Media Chose to Lie, Not Go Broke

Martin Gurri tells the story how legacy print and tv news descended into deceit and rabble-rousing when faced with decline and eventual bankruptcy.  His article Slouching Toward Post-Journalism at City Journal is a thorough and probing analysis, of which only some excerpts are posted here, in italics with my bolds and images. The journey of the NY Times exemplifies how and why mass media went from informing to inflaming the public.

The New York Times and other elite media outlets have openly embraced advocacy over reporting.

Traditional newspapers never sold news; they sold an audience to advertisers. To a considerable degree, this commercial imperative determined the journalistic style, with its impersonal voice and pretense of objectivity. The aim was to herd the audience into a passive consumerist mass. Opinion, which divided readers, was treated like a volatile substance and fenced off from “factual” reporting.

The digital age exploded this business model. Advertisers fled to online platforms, never to return. For most newspapers, no alternative sources of revenue existed: as circulation plummets to the lowest numbers on record, more than 2,000 dailies have gone silent since the turn of the century. The survival of the rest remains an open question.

Led by the New York Times, a few prominent brand names moved to a model that sought to squeeze revenue from digital subscribers lured behind a paywall. This approach carried its own risks. The amount of information in the world was, for practical purposes, infinite. As supply vastly outstripped demand, the news now chased the reader, rather than the other way around. Today, nobody under 85 would look for news in a newspaper.

Under such circumstances, what commodity could be offered for sale?

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Times stumbled onto a possible answer. It entailed a wrenching pivot from a journalism of fact to a “post-journalism” of opinion—a term coined, in his book of that title, by media scholar Andrey Mir. Rather than news, the paper began to sell what was, in effect, a creed, an agenda, to a congregation of like-minded souls. Post-journalism “mixes open ideological intentions with a hidden business necessity required for the media to survive,” Mir observes. The new business model required a new style of reporting. Its language aimed to commodify polarization and threat: journalists had to “scare the audience to make it donate.” At stake was survival in the digital storm.

The experiment proved controversial. It sparked a melodrama over standards at the Times, featuring a conflict between radical young reporters and befuddled middle-aged editors. In a crucible of proclamations, disputes, and meetings, the requirements of the newspaper as an institution collided with the post-journalistic call for an explicit struggle against injustice.

The old media had needed happy customers. The goal of post-journalism, according to Mir, is to “produce angry citizens.” The August 2016 article marked the point of no return in the spiritual journey of the New York Times from newspaper of record to Vatican of liberal political furor. While the impulse originated in partisan herd instinct, the discovery of a profit motive would make the change irrevocable. Rutenberg professed to find the new approach “uncomfortable” and, “by normal standards, untenable”—but the fault, he made clear, lay entirely with the “abnormal” Trump, whose toxic personality had contaminated journalism. He was the active principle in the headline “The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity.”

A cynic (or a conservative) might argue that objectivity in political reporting was more an empty boast than a professional standard and that the newspaper, in pandering to its audience, had long favored an urban agenda, liberal causes, and Democratic candidates. This interpretation misses the transformation in the depths that post-journalism involved. The flagship American newspaper had turned in a direction that came close to propaganda. The oppositional stance, as Mir has noted, cannot coexist with newsroom independence: writers and editors were soon to be punished for straying from the cause. The news agenda became narrower and more repetitive as journalists focused on a handful of partisan controversies—an effect that Mir labeled “discourse concentration.”  The New York Times, as a purveyor of information and a political institution, had cut itself loose from its own history.

[The Russia Collusion story] was one of the most extraordinary episodes in American politics—and the first sustained excursion into post-journalism by the American news media, led every step of the way by the New York Times.

Future media historians may hold the Trump-Russia story to be a laboratory-perfect specimen of discourse concentration. For nearly two years, it towered over the information landscape and devoured the attention of the media and the public. The total number of articles on the topic produced by the Times is difficult to measure, but a Google search suggests that it was more than 3,000—the equivalent, if accurate, of multiple articles per day for the period in question. This was journalism as if conducted under the impulse of an obsessive-compulsive personality. Virtually every report either implied or proclaimed culpability. Every day in the news marked the beginning of the Trumpian End Times.

The sum of all this sound and fury was . . . zero. The most intensively covered story in history turned out to be empty of content. Mueller’s investigation “did not identify evidence that any US persons conspired or coordinated” with the Russians. Mueller’s halting television appearance in July 2019 convinced even the most vehement partisans that he was not the knight to slay the dragon in the White House. After two years of media frenzy came an awkward moment. The New York Times had reorganized its newsroom to pursue this single story—yet, just as it had missed Trump’s coming, the paper failed to see that Trump would stay.

Yet what looked like journalistic failure was, in fact, an astonishing post-journalistic success. The intent of post-journalism was never to represent reality or inform the public but to arouse enough political fervor in readers that they wished to enter the paywall in support of the cause. This was ideology by the numbers—and the numbers were striking. Digital subscriptions to the New York Times, which had been stagnant, nearly doubled in the first year of Trump’s presidency. By August 2020, the paper had 6 million digital subscribers—six times the number on Election Day 2016 and the most in the world for any newspaper.

The Russian collusion story, though refuted objectively, had been validated subjectively, by the growth in the congregation of the paying faithful.

In throwing out the old textbook, post-journalism made transgression inevitable. In July 2019, Jonathan Weisman, who covered Congress for the Times and happened to be white, questioned on Twitter the legitimacy of leftist members of the House who happened to be black. Following criticism, Weisman deleted the offending tweets and apologized elaborately, but he was demoted nonetheless.

The dramatic confrontation had been triggered by Weisman’s tweets and the heretical headline but was really about the boundaries of expression—what was allowed and what was taboo—in a post-objective, post-journalistic time. On the contentious subjects of Trump and race, managers and reporters at the paper appeared to hold similar opinions. No one in the room defended Trump as a normal politician whose views deserved a hearing. No one questioned the notion that the United States, having elected Trump, was a fundamentally racist country. But as Baquet fielded long and pointed questions from his staff, it became clear that management and newsroom—which translated roughly to middle age and youth—held radically divergent visions of the post-journalism future.

Unlike management, the reporters were active on social media, where they had to face the most militant elements of the subscriber base. In this way, they represented the forces driving the information agenda. Baquet had disparaged Twitter and insisted that the Times would not be edited by social media. He was mistaken. The unrest in the newsroom had been propelled by outrage on the web, and the paper had quickly responded. Generational attitudes, displayed on social media, allowed no space for institutional loyalty. Baquet had demoted Weisman because of his inappropriate behavior—but the newsroom turned against him because he had picked a fight with the wrong enemy.

Two days after the town hall meeting, the New York Times inaugurated, in its magazine section, the “1619 Project”—an attempt, said Baquet, “to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.” Rather than dig deep into the “half of America” that had voted for the president, the newspaper chose to blame the events of 2016 on the country’s pervasive racism, not only here and now but everywhere and always.

The 1619 Project rode the social-justice ambitions of the newsroom to commodify racial polarization—and, not incidentally, to fill the void left by Robert Mueller’s failure to launch.

The project showed little interest in investigative reporting or any other form of old-school journalism. It produced no exposés of present-day injustice. Instead, it sold agenda-setting on a grand scale: the stated mission was to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of our national narrative.” The reportorial crunch implicit in this high-minded posture might be summarized as “All the news that’s fit to reframe history.”

The 1619 Project has come under fire for its extreme statements and many historical inaccuracies. Yet critics missed the point of the exercise, which was to stake out polarizing positions in the mode of post-truth: opinions could be transformed into facts if held passionately enough. The project became another post-journalistic triumph for the Times. Public school systems around the country have included the material in their curricula. Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for her “sweeping, provocative, and personal essay”—possibly the first award offered for excellence in post-journalism. The focus on race propelled the Times to the vanguard of establishment opinion during the convulsions that followed the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

That episode replaced the Russia collusion story as the prime manufacturer of “angry citizens” and added an element of inflexibility to the usual rigors of post-journalism. Times coverage of antipolice protests was generally sympathetic to the protesters. Trump was, of course, vilified for “fanning the strife.” But the significant change came in the severe tightening of discourse: the reframing imperative now controlled the presentation of news. Reporting minimized the violence that attended the protests, for example, and sought to keep the two phenomena sharply segregated.

Less than two weeks after Floyd’s death, amid spreading lawlessness in many American cities, the paper posted an opinion piece by Republican senator Tom Cotton in its online op-ed section, titled “Time to Send in the Troops.” It called for “an overwhelming show of force” to pacify troubled urban areas. To many loyal to the New York Times, including staff, allowing Cotton his pitch smacked of treason. Led by young black reporters, the newsroom rebelled.

Once again, the mutiny began on Twitter. Many reporters had large followings; they could appeal directly to readers. In the way of social media, the most excited voices dominated among subscribers. As the base roared, the rebels moved to confront their employer.

The history-reframing mission is now in the hands of a deeply self-righteous group that has trouble discerning the many human stopping places between true and false, good and evil, objective and subjective. According to one poll, a majority of Americans shared the opinion that Cotton expressed in his op-ed. That had no bearing on the discussion. In the letter and the town hall meetings, the rebels wielded the word “truth” as if they owned it. By their lights, Cotton had lied, and the fact that the public approved of his lies was precisely what made his piece dangerous.

Revolutions tend to radicalization. The same is true of social media mobs: they grow ever more extreme until they explode.

But the New York Times is neither of these things—it’s a business, and post-journalism is now its business model. The demand for moral clarity, pressed by those who own the truth, must increasingly resemble a quest for radical conformism; but for nonideological reasons, the demand cannot afford to leave subscriber opinion too far behind. Radicalization must balance with the bottom line.

The final paradox of post-journalism is that the generation most likely to share the moralistic attitude of the newsroom rebels is the least likely to read a newspaper. Andrey Mir, who first defined the concept, sees post-journalism as a desperate gamble, doomed in the end by demographics. For newspapers and their multiple art forms developed over a 400-year history, Mir writes, the collision with the digital tsunami was never going to be a challenge to surmount but rather “an extinction-level event.”




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