Homogenized media for a divided people

PHOTO: Jonsson, Flick CC

I’m not very good at self-righteous anger. It weighs on me. I torture myself with it. More often than not I end up doing no good at all when I respond in anger.

These are tough, angry times. So I’ve been strategic in what I write about, trying again to spend my time in ways that I think will help a good cause, my community, or the readers who wander upon this site. I sometimes fail in this goal, but I try.

Politically, there’s much going on, but I’m trying to focus more on policy and outcomes. In the Trump era there is always some fresh outrage, soon to be forgotten. Sometimes the outrage is important or tragic, and sometimes trivial or cruel. I believe that our society is losing its ability to tell the difference.

So much of this, however, is related to the media, namely our consumption of information through a media that is manipulated in different ways by powerful actors. I’ll refrain from the “left wing” and “right wing” bias allegations that typically accompany this conversation. I don’t think it’s an ideology that rules the media. It’s a power structure with a small “p” political goal of persuading profitable action or useful inaction among the masses.

Before I veer too far into “Crazy Uncle at Deer Camp” territory, let me explain two of the stories that angered me this past week. And boy, was I angry. Neither of them involve the usual political topics. Both would be easy for most to ignore. But they show some of the problems with the media as I see it.

First, there is an old peeve of mine: the effects of rural media consolidation. Last week, the Federal Communication Commission officially ended the “home studio” rule, requiring that owners of radio stations keep studios and offices in the communities they serve. The rule was established before WWII to ensure that radio stations maintained connection to their listeners, staving off the potential influence of powerful radio networks that beamed in from somewhere else.

The argument that radio station owners made to eliminate the rule was that in modern times you don’t need a physical studio to maintain a connection to a community. Local news can be processed and filed from afar using telephones and social media. If people have a complaint, they can call a number or send an e-mail.

But that response, in and of itself, is precisely the problem. You can process information from anywhere, but you can’t truly understand a community if you don’t spend time there. To serve a community in the information business, you must know the people, listening to those who aren’t just motivated by grievance or marketing.

What the home studio rule change does is make it easier for commercial stations owned by corporations to consolidate all of their programming into one super location, hiring people to tend to entire communities like they were accounts. It won’t happen everywhere or all at once, but it will start to happen soon.

That brings me to the other, probably bigger outrage this week. On Tuesday, my alma mater the University of Wisconsin-Superior announced the cancellation of several programs, majors and concentrations within majors. Initially, officials argued that eliminating choices was good for students, making it less likely that “first generation college students” would be “confused” by too many options. Among the programs cut were political science, sociology, geographic information systems and all of the communication concentrations related to journalism or mass communication.

Setting aside the insulting, classist, and completely incorrect assertion that poor, minority or first generation college students can’t choose a major, we see a bigger trend.

These majors all relate to understanding people. And while they weren’t the most popular programs at the college, reducing these offerings means even fewer people from this small, affordable college will be able to study those topics. That means that the people who DO process information, report news, advise or serve in politics, study demographic trends and make recommendations, will increasingly come from wealthier, more urban communities.

After all, who are these people at the New York Times or Washington Post? What gives them the right to fly into rural America wearing a crisp new Columbia rain jacket, push their iPhones under our mouths, and then define us to the rest of the world?

Well, as far as trained journalists go, people like this are increasingly all we have. And as we eliminate, decimate and neutralize small town newsrooms all over the country, nothing will change about this. If you wonder why “the media” doesn’t seem to understand small town values, small town community, or small town nuance, you should wonder why there are so few town journalists doing the work of telling those stories, exploring local news beats, and keeping local leaders accountable for their actions.

Here on the Iron Range this manifests in the form of “all criticism comes from Twin Cities media and is therefore invalid.” Local media, lacking resources, has no time to make critical analysis of our largest industries and political factions. Indeed, doing so is often considered “too political,” words often spoken by the spineless or compromised. The questions themselves become perceived as bias.

Anyway, local media is just barely getting by as it is, often paralyzed by the sheer weight of day-to-day logistics. The jobs have become drudgery. Low numbers at rural public journalism schools have as much to do with this as the fact that there are fewer such jobs. I’m aware of one Iron Range reporter job that has been open for months with few, if any, applicants.

So the investigative journalists live in New York and D.C. They live in wealthy communities and become accustomed to progressive cities. They wonder why we live here for the same reasons we wonder why they live there. Increasingly, the divergent patterns of voting cause us to assume that the “others” are psychopaths, and this helps nothing.

That gives us politicians who exploit the hardened hearts of American liberals and conservatives alike. We can’t understand each other, so we allow ourselves to be weaponized into servants of power structures beyond our control.

Pushed around. Squeezed. Taunted. And told it’s good for us.

Make no mistake, tyrants and manipulators thrive anywhere good people aren’t watching them. Journalism is a trade, as honorable as any other. Journalism will endure. But journalism will suffer until a new model allows people to pursue truth everywhere, not just in big markets.

And rural America will suffer, too. We already are.

Comments

  1. David Gray says:

    I concur entirely with you on the home studio rule.

    Availability of the public airwaves is finite. Access to that finite resource should have strings attached. Both sides are overtly tied to very large corporate interests.

  2. Michele Statz says:

    This was a brilliant post, Aaron. Thank you for it.

  3. Trust in journalists has been dropping for decades….to around 15% of the population now believing what a journalist says is truthful. It’s not due to fewer college courses, fewer local news networks, the internet, fake news stories, nor social media. It’s not complicated why someone or something is no longer trusted. It’s quite simple. They lie, they’ve earned untrustworthiness. And in the case of journalists, it’s obvious they’ve continued to lie over a long period of time…reflected by trust dropping over a long period of time. Trust in the media is broken.

    The most important thing journalists can do, is to acknowledge they’re the problem. They can’t be trusted to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They lie, a lot. The answer to regaining the public’s trust isn’t complicated. And it isn’t more college courses or more local newspapers.

    • Information you don’t like isn’t inherently a lie. What you’ve just described is a rationalization for eliminating freedom of the press in favor of authoritarian propaganda created by the most powerful people. It’s fascist. Not the first time you’ve said something fascist here, but it bears pointing out.

      • The core issue, the problem, is trust Aaron, not politics. Shooting the messenger, or redefining the problem as political, certainly doesn’t help to solve it.

        • I’m not defining this as a left/right political issue. As I point out above, I said this is about powerful people manipulating the media, not the blanket statement “journalists are liars.” The problem we have is that people can’t tell the different between a gossip columnist, an internet troll or someone who spends time parsing through data and interviewing real sources. Sometimes major news sources (like Politico, for instance) take gossip and project it into the new cycle. Americans don’t trust the news cycle (they feel manipulated because they are manipulated) but we should trust or at least *consider* people who take time to investigate news. Now, of course, reporters who produce inconvenient facts are labeled as fake by the president of the USA or the mayor of a small town, and because of the blinding, overwhelming surge of information — some true, some not, some vile, some vital — we have a hard time trusting ANYONE! Further you have major networks turned into marketing devices (Good Morning America this morning pushing Oprah’s new Christmas catalogue this morning) or political propaganda (FoxNews always pushing the most Trump-friendly, GOP-friendly, major corporation friendly angle of all stories).

          But all of this isn’t the reporter’s fault — its the station owner, the advertisers and the political leaders who make hay on discrediting anything that doesn’t serve their interests.

          Anyway, I don’t trust people who try to shut down information or free speech. No matter who they are. I also don’t trust Donna Brazile who committed a stupid, unnecessary act of journalistic malpractice by revealing questions to Clinton before that debate. Clinton didn’t need the help and all she did was feed trolls. As for Brazile’s book, the business about the Clinton/Sanders fundraising thing, that’s already been proven to be blown up for publicity purposes. Sanders and Clinton were each offered access to the fundraising arm of the DNC. Clinton used it and Sanders didn’t. Brazile sees that the party is moving toward Sanders, away from Clinton, and now wants to be back at the table by affirming something Sanders people already believed. But I don’t really want to talk about that with you, Bob, because you’re spinning. I just don’t find the story especially relevant given the tax, health care and foreign policy debates we’ve got going on right now. Brazile is selling a book and her book publicity is convenient to people who don’t like Hillary Clinton, so it’s a “story.” This is exactly what I’m talking about. Once again, another news cycle is manipulated.

          • Half the country DOES find the “story” relevant Aaron…and certainly defines it as newsworthy. Certainly as newsworthy as Russia. We agree, another manipulation (lie) by the MSM, which continues their untrustworthiness.

          • Donald Trump is the President of the United States. Hillary Clinton is now a semi-retired lady living in upstate New York. There’s a big difference to the relevance of those stories. It is relevant to internet trolls, always looking to destroy some perceived enemy.

    • David Gray says:

      I don’t see this as much as a trust issue. That is there but it is a different issue.

      My wife is from Arizona and I was just trying to explain to her who Roger Erickson was and what WCCO used to mean in Minnesota. Even though that is bigger than local media in the rural north it was still local in a way that WCCO no longer is. Centralization and homogenization should be antithetical to a conservative understanding of media issues. We should be the ones defending local difference and the means of perpetuating that difference. Burke talked of little platoons not army groups.

      Yes, pretending that someone like George Stephanopoulos is a journalist undermines trust and so does openly slanted reporting. But that is a different issue and muddies the waters here, in my judgment.

      • Erickson was gifted, genuine and people trusted him. People believed he told the truth…he didn’t push a political agenda. I liked him..

      • Stephanopoulos, like Hannity, O’Reilly, and Limbaugh, is a commentator, not a journalist. All of them are expected to give their views and spin, whether in straight commentary and analysis or in interviews. They represent the voice of people with their viewpoints in interacting with the news, something that the public on both the left and the right seems to demand.

        Minnesota from about 1950 to about 1980 was privileged to have two great news sources with both intense commitment to local character and intense commitment to truthfu,l honest journalism: WCCO radio and TV and the Minneapolis Tribune under the ownership of the Cowles family. Both have been plowed under by consolidation, outside investor ownership, and the general deterioration of the news industry in the US. Minnesota is far worse for it.

  4. Example after example. Just last night….

    “Disgraced former CNN contributor Donna Brazile made explosive allegations that the Democratic National Committee basically rigged the 2016 primary in Hillary Clinton’s favor, but ABC, NBC and CBS’ evening newscasts failed to cover it.

    Brazile admitted that Hillary Clinton’s campaign gained significant control over the Democratic National Committee’s finances and strategy in exchange for helping the party wipe out 2012 presidential campaign debt. In laymen’s terms, Brazile explains how the party rigged the primary for Clinton to defeat Bernie Sanders through shady financial deals – which would typically be major news.

    An excerpt from her new book, “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House,” was published by Politico at 5 a.m. ET on Thursday morning – over 12 hours before the big three networks air their newscasts.

    Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren even appeared on CNN at roughly 4:40 p.m. ET to discuss the scandal but ABC’s “World News Tonight,” CBS’s “Evening News” and “NBC Nightly News” skipped it completely. These programs start at 6:30 p.m. ET.”

    …..and I should trust these journalists?

  5. You’re a comical guy Aaron..

  6. Ranger, just because Donna Brazile has been a political strategist for a few decades and is nominally a Democrat doesn’t mean she is a powerhouse or has much weight or influence in the Democratic politico world now which may be why she wrote the book with sketchy material. She wants to be noticed and more influential than she has been for a long time. She’s not a paragon among Democratic voters either. Before this week I can’t remember when her name has been mentioned in media, on the internet and had totally forgotten her. I bet if you had randomly asked Democratic voters before this flap, they would have said “Donna who?” and now would say, never heard of her.

    Not that you would know that. You think anyone with a D in front of his/her name represents the whole party and voters.

    But you wouldn’t know that

  7. Matt Butler says:

    Aaron, I really appreciated this blog. The active damage being done by some on the FCC and at various levels of government to a diversified, locally responsive media should be of deep concern to us all.

    I’d tend to agree with you that the ideology argument is a red herring. Someone once tweeted that the press is not biased, collectively, to left or right, but to drama. It’s a plurality of issues that drive what is programmed by media outlets, but includes factors like ratings, audience expectations, advertising clients and their expectations, and corporate synergies.

    I’m a radio broadcaster and on behalf of my company, Aurora Broadcasting, filed comments with the FCC against removal of the main studio rule. While in theory, this ruling could benefit my budget, it also represents an abandonment of the concept of the public interest, convenience and necessity that has been an inherent part of the agreement allowing for profit companies to use finite public airwaves. I have watched each successive rule change degrade the level of localism, lessen employment opportunities and damage the long term economic prospects of terrestrial broadcasting.

    There was a time I enjoyed talk radio. There were many strong local stations that programmed a lineup that included opinion from conservatives, liberals and libertarians, often anchored by strong local news reporting. Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, loosening of broadcast ownership restrictions were included in a bill ostensibly meant to increase competition in the telephone industry. This accelerated consolidation and bad financial behavior on the part of major broadcast groups, and decreased the amount of local programming and ideological diversity in favor of homogenous nationalized models.

    As a broadcaster, I support a multi-tiered media landscape that has a place for community & public radio alongside commercial broadcasters, each one with an important role to play in both entertaining and informing the public. Our communities are harmed and dialogue is degraded when broadcasters use their leverage and political influence to discard the responsibilities that are supposed to come with the license to use the public airwaves.

    As regards the University of Wisconsin – Superior issue, I suspect the undermining of the university system could be traced straight to decisions made by the Governor of Wisconsin who has made numerous efforts to cut funding and attack the Wisconsin Idea. Thankfully, Governor Dayton believes in investing in higher education, which is one reason I am proud to do business in Minnesota.

    • You confirm the longing for Roger Erickson of WCCO Matt. There’s no wondering in which way you lean. Do you think the listeners to any commentary on WXXZ (95.3) or KAOD (106.7) will get a balanced view on the issues facing them? We’d get a more balanced opinion from WKSY-FM. Oops, that’s fake news. Sad…

      • Matt Butler says:

        I don’t expect that you would “wonder” how anyone leans, as it seems you’re prone to draw that conclusion for yourself without much inquiry or dialogue with the party in question. Your right, of course.

        As to the forthcoming programming on my stations, which you so generously promoted, they will fill a need in the marketplace and serve their respective communities – they don’t exist to promote my opinions, real or perceived.

        Stay tuned, as they say.

        • When you wear your political bias on your sleeve Matt, no need for further inquiry. Makes it tough to believe you’ll be of service to the whole community.

  8. David Gray says:

    Anyone who doesn’t think Brazile is someone of consequence in the national Democratic Party hasn’t been paying attention.

    • Amen..

    • You are right. Brazile is to the Dems as Manafort is to the GOP — failed campaign managers trying to promote themselves in various roles and make money doing so. Until this week, most politicians in their respective parties would have returned their calls.

      • David Gray says:

        That would make more sense if Manafort had been charman of the RNC instead of a three month campaign manager. Brazile has been much more involved in party politics than Manafort. Manafort was brought on board because of something he did in 1976.

      • David Gray says:

        The other difference is Manafort has had close ties with the Podesta Group, a pwoerful Democrat lobbying group, Brazile doesn’t have similar ties to Republican institutions.

        • No. The Podesta group was also hired by some of the same clients as Manafort, but they had no “ties,” anymore than ABC and Fox have ties due to both selling ads to Budweiser.

          It is extremely common for groups that want to influence our government to hire both Dem and GOP affiliated lobbying and PR organizations. The Russian allied Ukrainians hired Manafort because of his longstanding close ties to GOP politicians and officials, and hired Podesta for its ties with Dem politicians.

          • David Gray says:

            Manafort was the liaison between the Russians and the Podesta Group. I don’t think Brazile has been put in a comparable position.

          • He helped the Russians hire the Podesta group, but did not actually work with them. This is according to the conservative Washington Examiner. They most likely also violated registry laws for representatives of foreign governments.

            http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/podesta-group-among-two-companies-anonymously-implicated-as-lobbyists-for-ukraine-in-paul-manafort-indictment/article/2639033

            To suggest that this somehow shows a bridge across the two party divide is not true. What you are actually saying is that Manafort was a lobbyist, and consequently worked with his clients to help them find reps who could work with Dems, since he could not, specifically because he could not be a bridge to the Dems. You are trying somehow to link Manafort to the Dems when the opposite is true.

            Any way you cut it, Manafort is a GOP problem, and Brazile a Dem problem. Mamafort, and possibly Podesta, are accused of crimes. Brazile is guilty of unethical behavior, and pointing out unethical behavior by others, but the behavior is not illegal.

            And, for the record, so far there is no evidence that Trump has done anything illegal either. He is guilty of not doing a good job of vetting a key hire, but that may not be surprising in a campaign that was struggling to keep up with itself in the face of an unanticipated level of success. Sessions has been lying to Congress, but otherwise is also probably not guilty of any crime either. His biggest problem is that Trump and he have a significant disagreement over the role of the Justice Department, a disagreement that may lead to him going over the side soon, but the lying to Congress thing may serve as a convenient excuse to do something the President wants to do.

  9. I believe that our society is losing its ability to tell the difference.

    Quote of the century. Great write.

  10. Gerald, I wouldn’t compare Brazile to Manafort. Her motivations may be getting more influence and making money but at least she hasn’t laundered hundreds of millions of dollars from lobbying for and working with foreign authoritarian/despotic leaders and businessmen and using at least three passports issued in other names to travel to those countries. Oddly, most Republican legislators and voters seem to think this is a nothing burger.

    • To be fair, the money laundering charges against Manafort appear to be tenuous at best. They are based on the legal concept that since he violated the law by failure to register as a foreign agent, trying to make it look like his money came from sources other than the Russians and the Russian backed Ukrainian faction meets the criteria for money laundering, since he was covering up a crime. As the NY Times noted last evening, that is a novel approach and may not stand, since the crimes classically connected with money laundering charges are much more severe, like drug dealing, illegal arms sales, human trafficking, and other major criminal endeavors.

      Of course the charges of tax evasion and the failure to register as a foreign agent are much more solid, so he remains in deep trouble.

      It is true that nothing Brazile is connected with is actually against the law, nor is the bias by the DNC she cites. Unethical, perhaps, but not illegal.

      In fact, the rigging of DNC fundraising in favor of Clinton is absolutely typical in both parties when a candidate is an incumbent, and we will undoubtedly see it happening in the RNC in 2020, assuming Trump runs. The first thing that a triumphant candidate does is take over the national committee. The perception that Clinton had already won the nomination seems to have led to premature domination of the DNC.

      Interestingly, the supposed fundraising disadvantage does not seem to have hurt Sanders, since he actually outspent Clinton in the primaries. Part of that was undoubtedly based on the fact that Clinton was holding back money for the general election, and that Sanders could reasonably expect that if by some unlikely chance he would have won he would then inherit the war chest set aside for the general election.

      And to return to the topic at hand, everyone knows all this stuff because of accurate and fair reporting and good research by the mainstream media, acting as usual in a truthful and fair way.

  11. David Gray says:

    It is interesting and depressing to see how few people seem to want to discuss what this essay was really about.

    • Matt Butler says:

      An interesting point more related to the topic at hand is the rare occasion of both conservative and liberal disapproval of the Sinclair – Tribune merger. Sinclair’s made efforts to force local television stations to include their corporate political stances and mandated commentaries in their local newscasts, featuring “must run” stories from personalities such as Boris Epshsteyn. Sinclair is the outfit that, in 2004, ordered its ABC affiliated stations to not carry a segment of Nightline they found unsupportive of the war in Iraq.

      Trump’s appointed FCC chairman reinstated a loophole that enables Sinclair to circumvent ownership restrictions, and this merger is now being opposed by a range of groups from Common Cause and Free Press to Glenn Beck’s “Blaze” and NewsMax.

      It seems there are some issues relating to media & localism that at least some of the left, and the right can find agreement on.

  12. John Ramos says:

    The thing that I have always found most astonishing–which this thread has borne out once again–is that people are experts on everything national, down to play-by-play analyses of things that happened a day earlier, but have very little to say about events happening locally. I would say this is strong circumstantial evidence that our conversations are increasingly dominated by big, out-of-market stories–which is itself a consequence of the homogenization of media that Aaron describes.

    • David Gray says:

      I could go on at length about township road issues but I’d just be boring people.

    • Actually, as David says, a lot of people can go on and on about local issues from the region, and do. The mining issue, schools, economic development, road and bridge issues, local political figures, and so on have been discussed at length on this blog many times. We’ve talked about high school trap shooting, the closing of a firing range at a local school, internet speeds, and local bars. What I would say is the conspicuous gap for most people is detailed knowledge of state issues. People know a lot about their town or city and the county, and a lot about national news, but very little about the state.

      And I would say that what Aaron is writing about in this thread has a lot to do with that. If they are interested, people know their local issues from talking to each other, because the networks are tight enough up here so that that news gets passed around as it happens. They know the national stuff from national news from TV, newspapers, and blogs, and the detail available has increased substantially with the role of the internet. But with the degradation of the Mpls. Tribune and WCCO, and the near death of smaller newspapers like the Duluth News Tribune, Rochester Post-Bulliten, St. Cloud Times, etc., only the highest profile state news gets covered anymore. It used to be that most papers featured weekly and sometimes even daily “capital talk” round ups, but today you are lucky if you can find that stuff recapped on a yearly basis. That is why so much of what happens in St. Paul ends up being “stealth” events, unknown until it drops on your head. Of course that is exacerbated by the tendency of both parties to do most of their business in bars and private residences, rather than on the floor of the legislature or in open committee, but in the past there were numerous reporters who ferreted out the truth about what was happening and wrote about it. These days most of those reporting jobs no longer exist, and the people of Minnesota are paying the price.

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