With the dawn of a new administration, some in the media clearly seem to be struggling with precisely went so wrong last November. A bit of a postmortem is always in order after such a jarring event and that’s clearly going on at the Washington Post these days. In a piece which carries the hopeful title of, A free press is for all of us now, WaPo editorial writer Jonathan Capehart explores the ever changing media landscape and how the trust of the public in the Fourth Estate has eroded so badly.
He cites a recent conference in Morocco where journalists are called upon to answer for their sins and approvingly cites the comments made there by New York Times writer Steven Erlanger, among others. Erlanger was an odd choice to focus on, particularly when you consider he’s gotten in some trouble before for plagiarizing the work of others, but he actually makes a salable case for how newspapers choose the stories they focus on. He also plausibly excuses the occasional sensationalism of bleeding edge topics, but then veers off into some commentary on liberty and the role of the press which I’ll leave you to click through and read for yourself. What interested me most, however, what what Jonathan took away from this in terms of “responsible journalism” and the problems caused by the consumers of news rather than the providers. (Please read this brief passage carefully… some emphasis added.)
Erlanger is right. A free press applies to all kinds, the responsible and the deplorable. Gowing is right. That free press now includes and competes with other platforms and sources — Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. — that are disrupting not only how people get their news but who they trust to give them their news. But what neither demands is an end to the passivity of the news consumer. In our current Wild West news landscape where the Internet and social media have eliminated gatekeepers and eroded confidence in once-trusted sources, there is only so much hand-holding a journalist can do to ensure the public is informed. If the public is duped by fake news or irritated by what news has become, it shares in the blame.
Capehart also quotes J. Peter Pham from the aforementioned conference and quotes something very telling which he had to say about the rise of competing, new media sources. “The host of other sources and platforms, often uncurated, means that we do not have control over what you are concerned about anymore.”
Before launching into this rant I’d like to point out that I genuinely like Jonathan Capehart. We don’t agree on much in politics or culture, but he’s a skilled writer who is genuinely likable. He’s a calm figure in an industry which is generally boiling over with hot takes and he has the ability to interview and rationally discuss matters of import with people of other political leanings. He kindly granted us an interview for our site in the past and he’s always an engaging commentator.
But that’s what makes this column all the more alarming for me personally. To be honest, my hands nearly begin shaking when I read something like this from journalists and editors because it’s frustrating in the extreme. Take for example Pham’s use of the word “uncurated” in the above passage. This has been showing up more and more in media circles, being used in a new and strikingly ironic way. Originally we generally thought of curation in terms of the job of a museum curator. It’s an important role in the art world because there are untold numbers of artists with their various offerings, ally vying for public attention. It’s the daunting task of a museum or gallery curator to sort through all of it and make selections on your behalf, deciding what the public will see and which artists will languish in obscurity.
I’m grateful that Capehart included that passage because what he and so many of his colleagues in the old media still seems to be entirely failing to grasp is that the “curation” process in news media was the problem all along! Look at the first sentence in the excerpted quote above. Jonathan identifies and links to two news sources which he labels as “the responsible and the deplorable.” The responsible link goes, of course, to his own paper. The deplorable link takes us to… Breitbart. And this is what leads to my incredible sense of frustration. Jonathan, you created Breitbart. (And by “you” I mean the Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS News, MSNBC and a host of others too numerous to list here.) The mainstream media generated the vacuum in news coverage which was filled by the bloggers and your resistance to that tidal wave of change is what turned Andrew Breitbart into a legendary figure. Capehart speaks longingly of the era of “the gatekeepers” in his piece, but nobody else is looking at that as the Golden Age. When the barbarians arrived to tear down the gates of the old media empire it wasn’t because they were too ignorant to appreciate good journalistic curation. If you are “curating” the news in a way which only serves the interests of one ideological slice of the country you are harming more than a few starving artists. You are failing to provide informative news across the entire spectrum which would allow everyone of all political stripes to form their own educated conclusions. The “problem” is that we noticed what you were doing.
When a study of MSM news coverage from the last election showed that one candidate received 91% negative or hostile coverage while the other was handled with comparatively kid gloves, there should have been some alarm bells going off inside the editorial offices of the major papers. When my daily email from the WaPo listing the current editorial columns looks like this as recently as this week, it tells me that somebody still hasn’t gotten the memo. You’ve been curating the hell out of the news for years and the problem with that wasn’t the shortcomings of the unwashed masses you were peddling your newspapers and cable TV roundtables to.
It’s depressing to read a wistful essay on the importance of the Fourth Estate and the critical nature of the duties they undertake, yet continue to see this abject denial of reality. Rather than bemoaning “fake news” and hurling cow pies at new media competitors, it might be time to stop asking what’s wrong with the audience and take a look at the performers on the stage. If you want them to pay for tickets to your theater, put on a higher quality production.