Part 2 of a series; Previously: What Bell Labs and French Intellectuals Can Tell Us About Cronkite and Couric
The Signal-to-Noise Journey of American Media
The 20th Century represented a Golden Age of Institutional Journalism. The Yellow Journalism wars of the late 19th Century gave way to a more responsible mode of reporting built on ethical and professional codes that encouraged fairness and “objectivity.” (Granted, these concepts, like their bastard cousin “balance,” are not wholly unproblematic. Still, they represented a far better way of conducting journalism than we had seen before.) It’s probably not idealizing too much to assert that reporting in the Cronkite Era, for instance, was characterized by a commitment to rise above partisanship and manipulation. The journalist was expected to hold him/herself to a higher standard and to serve the public interest. These professionals – and I have met a few who are more than worthy of the title – believed they had a duty to search for the facts and to present them in a fashion that was as free of bias as possible.
In other words, their careers, like that of Claude Shannon, were devoted to maximizing the signal in the system – the system here being the “marketplace of ideas.”
By now the critical reader has probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned money. Said reader might suggest that I wax a little too starry-eyed, that journalism was always about ratings, circulation and profit. The really cynical response might say – as I myself have said – that even our greatest reporters were doing nothing more than selling product. True enough.
However, the issue here is about the assumptions involved regarding the path to profit. In Cronkite World, the reporter (and editor and publisher) assumed that success had something to do with what I’m here calling signal. You attracted a larger audience and sold more soap if you did a better job investigating, digging, presenting the public with facts. When you did a better job than your competitor at providing the audience with relevant, meaningful, accurate information that helped them understand and interact with their environment, then you and your employer would be more successful.
That is, your success in the marketplace was intimately tied to your professional ability. Success was a function of signal.
Somewhere along the way that changed, though. Here’s what I think happened.
First, in Uncle Walter’s day you had three channels (networks plus local affiliates), you had a couple local newspapers and a local radio station or two. If you grew up in a place like I did (Winston-Salem, NC), you likely had no more than six sources of information available to you on a given day. If there were a major story to be discovered at the national level, the competition to break it was going to include CBS, NBC, ABC, UPI, AP, Reuters maybe, and that’s about it. If the story was local it was down to a couple local papers and the three local affiliates.
That’s a comparatively small field of competitors, and given the number of things that happen in a given week there were usually enough scoops to go around. So to a significant degree, it was possible to make a living off of signal.
What about today? How many potential sources for news are available to you? Legacy networks; national papers; cable news channels (and cable “news” channels); ubiquitous access not only to your local paper and TV affiliates, but to all local affiliates and papers; online alt.news outlets; blogs – millions and millions of blogs; advocacy group sites; and a plethora of other channels, including e-mail (and lists), newsgroups and forums, mobile (like Twitter), and on and on we go. Even if we assume that there’s 10 times as much interesting news to be scooped than their used to be, the competition for those scoops has grown at an insane pace. If you’re in the news business, you probably find that the ratio of news to competitors is dozens of times worse than it was when Cronkite sat in Katie Couric’s chair. Yes, several outlets are still trying – a couple national papers, AP, Reuters, etc. But that’s about it. Everybody else (Scholars & Rogues included) is trying to attract the attention of the public, and very few of the models in use rely on what we might see as a traditional approach to news and reporting.
So. The pursuit of signal ain’t cheap or easy. The return rate on that investment is hardly guaranteed. And even if you are doing pretty well at old-style reporting, competition for eyeballs is simply ridiculous. A news agency, therefore, that insists on the old signal-based model is fighting an uphill battle.
Welcome to the Jungle
As with the problem faced by the academy, described by Katherine Hayles in part 1, media businesses had (have, and always will have) an institutional need to make a profit. Whether there’s actually enough signal to go around is momentarily beside the point, because it’s easy to see how the perception might evolve in a corporate boardroom that the traditional approach is a losing game. (And in a market-driven society, “perception is everything” is literally true.) In this brave new world of 500 channels and seemingly infinite numbers of Internet-delivered information (and disinformation) sites, it’s harder than ever to attract necessary revenues the old-fashioned way.
The conclusion: if there’s 10,000 guys stomping all around Signal Lake, hundreds of boats jockeying for position on every square inch of surface, a million more casting off the bridge, all fighting over two or three half-assed little fish, then maybe we ought to wander over to the River of Noise. Something is always biting there.
If my theory is right, then, our media institutions are behaving the way they are out of a certain logic. Not an admirable or productive logic, but something that makes sense if you’re looking for cause and effect. To wit: at the moment, there’s a prevailing perception (likely accurate) that there’s a greater return – a massively greater return – to be had on noise generation than there is signal hunting. Putting a hard-nosed investigative reporter on the trail of an important story for a few weeks or months, that’s an iffy investment. Employing enough reporters to reliably fill up the 24/7/4ever news cycle, that’s expensive. How much easier it is to simply trot Matt Lauer and Ann Curry out there to primp and blather over the latest “development” in the Michael Jackson “story.”
The results? Well, the networks are making money, aren’t they?
So, if I can try and pull all this together:
- Once upon a time both academia and the news media were structured in a way that aligned personal and institutional success with activities that we might call signal.
- The landscape changed in ways that made it hard for the institutions (and the individuals within them) to continue succeeding using the established strategies. Specifically, these environments evolved in ways that made signal a scarce commodity at the same time the systems were expanding.
- Both environments adapted by cultivating new structures and processes that were able to survive on noise.
How Can We Return American Media to the Promised Land of Signal?
Maybe we can’t. The media genie running amok in America is a big, powerful one, and you can rest assured it ain’t going back in the bottle without the mother of all throwdowns.
Still, the damage that the Noise Media is wreaking on our society is intolerable – worse in nearly every respect than what has happened in the world of LitCrit, and I think I made clear how bad that is in part 1 – and we’d be advised to contemplate how we can at least boost our signal-to-noise ratio in the right direction. To this end, there are two things that need to happen.
First, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (because this seems to be my answer to everything), we have to dramatically increase our emphasis on education. Specifically, we need to cultivate stronger critical thinking skills. The reason is simple. An enlightened mind has a much lower tolerance for foolishness. The reason that media have been able to profit off of inane programming is because our culture has so aggressively pursued the anti-intellectual. While I’m not attempting to let the pimps who program our media outlets off the hook here, it is not untrue to suggest that their actions are a logical response to what the marketplace has become.
Second, we revive the public interest standard and make it the centerpiece for every deliberation that happens regarding media in the US. The public interest, not the corporate interest. Reagan’s FCC hacks, Mark Fowler and Davide Brenner, said back in the early ’80s that “the public’s interest, then, defines the public interest.” Which is a slightly more academic way of saying that “the public interest is what the public is interested in.” It was self-evidently stupid when they said it then, and the only thing that has changed in the intervening years is that now we have even more evidence to prove it. But thanks to their efforts on behalf of Reagan’s anti-public communications policy, we now live in a nation where “journalism” and “pandering to the lowest common denominator” mean fundamentally the same thing.
Perhaps the system has evolved in precisely the way we should have expected. But it has evolved into something that does not serve our society or its future best interest. The sooner we understand why it has spun out of control, the sooner we can begin taking action to transform it once again, this time into something worthy of a culture that regards itself as the most advanced on Earth.