The media is ignorant, and it’s becoming embarrassing. That’s Mollie Hemingway’s take, anyway. Her argument is embodied in a young “senior political analysts” named Zach Carter, a pundit employed by HuffPostLive. Carter was recently invited onto Hugh Hewitt’s talk radio program, where he was asked several uncomfortable questions about his (seeming lack of) in-depth knowledge of Dick Cheney and the Iraq War, two topics on which he’s assumed to have pundit-level expertise.

On the one hand, ouch. Read the transcript. Even if Hewitt, as Dave Weigel asserts, was engaging in “gotcha” tactics, it’s still pretty bad, and (Hemingway argues) emblematic of today’s mediascape, in which 20- and 30-something journalists are considered “experts” despite 1.) never having read a source that they didn’t find through Twitter, and 2.) lacking any understanding of history prior to 2000.

On the other hand… I’ll spare you the filler-paragraph of observations about the changing media landscape. Anybody who’s heard of “Upworthy” gets this: the media is underwritten by advertising, and ad dollars = eyeballs.

I know it’s way out of character for me to side with the media (reporters, in this case), but I’m going to go ahead and do that on this one. Many reporters, particularly for online media outlets, are under-informed about their topic areas. Realistically (and leaving aside ideological bias), there is zero time, and therefore negative short-term incentive, for them to know more than the minimum required to bang out 500 words and move onto the next story. An early-career political reporter working for a large news publisher probably has 5-10 major news-cycle issues to cover any given week, plus 20+ minor issues to keep track of on an ongoing basis. The mental calculus is obvious: Breadth > depth.

Reporters who’ve stayed in this game long enough to gain any name recognition do so based on their ability to attract attention. Make the right connections, write enough attention-grabbing headlines, pander to a large audience, get a lot of Twitter followers, break an occasional scoop. Keep it up, and one day you’ll get a call asking you to fill three minutes of empty airtime on one of the cable networks (doesn’t it occur to anyone to ask: Who is watching MSNBC–let alone Russia Today–at 2 PM on a Tuesday?).

Time for a little honesty: you, the audience, are largely responsible for this. Don’t tell me Google ruined the news. I’ve been around since Napster 1.0, I witnessed the whole thing–you* did it.

Here’s what I suspect: the most engaged segment of the reader audience (outside of “other reporters”) doesn’t care about reporters’ accuracy or veracity as much as they do his or her unique voice. They want forceful assertions, “takedowns,” partisan-bait headlines, appeals to group identity, privilege checking, pile-ons, and Twitter flame wars that they can participate in. The want “snackable,” group-affinity-signifying content they can post to their Facebook page: Favorite TV Shows, Favorite Music, Favorite Movies, and Favorite Political Positions, as Articulated by Opinion Maker X. They want all of this to be written using the style and rhetoric of an educated person, of course, but passing for intelligent is a snap compared to attaining subject matter expertise the old-fashioned way.

As I wrote a few months ago:

Despite our school librarians’ best efforts to teach us otherwise, an entire generation has now grown up on “I’ll read a summary of the article on one of the blogs I follow” and “I can just check the Wikipedia article’s citations for more sources” and, if their college education was worth a damn, maybe even “the marginal cost of reproducing digital goods is zero.” This has led us all to one inevitable conclusion: an ad-supported digital infotainment industry that thrives on brain-stabblingly sensationalistic headlines.

To re-iterate the point in that post (it’ll blow your mind): some things are worth paying for, and news & expert opinion might be one of them. I’m not saying all free news is bad, and all pay-walled news is good. But I can’t help but wonder: is it a coincidence that the first publication to raise doubts about Thomas Piketty’s book was The Financial Times?


*and me, too.
image source