In Defense of the Media

The Occupy Wall Street manifesto and recent round of arrests have sparked more bashing of the “media” by not just the usual suspects but people I generally respect.  Considering they’re presumably including me in that statement, lumping me with all sorts of people who give us as a whole a bad name, I can’t help but reply.

First off, an abbreviated version of my rant about “media”.  To classify all news-gathering organizations under the same broad umbrella is absurd and to assign motives to that umbrella is downright ignorant.  There are many divisions to the media: Local and national, written and visual, partisan and non-partisan, daily and 24-hour, not to mention all the smaller divisions.  And all these diverse groups agree to cover and ignore certain things based on some secret Media Handbook that dictates what’s kosher?  At the very least, when you complain, complain about the group actually responsible.  (Hint: You usually mean cable news networks, a group with more issues than I could even begin to cover in one blog post.)

Also, as for credentials, a bit about why I have the arrogance to speak for the media as a whole.  I’m the Database Producer with the Bay Area News Group in California.  I rarely write, my time is spent on data analysis and putting public information online, but I spend five days a week in a newsroom of the fifth-largest daily newspaper group in the United States.  Not only do I have an insider’s view of one branch of media but my position immerses me in other forms far more than the average employed, sane person would or could see.

(I don’t, however, speak for the Bay Area News Group or any of my colleagues.  All opinions expressed are my own.)

Now that the formalities are over with, on to the responses to criticisms.  Let’s begin with a line from Occupy Wall Street itself:

They [corporations] purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.

This is vague enough to be complex.  Ignoring that media organizations are owned by corporations like essentially every other organization in the modern world, I’ve yet to witness any sort of corporate or governmental manipulation in my sliver of the media.  The work I’ve done has made a lot of people unhappy, many of whom in various governments, and nobody has ever tried to stand in my way.  In fact I’m confident that if anyone were to try to stand in the way of most of my colleagues they would take enough offense that it would actually motivate them to be more thorough in the story.

Does that mean it never happens?  Of course not, I’m not in every newsroom in the country and I’m not part of a national media outlet.  I’ve heard the stories of Fox News editors getting their direction from party operatives.  However I would be shocked if it was pervasive enough to warrant a sweeping statement such as the one Occupy Wall Street included in their statement.

The key, as with most things, is never to assume a conspiracy when good old fashioned cynicism will suffice.  If it was true that corporations were keeping the population afraid with an iron-fisted domination of the media, how long would it take before an idealistic journalism school graduate smuggled out the memos or recorded a meeting and blew the lid off it?  I’d give it about 15 minutes.  Instead it’s merely an innocent ratings-grab; people are more likely to tune in when they think their very life depends on it.  That’s why it’s more common from TV and online outlets with sophisticated tracking metrics and fluid audiences than a daily newspaper with subscribers who get the paper every day whether they’re scared or not.

Next up is a pair of tweets by William Gibson:

MSM will automatically focus on “non-average” visuals, because it marginalises the narrative. “Oh, it’s just them. Making trouble again.”

Okay, no “MSM”, just “media”, in pre-digital sense. And not as a conspiracy theory, at all. Something in the broader culture. A tribalism.

Obviously from the “visuals” he means TV so I’ll skip the defense of print this time.

There’s no malice intended by focusing on non-average visuals and it’s certainly not any sort of tribalism around marginalizing narratives.  If an editor somewhere with bias and hate in his cold, black heart wanted to marginalize a narrative the story would never see air in the first place.  The problem with cable news that leads to minimal coverage of Occupy Wall Street and the focus on hippies getting beat up by cops is two-fold, one practical and one simply cynical.

The practical reason is that “non-average visuals” as Gibson puts it are simply better TV.  There’s a reason that no movie, TV show or book is about an average person in an average situation.  If Gibson wrote novels about average people going to work every day and relaxing on weekends and not doing anything out of the ordinary they’d never get published.  Cable news, unfortunately, plays by the same rules.  Nobody wants to see something that you could see by going outside, they would just turn off the TV and go outside.  It’s the same reply to the old complaint that nobody ever runs good news: It’s not news unless it’s out of the ordinary in some way.

Sadly, it’s the reason the same reason banks cheating their customers and politicians catering to campaign donors over constituents barely gets coverage.  The reasoning is that it’s so common that pointing out every instance would almost immediately get old and repetitive.  (This perception, incidentally, is not true.  A recent story I worked on about county officials getting three IRS-maximum retirement plans got a huge reaction.  People get outraged when you confirm things their cynicism already suspects.  But I digress.)

The other half is cynicism.  The growing perception among large, national outlets is that people don’t want to be challenged, they don’t want gritty, nuts-and-bolts stories about corruption.  They think people want fast-moving lightweight stories so they give people exactly that.  Watch 30 uninterupted minutes of CNN and…well, Jon Stewart did, so here’s what you would see:

 

And you expect them to cover Occupy Wall Street? They aren’t marginalizing any narratives.  They’re just too busy racing to the bottom, scouring YouTube for cats putting on bunny masks, to notice that real news is going on.

What I’m saying here, the real point at the core of this whole thing, is that just being outraged at the media as a whole is unproductive.  For every CNN there’s a news outlet that actually does their job and breaks news.  Without the media that Occupy Wall Street despises so much they wouldn’t know Wall Street was doing anything to deserve an occupation in the first place.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Don’t hate a stereotype and don’t judge a large, diverse group by its worst examples.  Vote with your dollars, your clicks and your attention.  Punish the bad outlets by not going to their web sites or watching their broadcasts, reward the good by spreading links to real journalism.  Demonstrate in their language of ratings and pageviews that you value good work and don’t value filler and nonsense.

I promise you that if every story about Occupy Wall Street was at the top of its site’s most viewed list the media as a whole would be tripping over themselves to get a piece of that action.  But by shunning the media as a whole, by refusing to read the good with the bad?  You’re just letting people who really want to see a cat put on a bunny mask decide what their focus should be.

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