find the story that the most people find important. Most stories have at least two sides. Rather than relying on one person to somehow find an objective center, it's much more effective to let two reporters - each passionate about opposing sides of the issue - compete to convince their audience which side is best.

This leads to one point, though, that is the real message of this rant: if you want to stay informed, you have to consume your news from multiple media with conflicting views. If you don't do this, and you're just tuning into the side that reinforces your own viewpoint, then your opinions are worthless. Fox News isn't going to tell you everything you want to know about things going wrong in the war and NPR isn't going to tell you about things going right. They pander to the audience segment they've carved out.

So, when get up in the morning, listen to Fox while you get dressed. Listen to NPR in the car, then ABC when you get home at night. Read the NY Times in the morning and surf the Drudge Report at night. Mix it up, hear the story slanted every which way, then form your own opinions.

The Media is the Message, and if you're going to hear the whole message, you've got to consume media on every side.