The New York Evening Express was no big shake as a newspaper. But 1886, when New York Times ran the obituary for one of Express’ previous owner, Erastus Brooks, had to give credit where it depended. “Its makeup was typographically an abomination, but it always had the news,” Times declared reluctantly of its rival.
Once, to beat its competitors with the result of a major state election in the early 1840s, Brooks rented a hall on a Hudson River steamboat and installed a printing press.
When the competition reporters returned to New York from Albany to submit their stories, Brooks already had the finished product in hand.
The American news industry is a shock block with the stories of heroic (and sometimes underhanded) efforts to beat the competition and get the news to an information-hungry public.
During my career as a political analyst and until I fired last week, an election prediction on the Fox News front desk, I’ve always been with Brooks. I wanted to steam down as fast as I could to be first with the news to beat the competition and serve my audience.
That’s why I was proud that we were the first to project that Joe Biden would win Arizona, and very happy to defend that conversation in the face of a general backlash from former President Donald Trump. Being right and beating the competition is not a hero; it’s just fulfilling the job description for the job I love. But what happens now that there are almost no physical limits to receiving and giving the news?
Being first with the account or the pictures of major events is something of little value now. What an outlet has, each outlet will have, usually within a few seconds. Being first can actually prove to be a commercial disadvantage.
After working with cable news for more than a decade after a wonderfully abused youth in newspapers, I can tell you the result: a nation of news consumers both overfed and malnourished. Americans devour daily empty informative calories and spoil their sugar fixes of self-affirming half-truths and even outright lies.
Can anyone really be surprised that the problem has gotten worse in recent years?
Bias in the coverage of politics and government is nothing new. Old Erastus Brooks himself was an avid Whig and a frequent candidate for the office. What’s still relatively new is a marketplace that offers penalties for reporting the news, but lots of rewards for pampering the consumer’s worst desires. Cable news producers work in a world of 15-minute steps where their superiors can track even small changes in viewers.
Ratings, combined with crowds of market research, tell them what keeps viewers interested and what makes them pick up their remote controls. It does not differ from the pressure on online stores to serve items that will generate clicks and direct consumers deeper and deeper into the content “you may be interested in”.
Regardless of platform, the competitive advantages belong to those who can best accustom consumers, which in the stunted, computerized thinking of our time means that one avoids at almost every cost that affects reality so carefully built around them. As outlets have increasingly prioritized getting used to information, consumers have surprisingly become increasingly sensitive to interruptions in their daily diets.
The revolt against the populist right against the result of the 2020 election was in part a cynical, deliberate attempt by political operators and their hype men in the media to steal an election or at least get rich trying. But it was also the tragic consequences of the information industry that hit the nation so hard.
When I defended the call for Joe Biden in the Arizona election, I became a target for murderous anger from consumers who were furious at not having their opinions confirmed.
After being developed by self-validating coverage for so long, many Americans are now considering any news that may suggest that they are wrong or that their side has been defeated as an attack on them personally. The lie that Trump won the 2020 election was not as much directed at the opposite party as it was at the news, which stated the obvious, indisputable fact.
Although there is still a lucrative market for a balanced offering of news and opinions in high-end stores, much of the ordinary is increasingly bent towards flattery and fluff. Most stories are morally complicated and have no white hats and black hats. Defeats have many causes and victories are never complete. Reporting these stories requires skill and dissatisfaction. But hearing them also requires something from consumers: enough humility to be open to learning something new.
I am still convinced that the current deterioration of the digital revolution will pass, just like for the telegraph, radio and television. Americans grew into these media and suppliers learned to meet the demands of a more sophisticated market. This is the work I have always aimed to do and hope to be a part of for many years to come.
What loses me after seeing a crowd of enthusiastic ignoramuses say the Capitol, however, is whether that sophistication will come fast enough when outlets have the opportunity to satisfy every unhealthy desire of their consumers.
Chris Stirewalt is a former Fox News Channel policy editor and author of “Every Man a King: A Short, Colorful History of American Populists.”
© 2021 Los Angeles Times Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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