This article appeared in the OC Register.
To someone who has spent most of his career in the news business, it’s distressing to confront the current state of the media. Rather than a source of information and varied opinion, the media increasingly act not so such as disseminators of information but as a privileged and separate caste, determined to shape opinion to a certain set of conclusions.
When you pick up a great newspaper like the New York Times, it is sometimes shocking how openly partisan the coverage tends to be. For example, when President Donald Trump unveiled his new tax plan, the headline was not about the proposal per se, but rather how it would serve the wealthy. This may indeed be the case, but such an approach would traditionally be the role of the editorial pages — not the Page 1 headline writers.
This approach oddly actually plays exactly into the president’s hands at a time when, according to a September Gallup poll, confidence in the media stands at a historic low of 32 percent, down from 55 percent in 1999. Even if they don’t like Trump, most Americans are turned off by the relentless negativity.
The unique challenge of Trump
Alienating customers is not good business, especially for an industry that has seen close to 40 percent of its jobs disappear over the past 20 years. Some of the problems, of course, reflect other issues, most notably the rise of online media and the fact that barely 5 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 get their news from print newspapers. Cable and network news are not doing much better; their audience, notes a March 2014 Pew Research Center report, is now smaller than it was in 2007.
The public’s growing disdain allows Trump to give the media a “big, fat, failing grade” as one of his essential talking points. His no-show at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner plays well with a large part of the population that feels alienated from the mainstream media.
Conservatives have long railed against media bias. But under Ronald Reagan, media experts like Michael Deaver and Pete Hannaford flanked the press by using television and radio to go “over their heads.” The Trump approach, spurred by bully-in-chief Steve Bannon, decries the media as “enemies of the people,” an approach more Stalinesque than Reaganesque.
Trump’s often dubious relationship with the facts remains fair game, but does not excuse the media becoming so obvious and willing a tool of progressive Democrats. Under President Obama, the media simply ignored, or buried, stories such as the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservatives, the expulsion of 2 million immigrants, Obama’s repeated foreign policy failures or his blatant misdirection over health care.
In contrast, some issues, like transgender issues, anything relating to immigration, particularly undocumented aliens, or climate change, are covered with a one-sided stridency characteristic of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As a cub reporter, I was told by my editor at the Washington Post, “Nobody gives a crap about your opinion,” and we were obliged to look for dissenting opinions. Informing the public was our job, leaving analysis and opinion to the pundits on the inside pages.
The making of a special caste
This shift in the media role has roots in both class and geography. Journalism used to be a “craft,” rather than a credentialed profession. You learned the business by covering local news and working at small papers. Reporters often owned homes in the suburbs, had families and maintained connections with people outside the intelligentsia.
Today’s mainstream news media seem to reflect increasingly the values of our increasingly doctrinally progressive academic institutions. Last year, some 96 percent of media outlet political donations, according to the Center for Public Integrity, went to Hillary Clinton.
Increasingly, top journalists, as Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes noted, are often young, highly educated ingenues who “literally know nothing” and can be easily misled by attractive figures like President Obama. Nate Silver’s concept of a “liberal media bubble” reflects the increasing concentration of media in fewer places and the related collapse of local journalism. More than half of all media jobs are now located in counties where Clinton won by over 30 points, notes Politico. In 2008, these counties had less than a third of all media jobs. To many in newsrooms, the Trump constituency seems to them to be people from another, inhospitable planet.
The future of media
Neither geographic concentration nor unanimity are good for journalism. Nor is the growing tendency to become the cat’s paw of the influence-seeking oligarchs like the Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos or the New York Times’ largest shareholder, Mexican crony capitalist extraordinaire Carlos Slim. For them, media is not so much a business in itself but a means with which to project their globalist and socially liberal world views. Similarly, conservative media increasingly depend on the whims of billionaires like Rupert Murdoch or Philip Anschutz.
Even more disturbing is the increasing dominance of social media firms like Facebook, now the largest source of media for younger people, and Google, whose advertising revenue dwarfs that of the entire newspaper industry. They offer the prospect of news “curated” by algorithms, but also reflective of the gentry progressivism of Silicon Valley. It’s not a pretty picture — for the industry, public discourse and, ultimately, our democracy.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).