Thursday, October 27, 2016

Invasive Species and Tabloidism

Having already voted I found myself look forward to the week after election day, hopeful that things will calm down and that I can go back to some enjoyment while reading the news.  Surely we are all living in a Roberto Duran moment, No Mas!  As soothing as this little reverie was, it didn't last very long at all before a frightening thought occurred to me.  What if it doesn't calm down at all?  What if this horrible horrible election season has legs and indeed becomes the new normal?

Here's how it might happen.  Let's take as our starting point Clay Shirky's really wonderful blog post from several years ago, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.  To make for an imprecise metaphor, Newspapers are a latter day Dinosaur and Web 2.0 is the latter day equivalent of a large meteor crashing on earth and upsetting the evolutionary balance.  Back when Shirky wrote that post, Newspapers were facing an existential crisis.

Take next the role of social media in Tahrir Square and Occupy and the subsequent embrace of social media as venting.  This is where Shirky partly got the the story wrong.  Most people are not so interested in being citizen journalists.  But everyone, it seems, wants to write their own Op-Ed and social media provides an affordance to indulge that desire. Further, tone-wise,  such posting enables people to remain somewhere between slightly and strongly affronted in their online personae.  Indeed, the technology seems to be encouraging their venting.

The last bit of the vicious cycle is the wounded lion phenomenon, here applied to for profit newspapers (and TV News shows as well).  Survival becomes the preeminent concern.  The mantra changes from All The News That's Fit To Print to All The Eyeballs We Can Possibly Attract.  As bad as Drumpf has been for the nation, dragging our political rhetoric into the muck, he has been a boon for the media.  The eyeballs have come in droves, if for no other reason than to find pieces than can be cited in their own missives posted to social media.

Having tasted the the thrill of a surging readership (viewership) can the traditional news media outlets return to a more sober form of journalism?  Or have they become hooked on the tabloid form and then will continue to propagate it even if Drumpf fades into the sunset (or returns fully to reality TV, the more likely scenario)?

Until this election cycle, my favorite part of the NY Times was the Opinion section, where I looked forward to reading cogent analysis provided by thoughtful writers.  Thank God for Thomas Edsall.  He still delivers on that.  Alas, all the other pundits seem to have been co-opted.  Piece after piece have been churned out about the Drumpf with literally zero incremental value add for the reader. How is this possible?  I suppose each of the columnists have editorial freedom in their topic selection and in a normal universe that would seem to be a good thing. But every authors wants an audience.  These pundits are no exception.

Can they unlearn the bad habits they've picked up in the last year or so?  I hope they can, but if I were betting I'd bet against.

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