There is something wrong with the media -- internationally.
In Great Britain, they were unable to listen to British people who wanted to "Brexit." In the US, they were unable to listen to American people who wanted Trump. And in France, they were unable to predict the victory of François Fillon who "unexpectedly" won the presidential primary election of the center-right party.
In each country, the media and journalists stigmatized and labeled the majority of the people -- those who wanted to Brexit, such as Trump and Fillon -- idiots and racists.
So the question is: are journalists and media still people and companies paid to describe the world as it is? How did they go so wrong on such important questions? And go wrong so massively, with almost no exception? The corollary question is: are the media just playing a game? If so, what is the game? And why?
For an answer, it is necessary to understand how the media works. First, it is important to abandon conspiracy theories. Many "experts" explain the lack of diversity -- the one-sided orientation of information -- by pointing to a supposedly oligarchic concentration of TV channels and newspapers in a few hands. This may sometimes be part of the problem, but only marginally. Media corporation owners want content that they can monetize, and much of the time they might not even care about the content. They just want an audience, as big as possible. As the French philosopher, Marcel Gauchet, put it: "in the manner of the adage that 'money does not smell,' one might add that the audience has no content."
How does one then explain, in a period of multiplying media outlets, the uniformization of information?
Fear: Journalists live with the daily fear of being not "good enough." In this very competitive job, professional recognition comes with scoops and sensational information. To be published on the front page of your own newspaper, to open the news on your own television program, you must bring the "killer news" -- the news that kills all others -- and, more importantly, the news that all other media will copy and paste. If you are not that type of journalist -- if you are interested in nuance -- you do not exist on television, and are relegated to the inside pages of a newspaper, preferably at the bottom.
Good journalists bring "killer news" and killer news creates The Trend. Once The Trend is created -- that a politician is insane or racist, for example -- it is useless to write anything different. The only choice is to join the swarm and bring news that will prove that he is "in fact" even more insane and racist than he was the day before.
In a world where the audience is fragmented between the internet, social media, newspapers, radio and television, the "good," recognized, journalists are obsessed with creating the hound pack of the day and then enjoying the status of top dog. The more forms of media there are, the more journalists are in competition -- inside the same organization and among other forms of media -- to print or air the same information. Because in hound-pack logic, there can be only one news item a day -- repeated and reprinted infinitely.
We can even state a "law": the more the competition between journalists and different forms of media, the more information gets homogenized. The competition is not for differentiated information, but for deadline: each journalist is running be the first to bring back the information that all his competitors will have no choice but to reprint and repeat.
Emotion and Sensation: Do you know why Google is investing untold millions of dollars to perfect the technology of the self-driving car? Not for safety, nor for easier driving; they are doing it because it is stupid to let hundreds of millions of people concentrate on a road instead of on surfing the internet. This is the next revolution in technology: if cars and trucks can drive themselves, the available time for news, shopping, entertainment and advertisement online is maximized.
Google, Facebook and hundreds of television stations and newspapers are actually fighting for our available time and our attention. The available time is the time not devoted to work, to driving, and to family: a few hours a day. It is a zero-sum game: each second on Facebook is stolen from a newspaper or television station.
This fierce competition for our attention dramatically has changed the way information is produced, in television, then in newspapers.
Rule 1: The more sensational the television news, the larger the audience you get. Transposed to the press, this became: The more sensational the news, the more it is considered relevant. Sensational here means a strategy of packaging headlines and news in a way to mobilize attention and emotion.
Pierre Le Coz, a philosopher working at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) says:
"We are caught in a frenzy logic amplified by the digital revolution. The "reign of emotions" is the advent of a society plagued by what I call "emotional captivity," a sensory stimulation... continuum -- visual, audio -- that mobilizes our emotions at the expense of our thinking."
Rule 2: For television and the press, this "emotional captivity" led to another rule: Information is not what is important to the reader, but what can attract attention of the greatest number of readers.
For the press, what is "fit to print" is not what is relevant, but what is new and what might please a crowd. As a prominent French philosopher, Marcel Gauchet, explained more than ten years ago:
If you read the headlines of daily newspapers, it is striking to see that they align with the logic of the mainstream media [TV]. There is a hierarchy of information that is not necessarily the same as that of television, but that follows the same principle... This does not mean that they are the same topics covered, but the approach is similar. I'll take a famous one that concerned me -- it's not narcissistic but typical. You had a little column on an attack in Jerusalem. But the biggest title, about "the new [intellectual] reactionaries," majestically occupied the central square of the front page. An attack in Jerusalem is routine! It is important, but we are used to it. While the new reactionary is a new topic, exciting...."
The Obsession with Immediacy
This obsession was accelerated by the internet, which has immediacy. Frederic Filloux, one of the most perceptive experts on the media, explained in his weekly column, The Monday Note, the "immediacy obsession" of the web.
About ten years ago, the new breed of digital publishers started to change the news cycle's pace. Speed and reactivity became the norm. Spurred by a fear of falling behind, under pressure from advertisers and readers, legacy media jumped on that train.
That fear was amplified by a dual management failure:
At the newsroom level no one was thoughtful enough to understand that obsessing over clicks and producing value added news might not be compatible.
By the same token, those in charge of the revenue side, waving "eloquent" Excel spreadsheets, convinced everyone that the page views churn machine actually printed money. They were comforted by sales teams that found much easier to sell eyeballs — regardless of the quality of the brain attached to it, than to demand higher prices for higher quality. Instead of thinking in terms of long term value-building, the ad community embraced the simplistic idea of valuing traffic above audience. This turned out to be an unfortunate choice: both the sell-side and the buy-side realized (too late) that a set of machines were thousands time better at selling and optimizing ad space than a bunch of conventional sales people working from an old-fashioned playbook.
To be The First to Publish the Same News, it is not necessary to hire people from Harvard. You just need to be young, ambitious, and accept a low salary for an extremely competitive job. The only hope in this profession is to become a star. The media is like Hollywood: millions apply, few are chosen. But there is a consequence: because they are young, they often do not take time to evaluate information, think and become cultivated. Because they have to compete against colleagues both inside the same form of media and in other forms of media, they need to move fast and they need to be sensational. Intelligence by itself does not pay.
Can fear, sensationalism, immediacy, obsession and low salaries explain why journalists missed Brexit, Trump, Fillon and so on?
In a certain way, yes. But not only. Journalists are busy with power (political, economic, institutional, cultural). They are busy with prominent people able to do things -- people in charge. Powerful people in charge make news. A sentence from the President, the merger of two multinational companies, a murder in the street after a robbery, the latest Hollywood movie, the latest bestseller book... and journalists are overly busy with political consequences of the President's declarations, the economic consequences of the merger, the police statements after the murder, etc. And day after day, it is, in a way, the same story.
In this system, the media cannot pay attention to the less-prominent, less-visible people. The media do not talk to people on welfare, they do not notice the desertification in France, for instance, or the concentrations of population in big cities. Power lies in big cities and media likewise. Poverty can make a headline when data are officially released, but who cares about what poor people think? They are not in a position to change things, except if they use guns or find a leader and organize themselves in a way to catch attention. In the case of revolt only, they become an element of power, and if they do not, they stay off the radar.
The problem begins when people not on the radar become the majority of the population, and when this majority become "dissidents." Then, when the invisible people (in the media sense of the term) engage in the democratic process and protest with a vote, it sounds like a bomb: No one saw it coming! No one could have predicted it!
In Germany, France, Britain, the United States and all big economies, globalization has produced the same consequences. Each of these countries has been divided in two: a network of big wealthy globalized cities vs. poor, downgraded and de-industrialized small cities and rural areas. The French geographer, Eric Guilluy, has published many books about the adverse effect of globalization. In an interview with the weekly, Le Point, he said:
The "peripheral America" who voted Trump stick to the de-industrialized and rural areas, which are also the America of the workers, employees, independent workers or peasants. Those people were yesterday in the heart of the economic machine from where they were banished... France is becoming an American society; there is no reason to escape to the adverse effects of the economic model of globalization.
According to Guilluy, the network of big and wealthy cities relegated poor white people to the margins of the society, but the same big-city network integrated well millions of immigrants who accepted undesirable jobs and poor housing. Paradoxically, immigrants had a better possibility of finding a good job in big cities than white workers in small cities, especially when the only employer of the area was closing his doors because he could not compete with products coming from China. According to Guilluy, the real ghetto is not the one you think.
To return to the media: how can one fail to notice how their perception is biased? Their perception of the poor is reduced to the poor they have in front of their eyes: immigrants. Guilluy added:
"Yes, the perception of the dominant classes -- journalists above all -- is reduced to their immediate field of vision. ... What remains today of the common classes in big cities are immigrants living in the suburbs, which is to say minorities: in France, they are immigrants from the Maghreb and Africa; in the United States they are rather blacks and latinos."
In other words, in globalized countries, poor people "of color" have replaced poor whites. They replaced them not only in the economy, but also in terms of representation of the poor, as if there are no -- or only few -- desperately poor whites. According to the media, the only poor who need help, support and attention are immigrants. Other people who are poor -- especially whites -- do not, for the media, exist. And if they did protest, presumably they would have no right to, because their skin color has supposedly (and often correctly) "privileged" them.
Then, when anger grows in the "peripheral areas" or "flyover country" against uncontrolled immigration, the media become a guilt-machine accusing whites of being racists. A few examples:
- Time magazine: How Trump won: The revenge of working-class whites.
- Washington Post: The revenge of working-class whites.
- The Guardian: Trump's angry white men.
- Huffington Post: The Revenge Of The Losers Of Globalization? Brexit, Trump.
Representing the middle and working classes as "reactionary" or "fascist" is very convenient. This avoids asking critical questions. When someone is diagnosed as fascist, the priority becomes to re-educate him, not to question the economic organization of the territory where he lives. Anti-fascism has become a weapon for upper social classes.
The Italian filmmaker Pasolini had already explained it in his Private Writings: Since the left has succumbed to free market ideology -- pro-EU and pro globalization -- we are in a process where old distinctions do not work. "Left" and "Right" are transferable, which explains why white workers are not voting socialist but for anti-immigration far-right parties. There remains, therefore, only one thing for them [the Left] to do to keep their "Left-ish" posture: to fight against a "fascism" that does not exist. This is exactly what is happening...."
Conclusion? The Next Media Generation is on its Track
The problem for the media is coming: Brexit, Trump and Italy's referendum were a victory for millions of citizens from the "working class" against the elites, who seem to have become increasingly disconnected from them. They were also a victory for millions of people totally disconnected from the mainstream media, people liberated from "political correctness," people liberated from "ready-made answers and thinking." U.S. President-elect Donald Trump understood this disconnect so well that he has not even held a press conference since his victory, telling the press without a word that he does not need them. During the campaign, in fact, Trump spoke to very few from the media: He made his own media: tweeting every day, obliging the mainstream media to amplify his words. The more the lying media treating him as a liar, the more he was trusted.
(Image source: Young Turks video screenshot)
Christiane Amanpour, a CNN anchorwoman, said: "We face an existential crisis. A threat to the very relevance and usefulness of our profession."
Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, understood quickly that empires -- and especially his empire -- can die. The day after Trump's election, he admitted the paper failed to appreciate Donald Trump's appeal:
"After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump's sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?"
While insisting that his staff had "reported on both candidates fairly," he also vowed that the paper would "rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor." (It has not.)
Sulzberger also launched an appeal to the "loyalty" of Times subscribers -- because thousands of people abruptly cancelled their subscriptions. The disaffection with biased information is growing, and fewer and fewer people are ready to subscribe to propaganda, especially when the facts on the ground so visibly contradict it.
Democracy depends for its survival on journalists doing correctly the job for which they are paid: reporting facts and not stigmatizing people who do not resemble them. It is not the "noble" duty of journalists to prevent things from happening. Just report facts, propose analysis, and let people think for themselves.
New media have appeared on the internet, in the mold of Breitbart in the U.S. and Riposte Laïque in France -- many dozens across the U.S. and Europe. Their audiences consist of millions of readers. The mainstream media is still alive, but for how long? It had better move fast; a generation of new media is on its way.
Yves Mamou is a journalist and author based in France. He worked for two decades for the daily, Le Monde, before his retirement.