The Media

From our September 4th 2016 service

Today's bulletin has some material on "Media Manipulation." There is a double entendre there. For it is thought that the media manipulates people and society. But also, clearly, there are those who know how and do manipulate the media to get their message heard and tilt people's opinions in the directions they want. How does this work? Well, as usual, it's helpful to consider the past.

This is the first newspaper to be published in the American colonies, Publick Occurrences. This, the first issue, of September 25, 1690, was also the last as it was immediately suppressed. The authorities shut it down because it was issued "Without the least Privity or Countenance of Authority." It would be 14 more years before The Boston News-Letter, a weekly, started up. It featured on its masthead, prominently, the words "published by authority."

Not long after that, in 1734, John Peter Zenger, publisher of The New York Weekly Journal, was prosecuted for criminal libel after he printed criticism of the royal governor. He was famously acquitted on the grounds that truth is a valid defense against such charges. An amazing insight!

John Peter ZengerThe newspapers of the early USA were full of opinion — a lot more opinion than news — that included harsh language: "refuse of nations"; "yelper of the Democratic kennels"; "vile old wretch"; "tool of a baboon"; "frog-eating, man-eating, blooddrinking cannibals"; "under-strapping cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin." The Gazette of the United States was a mouthpiece for the Federalist Party and The National Gazette of the Democrat-Republican Party. Much of their content was written under pseudonyms or anonymously.

Yet newspapers were not a big business until the presses began to be operated by steam engines in the 1830's. Here we see the numbers of newspapers in the USA 1775-1835. Number of Newspapers in the US Over Time

By the 1890's William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pultizer were competing in New York City. This cartoon shows how they played a role in precipitating the Spanish-American War. Why are they dressed like that though? And why did their practices spawn the term "Yellow Journalism?"

Yellow Journalism

Yellow Kids

Because Pulitzer had a comic-strip that featured a child in a yellow smock. Hearst hired the cartoonist away and Pulitzer got another cartoonist to draw the same thing. So their fiercely competitive, sensational and deceptive style of journalism was called "Yellow Kid Journalism" and then shortened to just "Yellow Journalism."

Electronic technology and the internet have only intensified this need of news outlets to generate content and "scoop" each other in order to gain and keep audiences. But the rise of consumerism has greatly increased the potential for profit from advertisers — if the audience is there.

Surprisingly, many people don't seem to be aware of how much of the news and information they take in is oriented towards marketing. There is more concern with the possibility that the media is a giant conspiracy bent on controlling public opinion and "manufacturing consent" for the government, ruling classes and corporations. People complain far more about what they see as political bias. But at least recognize such bias.

PEW Research Media Trust Levels

Newsroom Employment FallsThis is referred to in today's bulletin. The degree to which people trust media outlets depends on their own political leanings. Here's the rest of it. This is from Pew Research. If they're not reliable then America and modern civilization are in big trouble. They've been tracking all sort of things having to do with the media for many years.

Where do American Get Their News?Here's what's been happening to newsroom employment. What does this mean? It means fewer people to do the work of bringing us the news and, especially, fleshing out and fact-checking the news. It means much greater incentives to air government-supplied and PR-company-supplied material as they get it. And remember: the media is under tremendous time pressures to be the first, or at least not the last, with any new story.

Here's where Americans get their news — this is from 2010.

Advertising Revenues Here we see where the ad revenue has been going. Keep in mind that only 10% of people in the USA and in most of Europe pay anything for their news, or are willing to pay for it. So the media relies more and more on this ad revenue. Now you might think that this would mean that advertisers are "calling the shots" with respect to news reporting. You might think that everything that you get from the media "for free" is going to be biased in a particular political or ideological way because of this. Not so. Rather, it is going to be biased or designed to keep you looking at the ads. And the internet, especially, can be used to figure out what will keep you online, engaged, and clicking. Yes, it will appeal to your political or ideological biases. And to your interest in sex, violence, celebrities or whatever you bought online recently.

These are the forces that Ryan Holiday talks about in his book Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. It's a great book and I recommend you read it if you want to know the behind-the-scenes of what you see everyday on the internet and the news media. Out of curiosity, I emailed Mr. Holiday to ask about his religious stance and he replied describing himself as "a polite agnostic." So he is in our camp. I invited him to "preach" at the NTCOF if he gets to the DFW area.

Here's a representative portion of Holiday's main message:

The economics of the Internet created a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important — and more profitable — than the truth. … Our news is what rises, and what rises is what spreads, and what spreads is what makes us angry or makes us laugh. Our media diet is quickly transformed into junk food, fake stories engineered by people like me to be consumed and passed around. It is the refined and processed sugars of the information food pyramid — out of the ordinary, unnatural, and deliberately sweetened. Inside the chaos, it is easy to mislead. Only the exciting, sensational stuff finds readers — the stories that "blow up." Reporters don't have time for follow-ups or reasoned critiques, only quick hits.

Another excerpt, well worth reading slowly and digesting well:

You sit down to your computer to work. Five minutes later you're on your fifth YouTube video of talking babies. What happened? Do you just not have any self-control? Sorry, but self-control has got nothing to do with it. Not when the clip was deliberately made more attractive by subliminally embedded images guaranteed to catch your attention. Not when the length of the video was calibrated to be precisely as long as average viewers are statistically most likely to watch.

Would you also be surprised to hear that the content of the video was designed around popular search terms? And that the title went through multiple iterations to see which got the most clicks? And what if the video you watch after this one (and the one after that and after that) had been recommended and optimized by YouTube with the deliberate intention of making online video take up as much time in your life as television does?

No wonder you can't get any work done. They won't let you.

… We once naively believed that blogs would be a boon to democracy. Unlike TV, the web wasn't about passive consumption. Blogs were about engagement and citizen activism. Blogs looked like they would free us from a crummy media world of bias, conflict, manipulation, and sensationalism. But as James Fennimore Cooper presciently observed in the nineteenth century, "If newspapers are useful in overthrowing tyrants, it is only to establish a tyranny of their own."

Tyranny is an understatement for the media today. Those between the ages of eight and eighteen are online roughly eight hours a day, a figure that does not include texting or television. America spends more than fifty billion minutes a day on Facebook, and nearly a quarter of all Internet browsing time is spent on social media sites and blogs. In a given month, blogs stream something like 150 million video streams to their users. So of course there is mass submission and apathy — everyone is distracted, deliberately so. The idea that the web is empowering is just a bunch of rattling, chattering talk. Everything you consume online has been "optimized" to make you dependent on it. Content is engineered to be clicked, glanced at, or found — like a trap designed to bait, distract, and capture you. Blogs are out to game you — to steal your time from you and sell it to advertisers — and they do this every day.?

And here is something a bit more disturbing from Holiday's book:

Consider what happened to the French yogurt giant Danone, which was approached by Fernando Motolese, a video producer in Brazil, with two hypothetical videos.

One, he said, was a fun spoof of their yogurt, which was designed to improve digestive health and, um, other bodily functions. The other, he said, was a disgusting version of the first video, with all the indelible scatological images implied by such a spoof. He might be more inclined to release the first video, he said, if Danone was willing to pay him a fee each time it was seen.

"It felt sort of like blackmail," said Renato Fischer, the Danone representative who fielded the inquiry, to MIT's Technology Review. Well, that's because it was blackmail. It was extortion via viral video.

Molotese's hustle is one of many styles of a shakedown that happen across the web countless times a day.

Now what would you do if, out of the blue, CNN or some other major media outlet called you up and asked you to respond to some serious and completely crazy accusation? The person on the other end says "We're doing a story about this and wanted to give you a chance to respond." What would you do? Deny the appalling and yet ridiculous claim? Or ignore it, which might make you look even worse? Either way, many people are going to believe that the baseless accusations actually have some basis. Consider that some of what you see in the media or online is exactly this sort of thing.

People have learned — and they generally know — that some sources of news are not to be trusted, regardless of your ideology or political leanings. Supermarket tabloids reporting on "bat babies" are obviously suspect. But what Holiday talks about in his book is that absurdities are taken seriously all the time. Bloggers rush into electronic publication anything they think can get attention. They don't go back and edit their stuff either, though they may add additional notes at the bottom. The result is that questionable or even completely false stories get passed up the food chain to major media outlets. At almost step of the way, making money is more important than fact-checking. And "news" is coming from people pushing their own agendas, their own products or those of their clients, or for the purpose of hurting their competitors.

The "conspiracy" of the media is that there are few or no incentives for caring about the truth. Much of what gets through is the truth, of course. Video of the Olympic games is not fabricated, for example. But a "news report" could also be a piece of video made by the government, or set in motion by any number of people and organizations with ulterior motives and who know how the whole system works and so how to exploit it.

In closing, there is this interesting item from almost 100 years ago (from Wikipedia):

In 1920, Edison set off a media sensation when he told B. C. Forbes of American Magazine that he was working on a "spirit phone" to allow communication with the dead, a story which other newspapers and magazines repeated. Edison later disclaimed the idea, telling the New York Times in 1926 [six years later!] that "I really had nothing to tell him, but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke."

Please, think about it!