It is always exciting when some insider breaks away from an organization to spill all the dirty details of what is happening deep in its guts. Recently an MSNBC producer’s life story “defected” over the border onto Fox News’ territory to be used to tell the tales of hypocrisy and manipulation that are ever present at MSNBC. For some readers these revelations may seem shocking but they are a natural part of working in news media, that is very hard to change as the causes are inherent to the medium. Let’s break down what producer Ariana Pekary had to say and take a look at the causes and possible strategies that could be implemented to fix this problem.
The core of her gripes with her work experience at MSNBC can be summed up by this paragraph from her blog…
“It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would ‘rate.’ The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day,” Pekary said. “Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing. But behind closed doors, industry leaders will admit the damage that’s being done.”
The above describes one major inherent flaw in news media – the drive for ratings, hits, clicks, views, etc. Be it government or privately funded, someone is paying for producers, hosts, writers, reporters, cameramen, and so on, to go out there and find, i.e. create the news. This means that every single major news organization regardless of where it gets its funding from is beholden to the financier. Someone wants to get their money’s worth.
With seemingly no exceptions, this financier is some massive bureaucratic corporation, massive bureaucratic government, or an extremely wealthy individual with an ideological bone to pick, all three of which want to evaluate the results of their investment based on statistics. If one news site gets 1,000,000 visitors per day and another gets 10,000 then from the standpoint of paperwork and stamps it is obvious who deserves to have their contracts extended for another year.
The thing is that a million views does not mean that a million hearts were touched or a million minds were swayed. Bureaucrats love the idea of quantifying something as abstract as “influence” into hard statistics but the effects of news are hard to quantify. Despite having dismal ratings and results the Mainstream Media in the United States still ultimately drives the news narrative inside of America and for most of the world. Meaning that even with terrible results the big objective is still being achieved. On the other hand getting large amounts of hits/views for garbage material about celebrities, diet and other nonsense doesn’t quantify some level of influence.
In many ways news is the original form of clickbait that was happening even before computer mice became a common household item. Shocking events of horror and murder got people to “tune in at 11” to find out. This need to get shock for ratings is the reason why Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and (post football) O.J. Simpson became their own brand of celebrity. If TV channels back then tried to compete against shock with “hard hitting journalism” that is full of nuances in terms of loopholes in the tax code, then they may as well have kissed the advertisers (and thus their stations) goodbye. “Sex sells” as they say and so does shock/violence. And because of this for decades material that attracts attention has gotten priority over information that may be in the public’s interest. This is not a conspiracy but a natural state of being – news needs views.
So Ms. Pekary really shouldn’t be too mad at MSNBC for doing what they need to do to survive, because it is impossible to imagine, especially in the private sector, that some news station could work with no concern for ratings/hits/views. Would you invest millions of dollars into advertising on a media source that has zero guarantees of results? If you were a powerful member of government, would you publicly fund news that may actually serve as a means for revolutionaries to rise up against you via propaganda? No, you wouldn’t and this is why things are the way they are. But Ms. Pekary still seems full of optimism.
“Now maybe we can’t really change the inherently broken structure of broadcast news, but I know for certain that it won’t change unless we actually face it, in public, and at least try to change it.”
The only way to really fix this problem would be to somehow finance massive media budgets without the news organizations having any statistical accountability, or perhaps the success metrics of news need to change and be evaluated in some other way. Perhaps if independent polling were to see to what extent the common masses parroted the narratives thrown out by the MSM, this would be a better means of evaluation, because the real mission is to control the narrative. Obviously this is very abstract, and expensive, but it would be a better metric. Then again CNN’s and MSNBC’s narratives are often identical so it would be tough to prove which one took the intellectual territory. Since most of our beliefs on events are in our subconscious it is very hard to measure.
We also cannot forget that most journalists don’t join the profession to write about Madonna’s most recent botched plastic surgery and would prefer to write about something more serious. There will always be a desire within the staff to do something of value because it is really the managers are those who put them in position who care about statistics.
When it comes to governmental and ideological financiers, even if they are not so much concerned with hard data, then they are very concerned with what ideas are being pushed, so the idea that somehow government financed media would free us from the burden of celebrity gossip news, is only partially true. The government wants results also, maybe just slightly different ones that don’t involve advertising.
It also cannot be understated how any organization can have its own culture and Overton Window of what can and cannot be said. Thus a Liberal audience of MSNBC will not be happy to see more balance by dusting off and inviting Bill O’Reilly to come on to denounce the latest Left Wing crusade. Twenty-first century news has a lot of competition which means that playing to a more niche hardcore audience guarantees better results than being fair and balanced winning over no one to your site. People used to go to church to hear confirmation that their views were right, they didn’t go to synagogues, mosques and temples for a second opinion. People are comfortable in their ideological space which is naturally bad for pushing more open-minded narratives in the media.
The sad reality is that former MSNBC producer Ariana Pekary will never find a media organization that is not compromised for hits/ratings/views or to appease the financier directly. This is just not the way the media works, the problem is that the Mainstream Media is presented to the public as if it were the exact opposite. Perhaps the problem isn’t in the MSM but in the public’s perspective. If the average man on the street saw the media as various propaganda sources trying to woo him to their side, rather than preaching “objective truths”, we would live in a more reasonable world.
What she should do is understand that there are forces within media that naturally push it to do things she does not like and try her best to work within the system to make it better rather than giving up. Producers have a lot of ability to get the guests and talking points they want onto the air. She could gently try to nudge MSNBC closer to what she believes is being “objective” or at least get someone on the air who does not consider Donald Trump to be the spawn of Satan.
And this is another problem with the MSM, good people in it get frustrated and give up when it is their tough battle against policy, economic interest and bureaucracy to try to change organizations from within. It would have been wiser for her to say, keep her salary and fight for incremental change rather than writing a blog stating what should be obvious to the intellectually adept readers of the Strategic Culture Foundation.
In short, the ways to solve the problem described by Ms. Pekary would be to…
- See it as a non-problem and an inherent part of working in news media that will never change. (i.e. live with it)
- Try to convince the financing part to give the media organization the freedom it needs to do good work, without relying on tradition view based evaluation. This will be a tough sell for sure.
- Try to provide metrics of success that are not based purely on hits/clicks.
- Have good people remain inside a bad system and push the network in a more moral direction incrementally.