Opinion: Outlets That Attract the Most Attention Control the Narrative

In a brutally honest 2011 interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace, comedian Jon Stewart brilliantly and humorously laid out his criticisms of the media. Stewart’s thesis in this interview basically boils down to the mainstream media’s bias not toward one political party or another, but toward “sensationalism, conflict and laziness.” While this interview is almost a decade old, Stewart’s thoughts bring a refreshingly nuanced and complex perspective to the conversation around bias on the media.

The part of Stewart’s argument that makes it so essential for today’s media is its nonpartisan application. Rather than making the case for the problems with “conservative media” and “liberal media,” he instead broadens the conversation to incriminate the entire media apparatus. For broadcast journalism in particular, the pieces that attract more viewers are salacious stories that primarily invoke anger and disgust in their viewers. When hosts find what infuriates their viewership, it can lead to a lucrative time-slot. Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, all but admits this in a telling profile in Vanity Fair where he explains his reasoning for restructuring his network around conflict between Republicans and Democrats.

So when the public largely feeds off of cantankerous soundbites and “public owns” on social media, how can strong, long-form, investigative and objective reporting survive? At the end of the day, all media is an attention game, so inherently within the very systems that make the media run, the outlets and figures that attract the most eyes will be the ones who drive the narrative. I’m not very optimistic that breathlessly appealing to principles of what journalism is will change the industry. I’m also wary of who defines “objectivity” and “neutrality.” Since millions of voices flood the stratosphere every hour, pinning down those definitions proves to be an insurmountable challenge. 

Therefore, a comprehensive solution to battling “fake news” or even more pernicious, sensationalist and lazy news cannot be reached. We are customers and the media outlets are the providers. They wield influence over large amounts of the American public which can be used for good or ill. If we stop engaging in the day-to-day squabbles the media seeks to gin up to serve their ratings purposes, we will see just how artificial those conflicts are.  Gaining a broader, more international perspective provides context for the issues the media decides are worthy of coverage. Speaking to friends, family, neighbors and coworkers can reveal the priorities of the nation and the issues actually worthy of a fight. 

Entire books could be written on the subject of the media landscape today. Between the internet, conspiracy theories, grifters and those who seek to further divide us for political purposes, it’s hard to succinctly arrive at a conclusion about what should be done. However, I believe that by removing ourselves from the rigamarole of a right vs. left debate, we can eventually discover who we can unite against. If the profit incentive for the media ensures the laziest and most emotionally-driven news, then our best way out is through our financial support. Championing journalism that provides deeper analysis gives proper context to the day’s events and finds a human center at the heart of every story only strengthens our media landscape.

Austin Gaebe is an Opinion Writer. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinGaebe.

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