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: “drifting into two separate tribes.” . . .
The media used to derive its institutional power from this perception of separateness. Politicians feared investigation by the news media precisely because they knew audiences perceived them as neutral arbiters.
Now there are no major commercial outlets not firmly associated with one or the other political party.
Yes, the country badly needs an even semi-neutral interlocutor. But instead we just have various flavors of Chaos Umpire, who by deciding more embroils the fray by which he reigns.
Plus: “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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