Ever since the Walter Cronkite era, Journalism relied upon “the kindness of strangers,” meaning advertisers paid big bucks to appear next to articles or TV shows. In fact, the practice subsidized the media’s high cost but well researched reporting, and laid a foundation for public trust. But the advertisers paying for the privilege had no say in whether anyone saw the ad, they just had to pay their money and accept it on faith.
This all ended after the economy endured back-to-back crises of the Internet crash of 2000 and the Great Recession of ’08. Budgets went bust as advertisers looked around for a safe haven, and the news media seemed like a leaky boat in a tempest-tossed sea. TV and newspaper bigshots wondered what it meant when Facebook and Google started to offer clicks and ad views or your money back? It went by the name of digital, and it meant the beginning of the end of journalism.
As advertising revenue dried up from banks, automotive, travel, and luxury goods, an entire generation of senior editors was let out the door. It began as a cost savings move, but ended up as a cultural revolution that changed media forever. I was part of the exodus that felt old-style journalism couldn’t compete when I quit my job as publisher of Forbes. I had no idea how radical the decline would be.
The rescue was worse.
President Obama saw that a high profile politician could make or break a journalist’s career because reporters had to feed the beast, according to New York Times editor Jill Abramson — meaning write stories that get shared on social media. If a publication like Atlantic Monthly has 2 million Twitter followers, Barack Obama has over 100 million, who’s the publisher?
In fairness, if a New York Times journalist praised Donald Trump for saving a drowning puppy, the paper would lose subscribers, the journalist would be blocked, and her followers would leave. She might lose her job. Haters on Twitter and Reddit would undoubtedly swarm her. That is the dystopian world we live in, and the media is but a reflection. We gravitate to those celebrity politicians we agree with, we share the good news with friends who agree with us, and we shun anyone who tries to change our minds. This is the definition of an echo chamber.
Obama is no one’s fool, and he saw the opportunity to control his image by turning the new media math into a weapon. He threw reporters who supported him a lifeline, and they wrote applause lines into their stories. But if they disagreed, a nasty side emerged, one that brought down the arm of the law on their heads. The last time a Western ruler persecuted a journalist was in the French Revolution. They were guillotined.
On May 17, 2013, the Washington Post reported that Obama’s Department of Justice under Eric Holder, a loyal lapdog during the Financial Crisis, had monitored Fox DC Bureau chief James Rosen’s telephone and email records under the Espionage Act of 1917. It was a low point in the history of political interference. As First Amendment lawyer, Charles Tobin, told the Washington Post: “Search warrants like these have a severe chilling effect on the free flow of important information to the public.”
The seizures were a sure sign that a media-politico power shift had taken place, and not for the better. It was followed up by the seizure of a New York Times reporter’s phone and email records. Now it no longer mattered if you were right or left, as long as you supported Obama. That sent a signal to the journalism community as if a gun were placed to their heads. James Risen compared Donald Trump favorably to Obama: “If Trump decides to throw a whistle-blower in jail or asks the FBI to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank: Barack Obama.”
Even the liberal-minded New York Times editorial board wrote, “The Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news.” After the public outcry, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote, “the Department of Justice released revised standards for subpoenaing reporters.”
By the time Obama’s second term rolled around, he started thinking about his legacy and restrained his Justice Department from going after reporters.
But by then, it was no longer necessary. They were cowed.
“If you make a starving dog prosperous he will not bite you.” — Mark Twain
The worshipful reporters in the photo of the Clinton campaign plane epitomized the trend towards a docile news media. Campaign journalists went from First Amendment guarantors to acolytes begging for interviews. The saga began back in 2008, as journalism went into freefall during the financial crisis. Entire new departments were laid off or given buyouts, and a generation of senior editors, fact-checkers, and ombudsmen disappeared. Digital won. The geniuses running media companies invested in an orgy of useless technologies like ‘bar code readers’ viewers could use to point at ads in magazines. The New York Times and Washington Post both passed on the opportunity to buy a 10% ownership in Google.
The future wasn’t promising.
Socialite Arianna Huffington desperately wanted to be part of the digital game. The DIY. approach in her day was to start a blog, which she called The Huffington Post. It solved two problems in that it provided a way to capitalize on a celebrity network and spend an ample divorce settlement. As I wrote recently, she wisely hired an unknown MIT data scientist, Jonah Peretti, to tweak headlines so that they mirrored Google’s trending searches. If kittens made the rankings, the next article was about kittens.
The ploy was a hit. Algorithms replaced human editors. Costs went down, revenues went up, and suddenly, the Cronkite era vanished, and with it, the concept of journalistic credibility turned into three-card monte: the truth, the whole truth, or the Google truth. Still, it seemed like everything would be fine, after all, why not write about things people are searching for?
Peretti performed his second act of genius in 2012. He piggybacked on social media to make sure headlines were in sync with Facebook shares. The experiment was called “Buzzfeed Labs” (the original name), and every time a topic on Facebook flew off the charts, the algorithm requested a headline. The result was a click storm that beat the combined viewership of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Old fashioned reporting was DOA.
The problem wasn’t just algorithms. Every sector has to evolve, and the media is no different. It was that readers and viewers preferred third rate material over quality. It is why the traditional media let senior editors and columnists go. Call it the junk media era where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Instagram posts get more views than a well-written profile. In the old days, an editor could still publish the profile on the grounds it added context. Today, media flies by digital autopilot.
People have a right to ask, who cares as long as viewers are happy? In the case of the royal family, does quality matter? But what if the subject is racism or sexual misconduct or the spread of a pandemic? When we see headlines that deliver the highest clicks according to an algorithm, it influences the quality of the conversation. It is the reason why reporters gush over rogue behavior, vilifying those in charge, demonizing tech entrepreneurs like Bezos and Musk, obsessed with victimhood, rarely reliable about the future. Journalists are human, after all. They write about things that pay the highest return or earn a promotion. But when journalism lost humans, it lost its humanity.
Obama didn’t cause media to decline, nor did Facebook or Twitter. A grinding economy eliminated easy advertising dollars, and click technology gave reliable proof. These facts were fundamental, but Obama exploited the media when it was vulnerable.
You could argue as a politician he did not have a choice. But his methods left journalists begging for political attention, or reprieve, in the case of James Rosen. Access turned into a career-maker for those who danced to his tune and transformed balanced journalists into bewitched toadies.
In a Rolling Stone magazine interview in 2010, Obama ruefully admitted, “The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history.” His actions assured it is guaranteed not to return anytime soon.