Chris Stirewalt has an opinion piece on Politico today where he talks about why he got fired from Fox News in 2020 after his “Decision Desk” team were the first on TV to call Arizona – thus the whole election – for Joe Biden.
It’s not really news to me that Fox News aficionados, Trump himself, or his minions in the GOP would call for Stirewalt’s head after publicly declaring such political heresy on election night. What did strike me were a few of his comments that were buried in the piece:
Good politics is often bad TV. As much as we rightly lament the decline of the American electorate’s aspirations and expectations, at least a plurality of voters still clearly prefer competency, cooperation and decency. And what could be more boring than that?
As a journalist, I believe that what is wrong with my vocation and the industry in which I work is harming Americans left, right and center. Major players in the news business are abusing their privileges and shirking their duties, and we all pay the price. The agenda at many outlets is to move away from even aspirational fairness and balance and toward shared anger and the powerful emotional connections it can create.
Unable to sell large, diverse audiences to advertisers, news outlets increasingly focus on developing highly habituated users. To cultivate the kind of intense readers, viewers or listeners necessary to make the addiction model profitable, media companies need consumers to have strong feelings. Fear, resentment and anger work wonders. It helps news outlets create deep emotional connections to users not just as users of a product, but as members of the same tribe.
Reporters increasingly disdain the old virtues of fairness and balance as “bothsidesism,” reimagining the ancient vice of bias as something honorable. Opinion pages become more homogeneous. Story selections become more predictable. Most ominously, post-journalism produces stifling groupthink inside news organizations and serious consequences for journalists who dissent.
What we think of as “bad news” can score like gangbusters if it is scary and anger-inducing. But news that is bad for your audience’s ideological in-groups is clickbait kryptonite. In such a competitive marketplace, riling people up against the other side isn’t enough. You’ve also got to create a safe space for consumers to plop down and contentedly contemplate ads for beet-based nutrient powders, reverse mortgages and copper underpants. If you challenge their assumptions or suggest that their avatars in the culture war are wrong or losing, they may leave for competitors who offer more complete protection from harsh realities.
Hidden in those paragraphs is a true nugget that gets overlooked time and time again:
“In such a competitive marketplace, riling people up against the other side isn’t enough. You’ve also got to create a safe space for consumers to plop down and contentedly contemplate ads for beet-based nutrient powders, reverse mortgages and copper underpants. If you challenge their assumptions or suggest that their avatars in the culture war are wrong or losing, they may leave for competitors who offer more complete protection from harsh realities.”
In other words? Who cares about the truth anymore? If it sells underpants and little blue pills for E.D., keeps people listening to Tom Selleck pitch those reverse mortgages or gets the phones ringing for the latest “Save the little puppy dog” charities? Then it’ll work. If the truth isn’t what people want to hear, regardless of how true it is? Heads roll, pink slips float out of the H.R. department. And let’s not fool ourselves; this happens just as much over at MSNBC as it does at Fox News. (Anyone remember when this guy got his walking papers after getting a little personal about Sarah Palin’s “death panels?”)
I’m convinced by now; Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow are turning over in their graves over the state of their once proud and respected profession.