The Business of the News is Business

"We are a cancer and there is no cure,"

Ariana Pekary, an MSNBC producer of whom I’d never heard, has resigned from the network and wants you to know why.

I don’t know what I’m going to do next exactly but I simply couldn’t stay there anymore. My colleagues are very smart people with good intentions. The problem is the job itself. It forces skilled journalists to make bad decisions on a daily basis.

You may not watch MSNBC but just know that this problem still affects you, too. All the commercial networks function the same – and no doubt that content seeps into your social media feed, one way or the other.

It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would “rate.” The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.

But behind closed doors, industry leaders will admit the damage that’s being done.

“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.”

Pekary has been in the news business for eighteen years. It has been thus much longer than that.

I’m about a decade older than her and vaguely remember the final years of nightly news programs anchored by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, and John Chancellor. In those days before cable news and, indeed, widespread cable television, the shows were akin to eating your vegetables. There was 22 minutes a day of news and, by golly, it was going to be the news they thought you should have. Why, there were even foreign correspondents.

But that was some four decades ago. Now, not only do the networks have to compete against one another, they have to compete against niche shows on cable that appeal to ideological biases. (Frankly, MSNBC was making no bones about that well before Pekary signed on.)

More importantly, they’re competing against everything else that’s on television at the moment. And everything that’s on the Internet.

Still, I don’t disagree with Pekary’s assessment of where that leaves us.

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).

First off, journalists can’t “teach and inform” if nobody is watching. Second, most of the people on MSNBC’s air aren’t journalists; they’re entertainers. And that’s true or the competition as well.

The obvious exception is public broadcasting. PBS and NPR don’t have to worry much about ratings. They do, indeed, tend to produce a lot more of the sort of coverage for which Pekary pines. But they cater to a very small, niche audience that would seek out quality coverage from elsewhere if neither of those networks existed.

Further, while I don’t match much in the way of television news these days and really haven’t since starting this blog 17 years ago, there’s no shortage of the type of analysis Pekary wants. Indeed, there’s far, far more of it than there was in Cronkite’s day. It’s just not on the nightly newscasts.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    I’ve said this before, but I had a professor who taught my science communication class, who said that she assiduously removed all news from her life, newspaper TV show radio etc., because it was worthless information that did nothing but add stress to her life. Plane crash in Peru kills three! Garbage information.

    I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to follow her example for 15 years.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Way back when I was a freshman in college, I’d read the NY Times and Boston Globe (it was a quality paper then) each day. One afternoon I was speaking to one of my Profs, I’d been impressed by his analysis of the days issues and was surprised when he told me that the only formal news he regularly consumed was one or more of the network news broadcasts. Questioned about that, he gave me an extended explanation, the short version being, that the headlines and context were all that was needed and life experience would fill in the rest. At that time, I wasn’t sure I believed him, but he was right.

    Cable news, the destruction of the locally owned daily newspapers, the fact that today most countries are down to one or two newspapers of record results in very little original reporting. Layer on the internet where virtually no original reporting exists, only opinion and analysis masquerading as journalism and it is no wonder people can’t share the same facts.

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  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I was in Broadcast Journalism; a news photographer/editor/producer. 3 EMMYs, a bunch of other awards.
    The day I knew I was done…
    We had been out working on a story about violence in schools as a follow up to a specific incident that had happened the day before…a girl had acid thrown on her face in a school stairwell.
    When we got back to the newsroom we found out everything had been dropped, for OJ.

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  4. Kathy says:

    My first year of junior high school, on World History class, the teacher* assigned us to read the newspaper, so we could bring a clipping once a week to class, when we’d discuss some of them.

    I did very badly with that for several reasons, but I got into the habit of skimming the daily paper beyond the entertainment, fashion, and sports sections. I also realized I got a more concise coverage of foreign affairs by watching NBC or CBS news on cable (here it was only on cable back then).

    *She was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and definitely the best history teacher. Years later in college in a world history class, I grew incredibly bored because I’d already learned all that in junior high school!

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    Way back when I was in college I realized that not only was TV Network news bad, but that the failure was designed in. For a decade I didn’t watch a single network news broadcast but subscribed to NYTimes and the local paper, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Harpers, Utne reader, Scientific American and a few other things. In 199o I returned from a two year stint overseas and stayed with my brother who didn’t have a TV, but since the US was starting the Persian Gulf war we wanted to see video. It turns out he had won a tiny little (3″ screen? 2.5″ screen?) TV receiver as a door prize at a conference so he dug that out and we walked it around the apartment until we found a place where it could tune in the news. We sat on the floor and watched that thing for a couple hours. That was the last time I ever watched a network broadcast since not long after you could get video on the internet (not yet the web).

    Network news is for video and the crudest of headlines. Not worth the effort. For someone to go from NPR to Network News and expect anything else is simply wishful thinking. It’s like going from professional golf to professional wrestling.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    The problem is not the news outlets. I watch maybe 45 minutes a day now of MSNBC. I also read the NYT, WaPo, WSJ, LA Times, Guardian, Politico, BBC, Daily Beast, Axios and this blog daily, as well as checking up on poll numbers.

    It is really not that hard to stay reasonably well-informed.

    People make a choice not to be informed. Some find current events boring, some find it stressful, others are not equipped to understand, and many deliberately choose only self-soothing news. But there is plenty of information out there. What we’re missing is a unifying, consensus news source. It’s that basic consensus we miss, we aren’t short of news.

    What’s lacking is fundamental education in civics, geography, science and history. Without that it’s very hard to understand what’s going on in the news. The problem is less with people educated in the last 10 to 20 years than it is with older people. I think in good school systems we’re doing a better job now than we were 30, 40, 50 years ago, but those older generations were never equipped to do more than absorb a 30 minute nightly newscast and believe what they were told. And they were certainly never taught how to think.

    So we have generations of poorly-educated Americans with very limited analytical capability. We have to teach people how to think, because Walter Cronkite is not coming back, there will continue to be a fire hose of information, there will continue to be propagandists ready to exploit that underlying failure to reason.

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  7. JKB says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    C.S. Lewis summarized your comment thusly:

    “Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who CAN be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

    — C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

    As for Ms. Pekary, she apparently is unaware of the saying, “If it bleeds, it leads”. The new addition is the low cost of switching away in between the bleeding stories so every story has to have a good hook.

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  8. Raoul says:

    You laud the Cato Intitute but wasn’t the Cato Institute run by Stephen Moore? Enough said.

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  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @JKB:
    A near perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
    A prime victim of propaganda explains others inability to detect propaganda.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    You have quite nicely validated my assertion that people – you – cannot think.

    You are incapable of commenting on current events without lying.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Raoul: I don’t think Moore ever ran Cato but he did work there. But so did Radley Balko. Its funders have an agenda but there’s solid work coming out of there. I tend to gloss over things coming from partisan outlets because you’ll never persuade someone who doesnt’ already agree with data that’s potentially skewed. It’s useful, though, for the “even the liberal Brookings . . . ” or “even the libertarian Cato . . . ” arguments.

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  12. Monala says:

    @JKB: you do realize that this comment was made by the villain of the novel? It wasn’t meant to be C.S. Lewis’ endorsement.

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  13. Mister Bluster says:

    @MarkedMan:..Utne reader

    I had forgotten all about Utne Reader. I was a print subscriber in the ’80s not long after it began.
    Earlier today I was looking for the following quote by George Seldes and stumbled on their website.

    The truth is not in the commercial media because the truth is a dagger pointed at its heart, which is its pocketbook.
    GS

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Monala: There you go again trying to cloud the issue by bringing up which character said it. And it’s so pointless anyway because once JKB ties the text to a chair and beats it with a rubber hose, even the text itself will agree with him. It’s simple Reader Response Theory–whatever the reader decides must be the truth.

  15. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mister Bluster:..print subscriber in the ’80s.
    No other option was there. Maybe audio tapes for the blind? Don’t know.

  16. Raoul says:

    The Cato website lists Stephen Moore as the former director of the fiscal policy studies for what it’s worth.

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  17. Gustopher says:

    First off, journalists can’t “teach and inform” if nobody is watching. Second, most of the people on MSNBC’s air aren’t journalists; they’re entertainers. And that’s true or the competition as well.

    Journalists are entertainers. That’s part of getting people to watch or listen.

    Rachel Maddow weaves a good story, and she has a team of journalists backing her up. Her podcast series about Spiro Agnew is top rate. Her daily show is like anything else done every day… up and down.

    Chris Hayes does indignation well, and informs on top of that.

    Lawrence O’Donnell exists.

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  18. Northerner says:

    @Monala:

    Though interestingly enough, it seems to be true that people with less education listen to less news, and tend not to believe what they hear. You see that in a lot of things, including the consistent 40% of eligible voters who don’t vote, often because they don’t trust any kind of authority, including the news. I did manual labor when I was in high school, and most of my co-workers were followers of the saying “Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.” I suspect few of them bothered voting.

    The problem of course is that ignorance isn’t really bliss. Their lack of following/believing the news means they don’t vote and don’t get involved in anything, which means someone like Trump can screw them without them even being aware of it.

  19. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    [The Cato Institute’s] funders have an agenda but there’s solid work coming out of there.

    OK, I will call your bluff. What specific piece of analysis from the Cato Institute do you consider to be “solid work”?