(Friday Filosophy from 7/22/22)
Happy Freakin’ Friday!
This week's postcard is coming to you from Sofia, Bulgaria, where I’ll be conducting some seminars over the weekend. And the topic that has me grinding my molars is the media, and specifically the journalism element of it.
Before you turn away, thinking journalism is a boring topic that’s irrelevant to you, please don’t. Because the reason I’m thinking about it and believe you should be thinking about it, is that we need to not just save journalism – but prevent the media outlets involved from tearing us apart.
If you read Risky Is the New Safe, or Mad Genius, you know I warned about the ethical issues and dilemmas that disruptive developments in technology would create for us. As I said in those books, mobile changes everything about everything. The internet and social media blow up everything you thought you knew about marketing and branding. These changes taken together eviscerate the traditional advertising revenue model. One sector in particular these changes has disrupted is the business model of journalism: Where and how we get news.
Until recently, we have entrusted the media to report the news that we need to be an informed electorate. We knew (or believed) journalists had our backs and would comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. There was always some inherent bias, of course, but guardrails were in place to keep it from being hijacked by the lunatic fringes. In what passes for journalism now, the lunatics are driving the bus and the voices of reason are now the fringes. Journalism stopped being a public service and became a lucrative industry in its own right run by multi-billion-dollar media empires. These multinational corporations no longer function as news reporting or informed analysis, but are dependent on shock, negativity, and clickbait.
We used to have three major television networks that were expected to be part of the infrastructure of democracy, and they dutifully dedicated 30 or 60 minutes every evening to journalists like Edward R. Morrow, Walter Cronkite, and David Brinkley to facilitate an informed electorate. Even news networks don’t really have time for news any longer. We’ve filled the gap with provocative personalities like Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Tucker Carlson, and Kayleigh McEnany. And because the menu describes the available flavors well, so we can select to watch only the shows that pander to our worldview.
Newspapers used to break stories like the Pentagon Papers. Now we have to settle for reprinted corporate press releases, listicles on the biggest NFL draft pick flops, and their commitment to “dish the gossip” from Hollywood. Culture wars have been around as long as we’ve had cultures and it’s doubtful that humanity will ever build complete immunity against them. But we’ve now reached a very unhealthy boiling point. Hate and intolerance are being exponentially multiplied by the media because it needs contrived controversy, outrage, and fear of others in order to maximize profitability.
What we used to call news organizations have now morphed into media conglomerates. And since their focus has switched from reporting the news to generating ad views, it’s created ripple effects on us all. The neural links in the human brain are being retrained, creating an inability for many people to process anything longer than 60-second TikTok videos or 280-character tweets. The digital native generations have devolved into having an attention span rivaling that of a gnat. Most importantly, there is no viable business model for a media outlet to report the news. They need advertising, subsidies, or subscriptions.
The advertising model corrupts the process and we’ve already seen the damaging effects of that. Government subsidies make the media dependent on the source they are meant to check, so there is an inherent conflict of interest. On the surface, the subscription model looks like a good fix. People can subscribe to long form podcasts, or writers on platforms like Substack who don’t have to depend on ad revenue or subsidies. But the problem is human nature leads us to only gravitate (and subscribe) to platforms that pander to our existing worldview.
Both social media and government have a vested interest in nurturing your fear and outrage to drive you further down an ideological rabbit hole. If we don’t find a viable business model for journalism, the polarization will continue to deteriorate further. In the war between critical thinking individuals and algorithms, the algorithms are winning.
Thought of the day: There are legions of people who will doubt you, ridicule you, and even try to sabotage you. If you don’t fight for your dreams, they win.