Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Decoding the News Media

The news media has its own agenda. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to understand what is really going on.

A reader writes, remarking that they have been interviewed by the media over the years, and in nearly every case, the resulting story is usually "superficial, selective, and sometimes downright inaccurate."  I feel his pain, having given interviews before and the resulting story sounds like they interviewed someone else.  You can't win at the interview game, which is why a lot of people refuse to give them.  It is only on live television that you can control the narrative, and even then, if you are having a bad day or not prepared for the "gotcha" questions, you can end up being roasted alive.

There is an old saying that you really don't understand how inaccurate the news is, until you read an article about something you know about and see how painfully wrong it can be.  For example, I took a piss on The New Yorker, which used to have a famous fact-checking department, for confusing trademarks and copyrights:

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, this boner jumped out at me:

"When he comes to Las Vegas himself, he is Farmer Lee, and wears a uniform he has trademarked with the U.S. Attorney General's office...." (August 16&23, 2010 issue, page 45, col. 1, lines 11-12, emphasis added)
Nice try, New Yorker. How about the Patent & Trademark Office? The "U.S. Attorney General's Office" does not grant Trademarks. Seems kind of simple. The USPTO even has the word "Trademark" in its name. How hard is that? 
UPDATE: Apparently the New Yorker read the letter I wrote to them and still got it wrong. The phrase in the article online now reads:

"He wears a uniform he has trademarked with the patent’s office
Here is the correct wording: "He wears a uniform he has trademarked registered as a trademark with the patent’s U.S. Patent & Trademark Office"

Of course, the real boner about that article - and a slew of others that appeared around the same time, was that they all were reporting breathlessly about how great Las Vegas was, and at the same time, featured a several-page "advertising supplement" in the middle of the magazine, touting - you guessed it - Las Vegas.  No conflict of interest here!  And the New Yorker used to be a decent magazine, too!

But in a way, I can't blame them.  They are running a business - one that is dying.  Print media is dead, and its online equivalent struggles to make money.  We tend to eschew news sites with paywalls or even asking for cookies or to set up an account.  So we go to "free" sites which are crowded with ads and of course, cater to the click-bait crowd.  We have met the enemy and he is us.

Of course, my disillusionment with the news media goes further back than that.  I once wrote an article for the school paper at Syracuse - a daily paper for all the "Newhouse Fags" (as we un-ironically called them back then) to work on.  I wanted to expose the Dean of Students who - at a campus retreat - dismissed concerns about a football player who was convicted for date-raping a student on the grounds that "the football program brings in a lot of money to the school."

The resulting article was titled, "Student leaders meet, discuss issues."  It was watered-down to nothing.  But what was worse was the editor I worked with explained how the system worked.  You can print a "quote" of someone in the article that isn't exactly what the person said.  So long as it sort of had the same meaning, it was fair game to say someone said something when they never said that exact thing.  It is one thing to paraphrase what someone said, another to make it a quote!

So, for example, if your interview subject said the chancellor of the school was a rat bastard, you might paraphrase this to, "Mr. Jones made some disparaging remarks about the chancellor." That's paraphrasing, and in this instance, saves face for both Mr. Jones and the chancellor.  But when you say instead, "Mr. Jones said, 'The chancellor is unfit for the job!'" then you are literally putting words in Mr. Jones' mouth, even if the message is somewhat similar.

The media has been referred to as the "fourth estate" and indeed is a power unto itself and is interested mostly in accumulating that power and maintaining it, by shaping public opinion, influencing policymakers, and of course, making scads of money, if possible.  They are interested in selling newspapers, Nielsen ratings, and today, click-through revenue.  The main idea is to get a lot of readers, viewers, or listeners.  You want audience share - otherwise you have no influence over people, politicians, or your bank account.

So it behooves them to publish controversy - which gets people to read, watch, and click.  It doesn't matter whether the subjects you are reporting on are heroes or villains, so long as people click.  In recent months, it has been Elon Musk as the villain du jour - and the media gets far more clicks about him as villain that they did as Space Jesus.  Similarly, the media loved Donald Trump as he created headlines daily (by intent - to distract us from what was really going on).

And yes, mea cupla, I have been caught up in these click-bait controversies, feeling the need to comment on them, when in fact, they sort themselves out without my input.  It never pays to disseminate your emotional energies over the crises of the day.  But we all do it anyway, right?

It is why, more than 70 years later, we are still obsessed with Hitler - one of history's greatest villains.  You put up a video or article or whatever, about Hitler, and it will get clicks.  Go on YouTube and you will see anything related to World War II is a big hit.  If you have some "Hitler's secret bunker" nonsense, it will sell like hotcakes.

But what about Roosevelt?  Or Churchill?  Surely they deserve equal time and equal attention.  Sadly, we tend only to watch videos about the "good guys" when they explore their dark sides - Roosevelt's affairs and his polio, or Churchill's prodigious drinking.  We want the dirt!  And the media gives it to us by the wheelbarrow load.

So what does this mean?  I'm not saying anything you haven't heard before - or knew about at least subconsciously.  It doesn't mean the world is going to end or go to hell in a hand-basket - or already is.  It doesn't mean the media has recently gotten worse - far from it.  "Yellow Journalism" is something that goes way, way back.

It doesn't mean it is going to change, either - soon or ever.  As I noted above, the problem isn't the shitty journalists - we will always have those in droves - but the fact that "We The People..." click on this shit while at the same time moaning about it.

So the media will always be the media, catering to the lowest common denominator and offering up sensationalized dreck.  But there are ways of reading between the lines to really understand a story.  And the first and easiest way is to not obsess about keeping up with the news.  This is hard to do in a society where "news channels" are plastered all over the place - in bars and restaurants, airports, and even on your gas pump screen.  And of course, on your phone.  You want to read the "latest headline news!" doncha?

And yet, it leaves us feeling empty, depressed, and uninformed. So consuming less news is the first and best thing any of us can do.  When camping, we go "off the grid" for days at a time, and sometimes it is interesting to see, after we get cell service again, the "story arc" of a news story - the first ill-informed and sensationalist stories, then the facts as they come out, and finally the actual story which really isn't as interesting and alarming as first reported.

For example, some heinous crime is committed, but the Police reveal few details, as it would jeopardize their investigation.  So the media speculates and people online start trying to "solve the crime" by using Google - which is about as smart as "doing research" on vaccines by reading some anti-vaxxer site. Days or weeks later, they finally arrest a suspect and we discover most of what we "knew" or thought at the beginning was entirely wrong.  This sort of obsession with crime and criminal trials, sadly, often results in the wrong people being wrongly convicted and the right people being wrongly acquitted.  It is how OJ got off - making a spectacle out of our legal system.  Let the justice system do its thing.  Obsessing about the "news" isn't helping much.

I noted before that sometimes the best way to get the "news" is ten years later. The "story" of the Columbine massacre, for example, is still stuck in people's heads - the wrong story.  The "story" of the McDonald's $5M cup-of-coffee lady is also stuck in people's heads - again, the wrong story, or stories.

No, there was no "trenchcoat mafia" involved - but what a great headline-grabber!  And no, they didn't target "jocks" or "bullies" or "Christians" - they just shot people pretty much randomly.  The boring story was these were mentally-ill teenagers days away from graduation who decided to throw away their lives and lives of others.  The story no one wants to talk about, particularly the 2nd Amendment freaks is why parents who knew their children were mentally ill, kept firearms in the house and let their children have access to them.   BORING!  Next page!

Similarly, the "cup-o-coffee" case isn't as interesting as it first seems.  No, she did not "win" $5M but actually closer to $600,000 which, given the medical bills, was no win at all.  Second, the coffee served at McDonald's wasn't "hotter than normal" as you have to boil water to make coffee.  The coffee McDonald's serves today is the same temperature as before (180 DEGF) and the same temperature as served at Starbucks or any other coffee shop, or indeed at home.  The only difference is, today, cars have ten cupholders, whereas back in the day, they had none.

The realities of these "stories" are not as interesting as what the media told us.  Yes, mass-shootings are horrific, and having third degree burns on you vagina is horrific as well.   But apparently that was not enough to "sell" the story to the plebes.  And sadly, I read online comments from people who believe the media story and not the real story - because the media story caters to their preconceived notions.

So, the bullied teen wants to believe the Columbine massacre was the result of bullying.  The folks who hate "goth" teens want to believe the "trenchcoat Mafia" story. Fundamentalist Christians want to believe the "targeting Christian teens" story because it fits their narrative of a world of good versus evil.  No one wants to talk about the issues of mental illness or gun control because those are complicated stories that are hard to tell, hard to digest, and hard to solve - if they ever will be solved in our lifetime.

Ditto for the cup-of-coffee case.  Young leftists will use it as an indictment of "The evil corporations, man!" who heartlessly fling hot coffee in the faces of their drive-through customers because you make more money by burning your customers and that's a valid business model.  The rightist will use the same story as an indictment of our legal system and lawyers - illustrating how tort law cases have gone off the rails!  Neither are right, of course.

So the second thing to think about, in addition to "less news" is to read the news without letting your preconceived notions shade your thinking. Try to realize when you are letting your own prejudices influence your perception of the story.  That is the problem today - news outlets cater to left-leaning and right-leaning audiences, and never the 'twain will meet.  As a result, the leftist tends to read stories that slant left, while the rightist looks at a version slanted right.  Both are the same story, just pitched differently.

The media may have an agenda, but then again, so do we.  Granted, it is damn near impossible to avoid projecting one's personal prejudices onto a story.  But it's worth a shot!