Friday, 2 September 2016


The Barnumization of America

We live in one of the most partisan times in living memory  (see articles by the Pew Research Center and Politics & City Life) with people defining themselves by their political beliefs and spouting disrespect, even hatred, for those who do not share them.   We have not yet reached Talibanization (if you don't agree with me, you deserve to die) but we are heading there.

How did this come about?    It is the semi-deliberate result of the way our news media cover the world.

First, news media focus on the sensational negatives and on conflicts, because that draws more audience and hence lets them sell more advertising.   This produces a biased and warped picture of the world that says things are much worse than they really are.  The average person has become fearful because he is told, daily, that the world is a fearful and horrible place.

Second, the news media have discovered that targeting and pandering to a niche is more profitable than trying to be objective and reach a general audience.  (See Turow: Breaking Up America) Ever fewer outlets intend their audience to be "everyone" while an ever growing percentage look to attract advertisers by specific psychographics that build a smaller but more defined and more loyal audience.

Third, the fragmentation of news audiences means there are fewer dollars to support staff. To survive, news outlets need to employ fewer and/or less-well-paid reporters. Reporters need to produce more work to make a living, creating content for print, broadcast and on-line outlets, leaving them less time to devote to any given story. (see Jean-Marie Charon  and 
Vineet Kaul )

Combine these three trends and we have  news media that deliberately fan the flames of partisan enmity.  Let's-you-and-him-fight is the easiest and cheapest story to write: requiring very little reporting skills and no investigation time. Politics are the best source of Let's-you-and-him-fight, ever since political scientists discovered that it can be easier to get people to vote against someone than to get them to vote for someone. (see Journalists Resource)

Presented with spin (obviously favouring one side of the fight) the news outlets confirm the opinions of their target audience, increase the enmity that audience has for other niches and makes such enmity seem legitimate, respectable, even desirable.

Thus we have a proliferation of news outlets who make money by getting us to fear the world and to fear, dislike and disrespect each other.  Once the province of rabid radio talk-shows, this is now main-stream "journalism."
  • FOX News sells a message that liberals in general and Democrats in particular are stupid, venal and deliberately out to bankrupt the country while ensuring that every aspect of our lives is controlled by government: a society where, if it is not forbidden, it is compulsory. 
  • MSNBC sells a message that conservatives in general and Republicans in particular are uncaring, let 'em eat cake, sexist xenophobes trying to make us into a third-world country where America's children can starve and choke on pollution, as long as it helps the rich keep getting richer. 
  • The Huffington Post runs openly partisan campaigns that vary depending on market, with massive over-coverage given to articles condemning the right-wing Trump in the US and the left-wing Corbyn in the UK
  • The few remaining respectable non-partisan outlets, those that are more interested in truth than in profit (e.g. the PBS Newshour, network news, AP/UPI, etc.), are castigated by both sides: conservatives saying they are liberal pawns, progressives saying they are right-wing tools.
The vitriol is further fanned by the "blogosphere" and "twitterati," where comments on the news are dominated by trolls at the extremes of the audience, simply because they are more committed, more likely to enjoy shooting their mouths off and less likely to hold to polite discourse.  Many of these extreme comments are now covered as if they were news : a pre-written let's-you-and-him-fight, requiring only a cut-and-paste button.

In short, our news outlets are increasing anomie and making our country a worse place to live. All just to cut costs and sell advertising.  And we, rather than objecting, protesting or voting with our feet, continue to lap it up.   As they would say in Australia:  P.T. Barnum was not wrong, mate.  (Okay, okay, we know he never actually said "there's a sucker born every minute," but everyone thinks he did and that is good enough for FOX, MSNBC and Huffpo)


No comments:

Post a Comment