Expect lots of dunking from MSNBC’s ideological opponents over Ariana Pekary’s valediction, but she’s talking about more than one form of social cancer. Pekary quit the progressive cable net after becoming disillusioned with its editorial priorities — namely, ratings over facts. MSNBC isn’t the only outlet making that decision, Pekary warns, but she can only quit one job at a time, too:
“We are a cancer and there is no cure,” a successful and insightful TV veteran said to me. “But if you could find a cure, it would change the world.”
As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others… all because it pumps up the ratings.
This cancer risks human lives, even in the middle of a pandemic. The primary focus quickly became what Donald Trump was doing (poorly) to address the crisis, rather than the science itself. As new details have become available about antibodies, a vaccine, or how COVID actually spreads, producers still want to focus on the politics. Important facts or studies get buried.
This cancer risks our democracy, even in the middle of a presidential election. Any discussion about the election usually focuses on Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, a repeat offense from 2016 (Trump smothers out all other coverage). Also important is to ensure citizens can vote by mail this year, but I’ve watched that topic get ignored or “killed” numerous times.
Context and factual data are often considered too cumbersome for the audience. There may be some truth to that (our education system really should improve the critical thinking skills of Americans) – but another hard truth is that it is the job of journalists to teach and inform, which means they might need to figure out a better way to do that. They could contemplate more creative methods for captivating an audience. Just about anything would improve the current process, which can be pretty rudimentary (think basing today’s content on whatever rated well yesterday, or look to see what’s trending online today).
The problem for MSNBC and other media outlets with explicitly ideological audiences is that there really is no other way to feed them. At a conference in Israel a few years ago, I shared a stage with MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who emphasized that their deliberate strategy involved establishing an ideological identity around which a loyal community would form. And they have largely succeeded, although it has also turned out to be limiting — both in audience reach, and as Pekary makes clear, in informative value too.
That has to be frustrating for journalists like Pekary would value informing over inflaming, and substance over blind partisanship. Don’t think for a moment, though, that this is a problem limited to MSNBC. And for that matter, don’t think for a moment that it’s a problem limited to media outlets, either. This model works because consumers reward it. They also tend to punish media outlets that report stories that argue against their preferred narratives. Donald Trump has made Fox News a particular target, for instance, when they cover stories that tend to negate his agenda or criticize his performance.
Some are better about this, and perhaps none are as bad as MSNBC is in its ideological conformity. Don’t think for a moment that this cancer is entirely localized at this outlet, though.
The only real cure for this is for consumers to demand journalism over rally points, and to eschew news-as-entertainment for truly informative reporting. Until then, we’re getting the journalism we reward, and as Pekary declares, we’re not getting much of it at all.