Did We Really TradeWalter Cronkite For Arianna Huffington?
The CBS News anchor’s reporting on the Vietnam War marked the high point of journalism. That was before social media turned politicians into celebrities.
On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite aired a CBS Special Report on the Vietnam War that brought down a president. He filled in what at the time was called a “credibility gap.” People trusted him. Today, the journalism profession labors against the threat of social media clicks to replace news reporting. Once again, credibility is at risk, but journalists are the cause now, not the cure.
Cronkite heard that President Johnson was shading the truth in press conferences to look like we were winning the war. His two war buddies, Andy Rooney and Morley Safer said: “get the hell over there and see for yourself.”
Cronkite came back with grave misgivings. Vietnam was a quagmire and Cronkite's message was unmistakable, Vietnam would end in a stalemate. The public understood this meant defeat.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was watching the broadcast when he famously declared, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” On March 31, Johnson withdrew from reelection, Richard Nixon succeeded him and brought the war to a halt by 1975. Cronkite may have been a lifelong liberal, but never hesitated from defying his party when he sat in the anchor chair. That may never happen again for a reason that is complicated but plainly obvious: follow the money.
Let state a few bona fides. I was publisher of Forbes Magazine and like many “ink-stained” wretches, I left for the digital world in 1998. I landed as CEO of Zip2, a Silicon Valley venture-backed startup, where I succeeded a founder by the strange name of Elon Musk. I became president of CMGI, one of the largest internet incubators with a market value of $40 Billion (until the crash) and a venture capital partner at Schroder Internet Partners. I started my own magazine and website, Directorship.com, for corporate officers and directors. When I say media has changed, I wasn’t watching from the bleachers.
So, when did journalism go wrong?
According to Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times, and author of Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, digital was the new kid on the block. But disruptors have appeared before, yet this time they pushed traditional media aside like a salt and pepper shaker. Why? How could it happen to a glorious business that combined daring and celebrity with deep respect?
The Federal Communications Commission still limits the number of broadcast stations — radio and TV — an entity can own. FCC rules prohibit a merger between any two of the big four broadcast television networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. One would think in a world of unlimited media, this rule is outdated.
In 1975, the FCC passed the newspaper and broadcast cross-ownership rule that banned the ownership of a daily newspaper and any “full-power broadcast station.” Just as government regulation unduly influenced the mortgage and pharmaceutical industries to make poor decisions that led to a financial and opioid crisis, the media industry did not go unscathed.
The FCC’s Act of 1934, the plinth upon which all media regulation uneasily rests, was established to regulate telephone companies, but switched to TV networks in “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” By limiting media ownership in significant markets, no single entity was large enough to give advertisers coverage, so the marketers had to buy everybody. Readers had no choice, nor did viewers, and everyone read the same papers or watched only one or two evening news broadcasts. It was a monopoly granted and protected by government regulation.
The result was that twenty-nine million Americans tuned in to watch Walter Cronkite on CBS. The restrictions led to higher profits for the networks and gave us higher-quality journalism, reporters who felt secure enough to go against a popular president, and a public that believed what the media told it. A 1973 poll confirmed Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, and this was confirmed by Roper poll in 1975 that 90% “had a great deal of respect for him.” By comparison, after Dan Rather’s last broadcast in 2005, a Gallup poll showed that only 21% believed him.
There was a downside. Government regulators inspired semi-monopolistic behavior. The few network TV titans were led by thick-headed managers who lost the feel for their advertiser markets because it was a seller’s dream. Print media was no better. It resorted to inflating audience data to compete for dollars. If you picked up a five-month-old copy of a magazine or newspaper in a doctor’s office, you became a “pass along” reader. It added millions to a publication’s reach, many times larger than actual circulations.
When the Great Recession of ’08 hit, advertisers now had many choices as cable TV had taken over by then and digital media was coming along. Tighter budgets meant marketers needed proof that ads were working, and the industry quickly gave it a name, “clicks.” New digital platforms like Google, and social media sites like Facebook, could provide click counts and trace a viewer’s route like a GPS.
Traditional media froze for a moment when it realized how out of the loop they had become. The initial reaction was to regain prosperity through cost cutting. Wave after wave of employee buyouts took place at the Washington Post and New York Times, and across the media landscape. These were labor intensive organizations and salaries were hurting the bottom line. The problem was senior people were making the real money and were the first to go, and with them went the editorial skills. In their absence were young, untrained, social media savvy, journalist-lite reporters who saw the mission differently — it was about clicks and personal fame. Like any species threatened with extinction, the industry mutated into a zombie monster, part news, gossip, and schmaltz, and prone to spiteful rage.
Abramson says Arianna Huffington started the ball rolling — downhill — with the help of Jonah Peretti, an MIT geek and founder of Buzzfeed. Together, they didn’t change the business as much as they addicted it to a powerful drug, “virality.”
Peretti’s senior college thesis said. “The audience is the network and the critic.” To be successful, “a contagious media project should represent the simplest form of an idea” and “must be explainable in one sentence or less.” For example, “a technique to make bonsai kittens.” For someone like Peretti who knew nothing of media or content, there was good news. “This line of work did not require brilliance or originality. Rather it demanded a receptiveness to the whims and weaknesses of the masses.” Digital media was born, and Cronkite’s world vanished forever.
Two more things had to fall into place before digital turned into the monster that ate the media.
First, the statuesque socialite, Arianna Huffington, a graduate of Cambridge University, married and divorced Texas oil hair, Michael Huffington. That was how she came up with the money for her blog, Huffington Post. Her idea was to capitalize on her startling “A list” network that included everyone from Newt Gingrich to George Clooney, Madonna, and Alec Baldwin, all willing to write on her blog for free.
Then, the partnership between Huffington and Peretti blossomed when a mutual friend introduced them. Peretti was lukewarm at first: “I was never interested in business or making money. Business wasn’t cool.” He quickly recovered from his bout of idealism. He saw Huffington was a “gatherer” who delighted in making social connections that mattered. “I learned from Arianna,” Peretti recalled, “the limits and opportunities of celebrity.” Within months, the Huffington Post “surpassed the web traffic of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.”
Peretti was a lab guy, not a doctor. He didn’t cure readers; he got them hooked on a machine that poured serotonin into their brain. It meant fewer articles by David Brooks or Amy Chua— but lots of photos of Kim Kardashian. But how did Peretti know what would work if he wasn’t an editor? You can thank Google. The search site was a tipster for Peretti’s media bots. If Google said people were searching “virus,” the staff wrote an article on viruses, and so it went. That’s when it got crazy.
People read what Google said told Peretti they were searching, and it turned into telling them what to read. Everyone was looking over their neighbor’s shoulder. No more middle man. No journalist to siphon through the dreck to find gems. If typos were the order of the day, Huffington Post ran typo articles. When Heath Ledger died of an overdose, people mistakenly searched for Keith Ledger. Huffington Post ran articles tagged Keith.
Abramson explains, “The Huffington Post held itself accountable not to journalistic rules but readers’ enthusiasm. It did not purport to dictate the terms of the national conversation but rather to reflect it. It aimed not to change hearts and minds but to resonate with them. Company leadership was notably void of anyone with editing experience.”
One might reflect and say, what’s wrong with giving people the media they click on? The quick answer is that we don’t want to live on a diet of cotton candy and Fritos. What behavioralist and Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman calls our “fast thinking” and I call the “small brain” is our quick-fix impulse. It is why we choose cheesecake over celery at the salad bar. Or during a COVID 19 pandemic, do we want the news to reflect what the small brain wants to know? It may only be interested in a headline about which celebrity became infected. How does that help in a crisis? A National Enquirer mentality of giving people what they want isn’t a terrible thing by itself, but if the entire media is playing the same game then it is.
Peretti’s brilliance was his decision to build tools that measured click-throughs (clicking on ads to the commercial), looking at each headline to see what pulled in viewers and held them long enough to click. Those that worked were promoted, those that lost steam were toast. Now, headlines weren’t about readers but about which advertisers rang the cashier the most. For all its sophistication, this is the media model we are stuck with today. Abramson calls it the “click-o-meter,” but it is really a serotonin delivery mechanism that addles our brain. The FDA should be its regulator, not the FCC.
The challenge, as Abramson says, “was to feed the beast. While the business turned a profit, the pay was lousy for those who got paid. From inception, the Huffington Post determined that paying bloggers was “not in our financial model.” Good writing was pointless. Google suggested the subject, pictures, captions, and a few comments were all that was required. So, writers came out of college with no experience, lousy pay, harsh deadlines, and a brutal pace that meant no fact-checking. The staff began collecting stories already written and repackaging them as Huffington Post. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but content?
Then, just about the time things could not get worse, the real bombshell fell. Peretti’s second flash of insight occurred when he saw Facebook. He recognized “user generated content would become conversation on the internet.” Huffington agreed, and they set up a small outfit to launch a social media-based engine. It would follow what people shared rather than searched, as sharing was like a diamond mine to the gold of search. Huffington, always the entrepreneur, demanded that Peretti give her the best data.
Buzzfeed was born.
Traditional media had to genuflect to a new master, the clickbait algorithm. “The once highly profitable publishing conglomerate Knight Ridder sold all of its 32 newspapers and disappeared. The Washington Post spent millions to compensate employees who agreed to retire early. As more and more renegade news organizations arose, journalists and readers alike sensed the paradox: they were entering a world with seemingly unlimited possibilities, yet discovering that their time-honored ways of producing and consuming the news were no longer viable.” A Pew study conducted in 2007 found that the share of Americans who could name the vice president had dropped to 5 percent from 1989.”
Peretti and Huffington created a rocket, but what they needed was a rocket launcher. When Steve Jobs gave the world the iPhone, the current media model was formed. Today, news is curated, not written. Reporters want people to share and follow them, not read. Everyone wants the new celebrity called influencer, many of whom make millions like real celebrities. Advertisers are happy. Reporters with no experience can get jobs with fancy titles like visual data journalist. The publisher of a newspaper or magazine, whose role was to make sure advertising and editorial were compatible but independent, no longer exists.
When I think about the state of journalism, I return to my college English major days, and say that Yeats got it right:
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
I admire both Huffington and Peretti. Huffington, for her part, is an astounding entrepreneur. She spends her time on health and personal passion — sleep! Peretti morphed into the enfant terrible of media. What sometimes disturbs is that he likes to play the progressive liberal card while living a media mogul’s life in a Brooklyn townhouse while using politics as a canopy to cover his impressive net worth.
In any case, both Huffington and Peretti attacked a poorly run industry and turned it upside down. They created a monster, but in time, it will respond to the customer’s desire for quality, truth, and uplift. I’m just sad we lost Cronkite, although we never deserved him.