But Can the Media Understand Its Fundamental Deficit?


Let me say at the outset that I’m happy to include Rhode Island Public Radio’s Scott MacKay among the local journalists who are starting to ask the right questions:

Reporting was once a high blue collar craft. New York journalistic icon Jimmy Breslin said that the best training for reporting was to spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cab driver. Journalists of a certain age can remember when the path to the Washington news elite began at a Podunk newspaper or radio station after school at a state university or modest college. Reporters covered cops, teachers, politicians and were first name acquaintances with the local preacher and town crank.

For all that, I don’t think MacKay quite “gets it,” to use his own phrase.  The impression is that he’d very much like news outlets to cultivate employees who have less-refined backgrounds than your typical Ivy League graduate, but that he still believes it’s necessary for them to come to the same ideological conclusions.  Consider:

  • “The issues raised by Bernie Sanders were too often ignored or lampooned by reporters.”
  • “The contractions [in news rooms] have severely diluted minority hiring.”
  • “… don’t hold your breath waiting for that article or an in-depth look at what the decline of private sector unionism has meant.”

The most important oversight in MacKay’s essay, though, comes with this: “big media underestimated the mistrust among average Americans in government and politics.”  If Scott would like to know who’s missing on that list of the mistrusted, he should go into the office this weekend and stand in the news room for a while.  Perhaps the largest component of Donald Trump’s political positioning was mistrust of the media.  

Y’all are part of the insider system, of the rigging.  If you want people to heed your warning when you insist that President Trump is doing something scandalous, you’ll need to convince people that the stories are not just a continuation of a concerted, deliberate effort over decades to shift the political balance based not on truth, but on ideology and elite self-interest.  If you want people to renew their subscriptions and donations, you’ll have to seat people at those empty desks next to yours who speak to the audiences that Trump reached.  That’ll mean a different kind of “minority hiring.”

Even enthusiastically embraced, renewed consumer interest and trust will take years to cultivate, and frankly, I don’t expect to see evidence of much enthusiasm at all, partly because I think the industry, generally, is more concerned about explaining why its monolithic beliefs are true than in finding out what the truth is, or even in sustaining a business model.

I’m ever a frustrated optimist, though, so I’ll keep an open mind.  An early indicator will be whether MacKay and his peers continue to side with the sorts of people who happily proclaim in public that “white people betrayed the working class,” or whether they’ll start to show credulity for those of us who see a rigged system in legislative grants and Little League jerseysProvidence Journal endorsements, corporate sponsorships, and curiously one-sided mail ballots.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I fear the problem started when we dumped “reporters” in favor of “Journalists”.
    “A study cited frequently by those who make claims of liberal media bias in American journalism is The Media Elite, a 1986 book co-authored by political scientists Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda Lichter. They surveyed journalists at national media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the broadcast networks. The survey found that the large majority of journalists were Democratic voters whose attitudes were well to the left of the general public on a variety of topics, including issues such as abortion, affirmative action, social services and gay rights. The authors compared journalists’ attitudes to their coverage of issues such as the safety of nuclear power, school busing to promote racial integration, and the energy crisis of the 1970’s and concluded firstly that journalists’ coverage of controversial issues reflected their own attitudes and education, and secondly that the predominance of political liberals in newsrooms pushed news coverage in a liberal direction. The authors suggested this tilt as a mostly unconscious process of like-minded individuals projecting their shared assumptions onto their interpretations of reality, a variation of confirmation bias.”