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We Need a New Media System


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Substack

If you sell culture war all day, don’t be surprised by the real-world consequences

Matt Taibbi

Jan 11 2021

The moment a group of people stormed the Capitol building last Wednesday, news companies began the process of sorting and commoditizing information that long ago became standard in American media.

Media firms work backward. They first ask, “How does our target demographic want to understand what’s just unfolded?” Then they pick both the words and the facts they want to emphasize.

It’s why Fox News uses the term, “Pro-Trump protesters,” while New York and The Atlantic use “Insurrectionists.” It’s why conservative media today is stressing how Apple, Google, and Amazon shut down the “Free Speech” platform Parler over the weekend, while mainstream outlets are emphasizing a new round of potentially armed protests reportedly planned for January 19th or 20th.

What happened last Wednesday was the apotheosis of the Hate Inc. era, when this audience-first model became the primary means of communicating facts to the population. For a hundred reasons dating back to the mid-eighties, from the advent of the Internet to the development of the 24-hour news cycle to the end of the Fairness Doctrine and the Fox-led discovery that news can be sold as character-driven, episodic TV in the manner of soap operas, the concept of a “Just the facts” newscast designed to be consumed by everyone died out.

News companies now clean world events like whalers, using every part of the animal, funneling different facts to different consumers based upon calculations about what will bring back the biggest engagement kick. The Migrant Caravan? Fox slices off comments from a Homeland Security official describing most of the border-crossers as single adults coming for “economic reasons.” The New York Times counters by running a story about how the caravan was deployed as a political issue by a Trump White House staring at poor results in midterm elections.

Repeat this info-sifting process a few billion times and this is how we became, as none other than Mitch McConnell put it last week, a country:

Quote

Drifting apart into two separate tribes, with a separate set of facts and separate realities, with nothing in common except our hostility towards each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.

(Snip)

Media companies need to get out of the audience-stroking business, and by extension the politics business. They’d then be more likely to be believed when making pronouncements about elections or masks or anything else, for that matter. Creating that kind of outlet also has a much better shot of restoring sanity to the country than the current strategy, which seems based on stamping out access to “wrong” information.

What we’ve been watching for four years, and what we saw explode last week, is a paradox: a political and informational system that profits from division and conflict, and uses a factory-style process to stimulate it, but professes shock and horror when real conflict happens. It’s time to admit this is a failed system. You can’t sell hatred and seriously expect it to end.

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