From Tet to Trump: A Media History

I believe in journalism. I'm thankful for its truth-telling, spot-lighting potential (see last year's Oscar-winning film Spotlightfor example). But I sometimes fear for its future. As the media landscape continues to morph, what role can real journalism play? Donald Trump becoming president is certainly huge "news," but it's a headline that signals something foreboding rather than electrifying about the state of the news industry. Here's my attempt to make sense of how we got here. 1960s: In 1964, 58% of Americans said that they “got most of their news” from television. The novelty of live televised news, combined with tumultuous global events (especially in 1968) launched the "breaking news" phenomenon, which set the stage for blurred lines between information and entertainment. The agenda-setting power of TV became apparent when the news coverage of the Tet Offensive in 1968 helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.

1970s-80s: The commercial reality of broadcast news, in which ratings were crucial and 30 minutes (multiple times a day) had to be filled with "news" (even when nothing of import was happening) inspired all manner of gimmicky segments and the disorienting assemblage of murder + weather + traffic + celebrity news + sports + cute animals with Jack Hannah. See Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)

1990s: 24-hour news channels gain momentum, and the need to manufacture "news" further inspires infotainment as well as the rise of commentary-as-news and partisan talking head punditry. See also: O.J. Simpson Trial, Court TV, Greta Van Susteren, Fox News, etc.

2000s: The Internet infinitely expands the "channels" and platforms on which "content" is published. This leads to decline in paid newspaper/magazine subscriptions and rise in assumption that news/information should be free. Everyone (from the New York Times to your neighborhood mommy blogger) now competes in the same space for a limited number of eyeballs and clicks in order to survive.

2010s: Most people now receive their news primarily through curated social media newsfeeds and mostly just scan headlines quickly as they scroll the feed. Headlines are thus more important than ever, and yet... To attract clicks and compete in the flattened "feed" space, news outlets must bait readers by purging headlines of nuance, prioritizing only the most extreme, FIRST and hottest take on any timely topic. If all we know of the news is from the headlines we scan, we'll naturally perceive the world to be a deranged place on the path to catastrophe. Furthermore, in the "feed" world, news outlets know they are competing not for everyone but for only those who have opted in and are predisposed to a certain perspective. Thus the headlines that work are the ones that preach loudest to the choir and confirm biases most amusingly.

2016: Now everyone gets different news and different facts and different truth, to the point that all is suspicious and nothing is trustworthy, including the  meta/satire/fake news "journalists" who for a time were heralded as Peabody-quality truth-to-power prophets. All of which now gives us Trump. America has just finished a reality TV election and elected a reality TV star as president, a man who has already described picking his cabinet staff in Apprentice gameshow terms ("finalists"). NBC may have lost Billy Bush on account of the Access Hollywood tapes scandal but their alum Trump is taking his "You're Fired!" one-liners all the way to the White House! Surely that bodes well for Saturday Night Live ratings.

The "serious" media were horribly wrong on Trump's odds of winning and painfully unable to understand the who, why, whither and whence of how this happened. Humbled and embarrassed by how out of touch they were, the New York Times publisher repented to readers and said the paper would "rededicate" itself "to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences."

The agenda-setting power of media may still exist, but it is weakened by the hyper-fragmented reality of today's narrowcast media landscape. Scores of articles declaring the clear and present danger of a Trump presidency didn't matter in the end because they only set the "agenda" of a small group, already predisposed to dislike Trump. There are thousands of media channels that each set agendas for different audiences, so it's no wonder national public opinion is harder and harder to accurately gauge.

Perhaps sheer exposure and celebrity are the real agenda-setters today. In the end, Trump didn't have to do much more than be famous, talk tough and tweet (He has 4 million more Twitter followers than Hillary Clinton) in order to win. He knows the unfortunate truth that the only bad press today is boring press, as in stories about policy (snooze!) and other low-energy topics (sorry Jeb Bush). While journalists are scandalized that he won't tell them where he is going to eat a steak dinner (UGH, presidents are supposed to keep the press corps in the loop!), Trump has moved on into the ominous new media world, with or without the old guard.