The rise of opinion journalism has degraded the industry beyond repair.
Spin is everywhere these days. It’s as common as click-bait.
Spin is so common, we don’t even call it spin anymore; but we rarely ever call it by its new name: Opinion Journalism.
Opinion journalism, and its evil twin “audience optimization,” has turned the American media landscape into something unrecognizable from 10 years ago. Too much opinion journalism has turned the industry into something fewer and fewer people trust.
Every day, corporate media outlets are bleeding subscribers and readers to independent media clearinghouses like Substack. Independent journalists and writers who have left the mainstream, rejecting as they do the groupthink which has become prevalent in media newsrooms, have been raking in the dough hand over fist.
Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Bari Weiss- formerly of the Rolling Stone, the Intercept and the New York Times respectively- have found a wide audience willing to pay for quality content they don’t feel they can get from corporate news outlets any longer.
It’s hard to blame media consumers for abandoning news sources which have so often led the public astray over the last five years in particular, sometimes with such disastrous results.
From suppressing the lab-leak theory, to the colossal face-plant of the Mueller Report and disastrous origins of the Russia investigation, to the Afghanistan Papers; each episode has eroded public trust to the point that independent news sources not beholden to the corporate narrative seem like a breath of fresh air.
When one major news network gets a major news story wrong, they all do. News consumers can help but notice that is a bit…odd. To say the least.
These corporate media outlets are supposed to be competing against each other. If CNN gets a scoop wrong, the New York Times should be catching it, and vice versa. Only that isn’t happening.
Each of the major mainstream networks follows similar lines, sometimes they all echo the exact same lines. When later that line turns out to be wrong, it leaves the networks looking more like affiliates of each other, all under one main corporate auspice of editorial control.
That isn’t a reliable way to get news.
Likewise, when one major network ignores a major story- for whatever reason- they all ignore it. Take the Jeffery Epstein story, and the pains some networks took to avoid reporting about it. Likewise, Harvey Weinstein’s infamous casting couch, an open secret in Hollywood and in media circles for at least a decade.
Weinstein should have been a major story. Someone could have written a book on how Harvey Weinstein and his cronies managed to keep his crimes out of the press for so long. Lo and behold, someone did.
“Catch and Kill,” by Ronan Farrow details his struggle against the iron-sided PR machine that protected Weinstein.
As odd as messengers like Russell Brand and Joe Rogan may seem to the Twitteratti, the idea that news consumers would gravitate to sources not beholden to corporate news boards and editors isn’t surprising.
The spin of opinion journalism hangs so thick in the air of modern America, it leaves a residue on clothes, confuses any sense of direction and obscures the social landscape in a blanket of misdirection, narrative and the very careful couching of every fact into a predetermined mold of ideology.
It is as ubiquitous as air and it is hard to know what to believe.
These days, anyone who is anyone can hire the same kind of PR spin/influence peddling company erstwhile responsible for rehabbing the tarnished images of wayward athletes and celebrities and resurrecting the career of stars like Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Grant, and John Travolta. These companies can make people believe almost anything.
Travolta said it best when he said: “Whenever you think something is impossible, repeat to yourself, ‘Travolta is back, Travolta is back’.”
PR miracle workers have resurrected even the most terminal careers, and it isn’t surprising that more and more public figures, from politicians to CEOs, often hire just these sorts of specialized “influencers”.
Not everyone of course. Some careers cannot be saved, some messes cannot be cleaned up or forgotten. Still, other public figures in recent years have withdrawn in disgrace when they perhaps would have done better to stay and fight, using the resources of wealth and influence to shape public opinion in their favor.
Former Senator Al Franken resigned in disgrace at the outset of the #MeToo era, an act he regrets. One-time Democratic Party presidential candidate Howard Dean could probably have recovered from the overly-enthusiastic campaign yodel which cost him a chance at the Oval Office.
On the other hand, killing a young campaign staffer and fleeing the scene of the crime should probably have ended the political career of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Monica Lewinsky, and lying about her, should probably have ended Bill Clinton’s.
It’s usually not what you’ve done, by accident or on purpose, real or imagined, but who you know, who they know, and how much you can afford to pay them to help you out of it. Oh, and how much contrition you are willing to show in public.
Spin is so ubiquitous, media figures routinely get away with saying things that aren’t true, even after more facts about a case or event become known. They double-down on whatever hoax, erroneous news report or anecdote, as long as it supports the narrative.
“It doesn’t matter if it isn’t true; it might have been true,” is considered good enough by many of today’s journalistic standards. By that standard, the truth is whatever the most people say it is, longest and loudest.
It is news by popular decree.
There is a major problem with the rise of opinion journalism raging unchecked by traditional journalism; a fatal flaw in news by popular decree. That, together with social media, plus the anonymity of the internet, has created a perfect storm by which the influential can make the truth anything they want.
Countries like Russia and China have vast content farms; all part of an expert-level trolling campaign which has been elevated to a form of cyber-warfare. They do this for a reason- to influence public opinion. An inundation of well-placed “news” opinion pieces can go a long way towards influencing public opinion.
And influencing public opinion, of course, is the name of the game, set, and match. Once a opinion is set up as fact- for example the “fact” pushed by all major media outlets in 2020 that COVID-19 couldn’t possibly have leaked from the virology lab in Wuhan- media gatekeepers and even ordinary social media users will work to perpetuate it and ostracize any dissenters.
Most of the time.
There are always moments of truth whereupon all those carefully crafted lies and misdirections collapse spectacularly apart.
From a mountain of Freedom of Information requests, to the process of legal discovery; from illegal hacks, to insider leaks, to anyone and everyone having a high-powered, sensitive and reliable recording device on their person at all times: One way or another, all the machinations, manipulations and misdirections will be dragged out to enjoy the antiseptic benefits of sunlight.
After which time, the benefits of having news sources that are known, clear, transparent, honest and trustworthy- be they former MMA fighter or founder of the Intercept- will become more obvious to everybody.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)