In normal circumstances, the people who attend the Aspen Ideas Festival are a polite and mild-mannered lot. No surprise: Aspen tends to attract a well-heeled audience who like intellectual debate.
But these are not entirely normal times, particularly with Donald Trump in the White House. Late last month, I took part in a debate in Aspen about journalism in the age of Trump. Halfway through the discussion, it became clear that the room was filled with an anger I had never seen before at this event.
Some in the audience thought the media had been too lenient towards Trump. Another (highly vocal) crowd were furious about what they viewed as anti-Trump bias. The unifying theme was that almost everyone seemed unhappy and the atmosphere became rowdy, prompting howls of “The media are lying!”, “They are so biased!”, or “They aren’t doing their job!”
What on earth is going on? The question should be asked not just in the rarefied climes of Aspen but in the US as a whole. The level of emotion that I witnessed simply reflects a wider groundswell of anger. This is a country, after all, which has recently experienced a divisive, contentious election.
It is also one in which the president has depicted the media as the enemy and tried to weaken it with a campaign that I have described as the curse of the three Ds: disintermediation (tweeting directly to his followers); distraction (using eye-catching tweets to draw attention away from bad news); and destabilisation (issuing tweets unexpectedly, to leave journalists on the back foot).
Taken together, these have produced a fourth D: “disorientation”, on the part of both journalists and media consumers alike. So it is not surprising that all sides are lashing out in anger. In these strange times, it is temptingly easy to shoot the messenger — which, in this case, is the media.
But there is another way to make sense of what is going on — to look at some of the underlying structural shifts in the media today. When audiences at conferences such as Aspen start complaining about the media, they tend to compare it with idealised memories of how journalism operated 50 years ago. Back then there was a thriving local market, a few healthy national papers and three main television channels.
In that era, as Steve Coll, dean of Columbia Journalism School points out, television and print outlets had a strong commercial incentive to produce bipartisan coverage. In the television world, this neutrality was imposed by the Federal Communications Commission. In print journalism, most papers were operating in “one-paper towns” — and since local newspapers could not afford to alienate any readers, they had to be bipartisan.
Today the landscape is utterly different. The local newspaper industry has declined as advertising has collapsed, and the FCC has lost most of its regulatory power. Meanwhile, the internet has enabled the launch of numerous media start-ups and, in the competitive world of cable TV, channels need to create loyal niche audiences rather than placate the FCC.
As a result, many media outlets now have a stronger commercial incentive to be partisan, since they need a passionate audience. Hence the fact that Fox (which makes about $2.3bn in revenue a year) is so clearly rightwing and MSNBC (which has about $518m annual revenue) is leftwing; and hence the rise of sites such as Breitbart, the far-right network formerly chaired by Steve Bannon, now Trump’s adviser, which has 45 million unique page views each month.
As extremist, anti-establishment groups launch social media platforms that pump out highly partisan — and sometimes fake — news, the sense of disorientation for consumers grows.
Fake news is seeping into the mainstream press on occasion, partly because it makes such compelling clickbait (to understand how this works, take a look at a brilliant study from New York’s Data & Society project on “alt-right” groups such as 8/chan).
The result is a cacophony of competing voices, more akin to the pamphleteering of the 19th century than the media of 50 years ago. It is thus little wonder that an Edelman poll shows that more Americans trust search engines than the media, or that there is so much indignation and anger even at a place such as Aspen.
As a journalist, I would stress that this disorientation does not tell the whole tale. Thankfully, a great many in my industry remain deeply committed to the cause of telling the truth, and media such as the Financial Times remain determined to practise impartial analysis and reporting. The FT’s growing subscriber base, along with those of newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, demonstrates that many people clearly want real news.
But I won’t easily forget the unexpected eruption of anger I saw in Aspen; it is both a rebuke and an inspiration. Or, if you prefer, a call to arms for everyone who wants to uphold the cause of decent, honourable journalism in these angry times. The task has rarely been more important.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
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