Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The American Media Party Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and the end of journalism

A "medium" (plural "media") is a person who claims the spirits of the dead are transmitting information through him or her to the living. The profit-making industries which create similarly reliable entertaining informational content for the masses are often also called "the media."

A "party" is a gathering of persons for the purpose of enjoying themselves thoroughly and without restraint.

The year 2016 will be remembered as the year "the media" became the American Media Party replacing the Republican Party.

I started my adult working life as a journalist practicing what I understood was the profession of "journalism." From the Wikipedia entry first paragraph as of September of 2016 (emphasis added):
Journalism is the work and distribution of reports on the interaction of events, facts, ideas, and people that are the "news of the day" and that informs society to at least some degree. The word applies to the occupation (professional or not), the methods of gathering information, and the organizing literary styles.
At the time I believed true journalists worked for "the press", meaning the newspaper business. The more recently created radio and TV news broadcast employees were not really "journalists" in our opinion precisely because, as Wikipedia still includes at the beginning of its entry, the product of the work must have an "organizing literary style."

If you type "literary" into the Wikipedia search it will take you to the "Literature" entry which begins with the sentence:
"Literature, in its broadest sense, is any single body of written works."
Dictionary.com defines "literary" as:
"...pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, especially those classed as literature."
Our objective as journalists was to provide as complete a written "report" on "on the interaction of events, facts, ideas, and people" as we could.

We followed the AP Style Book rules, meaning we had to begin with a short paragraph that summarized that news story, a descriptive paragraph that could stand alone. Each additional paragraph should add details in order of importance offering the reader a more thorough understanding. You did this because you knew the hamfisted person doing the page makeup would shorten your story from the bottom up until it fit the space available.

Our hope was that the reader would read the story, think about it, read it again, and contemplate it further. We thought this was important stuff because, again from Wikipedia:
Access to freely available information gathered by independent and competing journalistic enterprises with transparent editorial standards can enable citizens to effectively participate in the political processes.
The key phrases in that paragraph are "independent and competing" and "transparent editorial standards."

The latter phrase does not mean "fair and balanced" nor does it require "equal time." These concepts came about with the advent of television which for decades was operated as a government licensed near monopoly. Because politicians (and murderers) could speak directly to the audience, during that monopoly period the government license tried to prevent "favoritism" in the political arena.

We journalists felt strongly that we must not provide politicians or murderers with a platform from which they could present a self-created image of themselves. If you did that you were not only not independent, you had no editorial standards at all.

Except that....

In 1960 we watched with interest the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Television was influencing the election. Here's an interesting fact about that debate:
The Quemoy-Matsu issue was first raised in the second debate on October 7, 1960.  Disagreement between the candidates was instant.  Unlike any other single issue, Quemoy and Matsu continued to be a bone of contention well into the third and fourth debates on October 13 and 21, 1960.
If you were alive back then, you might recognize the terms "Quemoy" and "Matsu" but probably not. Most certainly, if you were born after 1950 it is highly unlikely that you would recognize those terms. Even back then I wondered how "Quemoy" and "Matsu" got to be the central foreign policy issue of that debate - Cuba, guys. Why weren't we talking about Cuba?

The moderator of that debate was Bill Shadel of ABC News.  There was a panel of correspondents: Frank McGee, NBC News; Charles Van Fremd, CBS News; Douglass Cater, Reporter magazine; Roscoe Drummond, New York Herald Tribune; journalists all by background, but already corrupted by TV.

Exactly 192 days later the Bay of Pigs Invasion was launched. The funding and planning for the invasion began about six months before the debates. Nixon was Vice- President, Jack Kennedy was a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In order to assure an informed American population, they debated about Quemoy and Matsu, two meaningless islands off the coast of China.

So much for televised debates informing the American public. From someone who was better informed than I was in 1960, here's another tidbit written before the debates. It addresses my confusion back then about whether television was going to improve or degrade the quality of American politics and government:

It's the 21st Century. And after carefully including the word "literary" in its defining paragraph, Wikipedia offers this final sentence:  "Journalistic media include: print, television, radio, Internet, and, in the past, newsreels." Oh really! What is the organizing literary style of a newsreel ... or a tweet?

And so immediately after pointing out the need for "transparent editorial standards" Wikipedia barfs out the following:
The role and status of journalism, along with that of the mass media, has undergone profound changes over the last two decades with the advent of digital technology and publication of news on the Internet. This has created a shift in the consumption of print media channels, as people increasingly consume news through e-readers, smartphones, and other electronic devices, challenging news organizations to fully monetize their digital wing, as well as improvise on the context in which they publish news in print. Notably, in the American media landscape, newsrooms have reduced their staff and coverage as traditional media channels, such as television, grapple with declining audiences. For instance, between 2007 and 2012, CNN edited its story packages into nearly half of their original time length.

This compactness in coverage has been linked to broad audience attrition, as a large majority of respondents in recent studies show changing preferences in news consumption. The digital era has also ushered in a new kind of journalism in which ordinary citizens play a greater role in the process of news making, with the rise of citizen journalism being possible through the Internet. Using video camera equipped smartphones, active citizens are now enabled to record footage of news events and upload them onto channels like YouTube, which is often discovered and used by mainstream news media outlets. Meanwhile, easy access to news from a variety of online sources, like blogs and other social media, has resulted in readers being able to pick from a wider choice of official and unofficial sources, instead of only from traditional media organizations.
I'm sorry, but folks there is a difference between journalism with its independence, literary style, and transparent editorial standards and the "mass media." Let's don't confuse the journalism profession with the "medium" as she or he offers up information and images created by ghosts. Because while the medium - the mass media - might choose to deliver journalistic content, the goal "to fully monetize" by providing "half" the information and use "a variety of online sources" prevents the use of journalists and journalistic content.

Let's again consider this observed in September 1960 by someone watching what television was doing to the political system:
If [television] drives politics toward theatrics, so that the number of politicians who imagine themselves entertainers swells to match the number of entertainers who imagine themselves politicians;...if, by all these lapses and deceits, a whole people lets itself become mentally trapped in a suffocating kind of isolation booth from which no sound can be heard but the voice of the huckster....
    - Emmet John Hughes, September 25, 1960, The New York Times Magazine
Today the so called "news" media now delivers Donald Trump's tweets and discusses them as if they are news. The so-called "news" media now send videographers so they can deliver video of Donald Trump's soundbites and discusses them as if they are news.

As one Deadline Hollywood writer noted 54 days before the 2016 Presidential Election:
A year ago, when Donald Trump began to confiscate the primaries, a network news chief made this admission to me: “We do not yet know how to cover a career sociopath but we will figure it out.” A year later, confronting the final seven weeks of the campaign, he admits he still hasn’t figured it out, nor have his competitors.

Trump continues to hijack the news cycle, taking shrewd advantage of the haphazard way Americans now get their news. Voters no longer watch television news or read newspapers (remember them?). The younger demo can’t even depend upon Jon Stewart anymore (Comedy Central was once their favored news source). The most important repository of news lies buried in Facebook’s algorithms and its “trending topics,” which John Oliver facetiously calls the “multiplatform content generation distribution network.”

One challenge: The old-fashioned concept of “equal time” has been demolished by the Clinton-Trump campaign. Now the argument has shifted to “false balance” — whether reporters are distorting facts in their futile effort to provide two sides to every story. Is there a way to provide “balance” in depicting Trump’s Mexican foray, for example? All this liberates Facebook to pick up Trumpian fantasies, landing the news cycle in click-bait heaven. At least it’s “trending.”

In past generations, newspapers were depended on to convey the nuances as well as the news, but their fate is reflected in the fact that the Newspaper Association of America is changing its name to the News Media Alliance. The American Society of Newspaper Editors is now the American Society of News, as reported in the New York Times (which still calls itself a newspaper). The Times itself is fiercely cutting its staff and placing ever greater emphasis on digital coverage and videos of occasionally marginal quality.
Donald Trump, the reality TV show star, discovered people were having a gossip party on the internet. "Gossip" means "idle talk or rumor" which is about as far away from journalism as one can get.

Further he was aware that "news division" air time was used by TV and radio to cater to that gossip party, that "talk shows" were pretending to be "news shows", and most particularly that first thing in the morning on ABC, NBC, and CBS filled the time with talk shows when he could take control of the day's "news" narrative.

And the networks redefined what "voting" means - "American Idol" began the process of devaluing the idea of the right to vote. You "see what you like" (all carefully managed to achieve appeal, not substance) and you vote.

And so Trump went all in - he joined the American Media Party. Why not? He certainly had no real affiliation with any real political party. But in doing this, he did "confiscate" the Republican Party.

Whether he wins the Presidency or not, he has demonstrated that the American Media Party is where "it's at" - as a fun political party it's where successfully competing requires unfiltered expressions of bigotry and where offering personal insults can be part of the entertainment required to hold the attention of the public, which is made up of the potential voters.

By turning the election into an appeal to bigotry and gossip, no Presidential candidate since Andrew Jackson has more successfully thwarted the desires of our founding fathers to avoid factions. Jackson was an advocate for slavery and genocide, both of which were at least as popular with American voters then as Trump's "wall" is with today's "Basket of Deplorables" white voters.

The craft of journalism justified calling the press America's "Fourth Estate." Without journalism there can be no "Fourth Estate" called "the media." As Emmet John Hughes feared in 1960, we are a people who have "become mentally trapped in a suffocating kind of isolation booth from which no sound can be heard but the voice of the huckster."

In 2016 we have become what our Founding Fathers rightly feared most - a democracy. Whether Trump wins the election, we have allowed the media to create a new political discourse built on tweets and sound bites. In doing so, do we risk losing the Republic?

Or have we simply created another "political party" called The American Media Party that permits egocentric media talkiing heads nominate candidates based on entertainment value, ending once and for all the effort to have policy discussion be as important as "personality" in the election process because it's just too boring?

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