When President Trump went on one of his periodic anti-media tirades last week, he let out a phrase (well, actually, a lot of them but I’ll focus on one here) that merits a closer look.
The quote was, “Much of the media — not all of it — is very, very dishonest. Honestly, it’s fake news. Fake. They make things up.”
Coming from someone who personally makes up a whole lot of things, that merits some consideration. A lot of people probably wonder who and what they can trust in the ever-expanding media universe.
“Much of the media – not all of it.” There are a lot of media, and many elements of it often are in conflict. Well, which is which?
Let me offer one simple way to consider this. There are others too but this seems a good place to start.
The “media,” like “the government” (or almost any other large component of our society) consists of a whole lot of pieces and players. It consists not only of news publications but many other kinds as well – entertainment operations, trade magazines, academic journals, many more. But all of these can be divided roughly into two categories, “mass market” and “niche.”
This is not just a matter of size, though that’s important. The more critical component is in who they are trying to reach.
Newspaper history offers an example, since the standard mass-market daily newspaper has at different times operated in both spheres. In the 19th century, most newspapers were in effect niche publications. Cities of any size tended to have several newspapers; big cities might have a dozen or more. These newspapers did not try to write for everybody; they were trying to appeal to specific segments of their local markets, and many of them were overtly political. Newspapers typically identified themselves on their front page as the Republican paper, or the Democratic, or Independent, or maybe something else. People who wanted a broad picture often subscribed to several of them.
That was when newspapers were funded mainly through subscriptions. Somewhat over a century ago there was a strong move toward another business model, much more based around advertising, and it swept the industry. When it did, newspaper publishers and editors found that advertisers wanted to reach a whole community, not just a piece of it.
Here are two things that happened in response. A lot of newspapers consolidated: The number of newspapers in the United States dropped sharply in the early 20th century. The other thing that happened was that, to appeal to not just a segment of a city or region but rather the whole thing, the entire presentation of news had to change. And it did, into something many people probably thought was blander but also something that presented information in a more even handed, and less partisan, way. Editorial pages remained as opinionated as ever, but news columns became more centrist, aimed at reaching everyone. An institutional standard for this was developed, partly by the wire services (the Associated Press and several others over the decades). These services had to feed news reports to many hundreds of newspapers, whose owners and editors had all kinds of different opinions, so they developed a news language and reporting standards that would work broadly. That’s the news language and reporting approach we still have today at most daily and many weekly newspapers. It grew out of economic necessity. And while journalists are as fallible as anyone else, it also meant the news reports were mostly, generally, reliable.
That’s the dynamic mass media have to work with. They’re trying to reach a broad general audience, so the making a practice of slanting reports ideologically works poorly. Mass media will give you, most of the time and allowing for slippage here or there, reliable news, with relatively little slant. They’re not perfect, they mess up sometimes, but slantless news is what they aim for.
Niche media is everything else. A niche is something like the old newspapers were: Aimed at one kind of audience and only one, and therefore devoted to pleasing that audience. This leads to all kinds of results. On the positive side, it can yield insights and specialized reporting the mass media never get around to; there are good niche news providers out there. The down side is that the eagerness to produce appealing stuff can mean a slippage of standards, and quite a few niche organizations let go standards of accuracy and fairness in the interest of exciting the base – or simply telling the base what it wants to hear.
I think especially of ideologically-based news organizations. There are, for one example, “market-based” news outlets whose editorial stance is critical of government and taxes and cheers on the free market. Stories that fit within that framework abound, and they may even contain good information and may even be fair and accurate. But don’t expect to see much there that undercuts the party line.
This doesn’t mean all niche media should be disregarded. I don’t by any means intend that they all be lumped in as “fake”; many report with rigor. but it does mean the care and caution given to its pronouncements needs to be higher than for the mass media. It has, simply, fewer incentives to stick to accuracy and fairness.
Who can you trust? No, it’s quite as simple as this. But I’ve found the mass/niche dividing line a useful tool for navigating an ever murkier environment. What probably isn’t what the president had in mind.Share on Facebook