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The Internet Killed the Media Star
European Straits #67
If you follow American politics, you’ve heard about the stir caused by comedian Michelle Wolf at the latest White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) Dinner.
If you’ve managed to miss it, let’s quickly sum it up. Every year, the journalists covering the White House gather in Washington, DC for a black-tie dinner with guests. It’s about two things: celebrating freedom of the press (the boring part) and making jokes about politics and especially the President (the part that makes for good clips). Customarily, the President attends the dinner and makes a speech intended to demonstrate a bit of good-humored self-derision, as Barack Obama famously did in 2016. Donald Trump, however, didn’t attend either last year or this year—for complex reasons that include his having been personally ridiculed by Obama at the 2011 edition of the dinner.
And so it was Michelle Wolf that was the main speaker a few nights ago. She dutifully made fun of Trump and his team, as well as Democrats and the media. But her speech also triggered a controversy orchestrated by conservative pundits. Then the chairwoman of the WHCA issued a press release saying that it was a mistake to have invited Wolf. And now the WHCA itself is under heavy fire from liberals for having submitted to the pressure of Trump’s surrogates. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s WHCA Dinner is the last in its current form. After all, several media outlets have had doubts about the whole thing for years, with The New York Times having not attended since 2008.
Now what does it have to do with technology? I think it has everything to do with it. The media entering the Entrepreneurial Age means the end of what used to be known as the professional / objective, independent / fact-based / middle-of-the-road media industry. It has become impossible in the current media landscape to cover subjects such as Trump and others in an objective, moderate, fact-based, non-partisan manner. And Michelle Wolf as well as the WHCA are paying the price for that. Here are a few elements to have a good grasp of the situation.
1/ The idea of objective media is a rather recent invention. In the 19th century, media existed only in printed form and it was not targeted at a massive audience. Most people couldn’t read or simply didn’t care about what was going on in the world of politics, finance, culture, and international affairs. The rise of mass media in the 20th century can be explained by the expansion of voting rights, which turned most adults into participants in the political process and made them crave information.
What’s more, there was the emergence of broadcasting (first radio, then television), which relied on the scarce resource known as Hertzian frequencies. Scarcity called for regulation, which in turn called for refraining radical speech. If you were authorized to broadcast, you had to address a mainstream audience. If you wanted to express radical views, you had to remain on the fringe, print your pamphlets in your basement, and distribute them yourself (good luck with that!).
2/ So the barriers to entry in the industry grew higher. Having ideas or information was not enough to be successful in the media business. To make it possible for your content to reach an audience, you had to invest in a strategic asset: a distribution infrastructure. In broadcasting, companies had to buy a frequency from the government and invest in a huge infrastructure covering vast territories. In the newspaper industry, an outlet didn’t exist if it was not distributed en masse to a large audience across entire cities, states, even countries. Like in every industry in the age of mass production, the barrier to entry to distributing products led to concentrating the industry as a whole.
3/ The concentration of the media industry also narrowed the talent pool. If you were a talented speaker or writer, the only way to contribute was to be hired by one of those large media corporations who had the strategic assets necessary for distributing what you had to say.
It all generated a feedback loop. Ambitious journalists were attracted to large media organizations. Because those organizations had to address a large, mainstream audience, they tended to reward moderation. And thus journalism became the calling of hardcore moderates, as moderation was the only way to address a large mainstream audience in the age of mass media.
But it wasn’t very cool to be a soft-belly, spineless, non-partisan person. And so those people had to invent a code of ethics to make the professional case for their forced moderation, and they called it “fact-based objectivity”. As a result, the media industry came to be divided: admired, objective journalists on one side; obscure, miserable pamphleteers on the other.
4/ Today few people realize that the objective journalism they knew in the past was not a given. Rather, it was the result of successful strategic positioning in a concentrated media industry. Even fewer people understand that with the shift to the Entrepreneurial Age, the media industry has been dealt a new strategic deal—one that breaks with objectivity and rewards polarization.
In the US, cable was an early blow to barriers to entry on distribution. Inevitably it led to the emergence of more partisan media organizations, chief among them Fox News. Then came the Internet, which made many barriers to entry all but disappear. Now distributing content has been commoditized by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Medium. Even raw information is much easier to access than before: remember how the news of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York was first broadcast on Twitter by a random person who just happened to be there?
What we’re witnessing is a Copernican revolution in professional journalism. To put it simply, I think that the future of the media industry in the Entrepreneurial Age is all about subjective coverage and ideological polarization—just like it used to be into the 19th century, right before the advent of mass media. Radical pamphleteers are now having their revenge. Meanwhile old-style, moderate journalists are stuck at the WHCA Dinner listening to Michelle Wolf, frightened that her burning jokes on Trump will endanger their relationship with the White House press office. Guess who’s going to win in the end?
If you still need to be convinced, here are a few articles on all that:
The Refragmentation (Paul Graham, January 2016)
For News Outlets Squeezed From the Middle, It’s Bend or Bust (Jim Ruthenberg, April 2016)
Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved (Joshua Topolsky, April 2016)
Confessions of a newspaper publishing exec: ‘We’ve screwed up by pursuing scale’ (Jessica Davies, May 2016)
Journalists Failed in 2016 (Isaac Chotiner, November 2016)
How Low Can Political Journalism Sink? (David Dayen, November 2016)
The Year Everyone Realized Digital Media Is Doomed (Theodore Ross, December 2016)
Covering politics in a “post-truth” America (Susan B. Glaser, December 2016)
How Roger Ailes Polarized TV News (Harry Enten, May 2017)
How Zuckerberg’s Facebook is like Gutenberg’s printing press (James Hohmann, March 2018)
The rationalization of publishing (Ev Williams, April 2018)
Warm regards (from London, UK),