The trouble with mainstream media

One of the reasons I first started blogging was a feeling that the mainstream media is doing a terrible job educating people about some of the biggest issues that we face today. I suspect that most of my colleagues at MacroBusiness feel the same way. Having spent several years as a financial journalist earlier in my career, I am not completely without sympathy for those in the business. Most newspapers today are understaffed, journalists are underpaid, and competitive pressures mean that quantity and speed are valued over quality. Regardless, there is no question that the mainstream media has lost its way. Recent media coverage of President Obama is a perfect illustration of what is wrong.

In a town hall meeting last Tuesday, Obama opened the floor to questions from everyday Americans via Twitter. The Boston Globe did an analysis of the 13,000 questions that flowed in from the public, comparing them to the questions that journalists asked Obama (h/t James Fallows).

And the results are very interesting, as you can see below:

In essence, the public’s main concern today is the abysmal state of the jobs market. As you can see from the chart above, however, mainstream journalists are largely ignoring this issue. Instead, they are obsessed with writing about the machinations of Congress and party politics, issues that the general public is actually not all that concerned about. In political journalism, this has been termed “horse race” journalism — the tendency of reporters to treat politics like a sport; hence the obsession with poll numbers and constant comparisons between different candidates.

Never is this tendency more apparent than after political debates, when talking heads on cable television waste hundreds of hours pontificating about irrelevancies such as body language, which color tie a politician decided to wear, or who had the shiniest teeth. How about some policy analysis or fact checking? Oh no, the public isn’t interested in that…

But I digress. Let’s take a look at the New York Times‘s lead story on the debt ceiling debate today, which is a real beauty of the horse-race journalism genre.

WASHINGTON — President Obama made no apparent headway on Monday in his attempt to forge a crisis-averting budget deal, but he put on full display his effort to position himself as a pragmatic centrist willing to confront both parties and address intractable problems…

He said that he was willing to take the heat from his own party to move beyond entrenched ideological positions and that Republicans should do the same. And he continued to insist on “the biggest deal possible,” saying that now is the best opportunity for the nation to address its long-term fiscal challenges.

Republicans dismissed his performance as political theater…

Seeking to shed the image of big-government liberal that Republicans used effectively against him last year, he has made or offered policy compromises on an array of issues and cast himself in the role of the adult referee for both parties’ gamesmanship, or the parent of stubborn children…

Mr. Obama did not shake Republicans’ resolve to oppose any increases in taxes for wealthy Americans and businesses, as he proposes. “Eat our peas?” asked a mocking news release from the office of Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, placing the blaming for the impasse on Mr. Obama for demanding “job crushing tax hikes.”

So let’s see. The US economy is teetering on the verge of a double-dip recession, nearly 10% of the population is unemployed, and if the politicians don’t come to a deal, the Treasury is going to have to halt interest payments on the debt by early August.

And what does the New York Times have to say?

How Obama is positioning himself. Taking the heat. Political theatre. Casting himself as the referee. Gamesmanship. Mocking news releases. Placing the blame.

In other words, it’s just a sport. Any real policy analysis here? Any effort to fact check the politicians’ statements? No.

Thank goodness for blogs.

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  1. For sure! The corporate accumulators have pretty much milked the news brands dry – once a story is released who doesn’t now go to a trusted blogger (generally an expert in the space) to get a reliable take on it? The list of corporate brands that can be linked to true quality behind the smultzy advertising grows ever thinner.

  2. Love it RA!

    The same could be said down under for financial journalists, particularly the amount of time spent talking about the RBA rate decisions, when almost no time is devoted to things that really matter, like levels of debt, the AUD, cost of living…

    • Cheers Prince. Another annoying thing about financial journalism are the daily stock market reports you will read that always try to tie every move the market makes with some piece of news that happened to come out that day. Most of the short term movement is pure noise, nothing more… As you say, while doing this, they ignore all the big picture issues that really matter…

      • Agree wholeheartedly. The ABC newsreader when introducing the market report last night said that the big fall on the ASX was due to the carbon tax. No mention of the weakness in the US jobs market, or other factors, was made until the story proper, it was a ridiculous statement.

      • I hope I don’t fall into that category when I do my daily “Trading Day” reports – sometimes the news item/market action is obvious (Lehman, Greece, earthquake etc).

        The noise is the news hey? (say that with a nasal “Joolia” accent)

  3. Reporting the news has been replaced with providing a platform for tired opinion and comment. The explanation for this must be that it is determined by editorial discretion or direction.

    At a thoroughly cynical level, I suppose the media has decided that since very few people really believe what they publish, they need not trouble themselves to find and report the facts.

    They are content to add to the trivia that passes for news and information. This is certainly true of News Corp entities, which have long since given up any pretense of balanced and informative reporting.

    Having treated the public, their readers and their advertisers alike with deep disdain for about 40 years, it seems they are about to receive the same treatment in return.

    • I agree David!

      At a thoroughly cynical level, I suppose the media has decided that since very few people really believe what they publish, they need not trouble themselves to find and report the facts.
      They are content to add to the trivia that passes for news and information. This is certainly true of News Corp entities, which have long since given up any pretense of balanced and informative reporting.”

      Witness ‘Property Observer’…its just one big property advertisement dressed up as property news.

  4. This chicken and egg question has always vexed my when it comes to quality standards in the MSM. Is this really an MSM problem, or are they just giving their consumers what they want? If sensible, in-depth analysis of every day events is what the voting public yearns for, why has no large masthead stepped in to take advantage of the market gap? In my experience, most Australians gloss over when you start examining political or financial issues on anything other than a superficial level. Maybe I hang out with shallow people, but that’s my experience.

    • Good question Q. I have pondered this myself and don’t really have a good answer. But judging from the chart above, and the huge number of hits that blogs like MacroBusiness get every day, the public doesn’t seem to be at all happy with what they are getting from the MSM.

      • Q raises a good point. And while a lot of people may be unhappy with the current coverage most of them still won’t bother to try and search for answers themselves. Maybe they’re time poor, or don’t know how to find the information they’re looking for (and if they do manage to find it they probably have trouble interpreting it). And of course, Joe Average doesn’t usually have access to the same information systems and people that journalists do.

        The decline in real quality investigative journalism these days is probably the most telling aspect of it. I’m not sure if this is because journalists aren’t paid well enough, or editorial control is a lot tighter these days or perhaps media outlets are more afraid of litigation? Either way the outcome is pretty shitty for everyone.

        • When it comes to investigative journalism, I think it’s a little of all these reasons. Cost pressures have a lot to do with it though. Newspapers are a dying business and news has become commoditized by the web. Even a lot of the best investigative journalism is these days being done by blogs.

    • Try Lindsay Tanner’s ‘Sideshow” for a good look at the symbotic benefits the horse-race provides politicans and the media to the detriment of people.

      IMO – from a ‘joe-blogs’ perspective, the constant reform game played, where politicians are seeming to do something constantly has lead to a fatigue, which fosters a disengagement with these issues. A lot of people wish for nothing more than certainity.

      Another way of looking at people’s interest is to compare the stories profiled on the websites of the Fairfax papers with actual stories in the paper. The website is hit-driven (i believe) and the stories which are auto-profiled ‘above the fold’ on the websites are the most popular at the time… from my small sample – it would seem that most australians are interested in:
      warnie and Liz Hurley
      Lady Gaga (spare me) and
      whichever footballer is cheating/ glassed some carnt/ smashed a hotel room.

      and then there are the economies of scale creating a masthead vs a number of specialist blogs for the motivated (of which MB is superb).

      So thanks guys.

      • If websites profiling of stories is hit driven it stands to reason that creates a snowball effect. Not everyone has the time to piece through all the articles on or and they’re generally more likely to click on the stories that have already been spotlighted. Kind of a horse before the cart.

    • I’m shallow am I? I thought I was well-rounded, IYKWIM.

      I think most would rather watch MasterChef or that Dancing thing instead of Four Corners.

      This “consumers what they want” problem is on the same level as why we all “want” to live in new McMansions, and new suburbs are just Clonesvilles

      btw, since HnH has been back, the pageviews are going off the charts….. or is it because I’m back to one post a day? 🙁

    • I think there are broader factors as well. In many ways we live in an almost post-literate culture, ie, it is possible to get by in our society using pictorial and audio information most of the time. If you don’t want to, you basically don’t have to read or write anything more than a few words at a time. As well, and to an even greater extent, we have been relieved of nearly all mathematical or computational tasks. So we are not only post-literate, we are broadly speaking only semi-numerate.

      Of course, this is over-simplifying things. But this means many people lack the kind of fluency needed to receive, evaluate, synthesize, critique or reproduce complex arguments, lengthy ideas or divergent sets of information.

      I am not saying people are not capable of these things, but that the skills required to carry them out do not need to be cultivated or maintained in order to function in our society.

      As a result, the market scale for researched, abstract and complex material is truncated and frequently offered only at the margins of popular culture.

      That means those of us who visit sites such as this one – and who are either intellectually curious or opinionated or both – are probably cultural exceptions and while there are many such opportunities available to us if we look for them, our engagement is necessarily diffuse, partial and atypical.

      The great thing is, even if most people feel no need to do so, there is in fact a lot of really intriguing and relevant information available if you wish to go looking for it.

      • BAM! Agree with everything you said.. but what’s the solution? Education is not enough if the majority of kids aren’t using what they learn in school in the rest of their lives.

        Maybe we should start putting exams people have to sit in order to vote? 😛

  5. Completely agree. Giving up MSM was one of the best thing I have done. I refer to it for the agenda of topics but the quality of analysis, writing etc is not worth the money.

    Blogs on finanace and economcs are much, much better.

  6. Great post, RA.

    Mr. Denmore has this broad topic as the focus of his blog:

    I think I saw the same Boston Globe graphic via Mark Thoma; it’s doing the rounds on the blogosphere with similar levels of exasperation re: the lack of policy discussion and analysis, and the focus on ‘horse race’ journalism.

  7. Journalists also seem to suffer from revolving-door syndrome – For future job prospect, they are dependent on those they report on.

    Also, to make some money on the side, these journalists also write books. So they tend to focus on the theatre rather than policy.

  8. You’re right RA.

    It’s time for someone to rip off the band-aid from the MSM and expose the peas. For too long those peas have remained uneaten.

    Let them eat peas!

  9. The charge appears to say that people are interested in their economic welfare while the journalists are interested in politics.

    Journalists have become the mouthpiece of policians. It is now left to blogs to be the mouthpiece of the people.

      • This is a great piece RA…

        …Just thinking though, maybe the Journo pre-empted what the public’s questions were and presumed Jobs would be front and centre in this public forum…so they decided they were better off focussing on the other issues.

        Just a theory..

        • Cheers Stavros. That’s not impossible, but the fact is the mainstream media has almost completely ignored the jobs issue for the past couple of years. There is very little discussion at all of the economic wastefulness and socially destructive impact of having 10% or more of your workforce unemployed, or what to do about it…

      • institutional bias maybe..?

        can’t sell many papers to unemployed people, and in Canberra, there’s no real pockets of social deprivation to focus the MSM’s attention

  10. I don’t know whether ALL “journalism” courses at Universities are indoctrinations into socialist, politically correct, cultural cringe claptrap, but I have heard enough about some of them to think that this needs investigation and exposure too.

    • Agree!!! The left bias in Universities is shocking in many areas of work…something Hayek was concerned with decades ago!

      I was polarised for my free-market views at the ANU and at the time I was a totaly lefty to what I am now.

    • I don’t know whether ALL “blog commenters” talk out of their arses, but I just read a comment that allows me to make a sweeping generalisation about just that.

      Seriously… I’ve studied journalism (amongst other things), and you couldn’t be more wrong. Truth, objectivity, ethics and accuracy are given a very prominent place. If you don’t heed those things, you fail.

      What is practiced in commercial news is another matter, and that’s why I’m not a journalist today. Lies, opinion and commercial pandering are the norm.

      But socialism? And political correctness? You’re facing approximately 180 degrees from the truth there.

      • You’re right, Phil H, but there is no such thing as objectivity in journalism. I’d be happy for you to use the words, ‘Truth, balance, ethics and accuracy’, although it’s a tad tautological.

        The charges of socialism, political correctness, indoctrination and left bias are as absurd as the contemporary myth of ABC leftist bias. Consider the overwhelmingly right-wing nature and celebrity-sport-porno-prurience-voyeurism obsession of the so-called ‘mainstream media’ in the age of distraction. Where did all those committed, indoctrinated left-wing ‘journalists’ go? You know, the many churned out by those ersatz ‘journalism’ courses? PhilBest? And Stavros, who couldn’t even stick to the topic? Where did they all go? Where is the evidence of those socialist journalism courses today?

  11. I was chatting with a formal journalist at a party not so long ago, he’s now a teacher. I asked him about the standards of articles in MSM and how it seemed to have been dumbed down since the 50’s or even 80’s.

    His answer was that back then MSM weren’t aware how much news was entertainment. Now “news” is big entertainment and eyeballs on the screen/newspaper is all it’s about. So now it’s all about sensationalism.


    • It’s more than that. The expansion of public relations and lobbying (along with concentrated corporate ownership and some rather lazy journalism) has had a huge impact.
      I used to work at a paid newswire that sent out press releases and was both amazed and appalled by how often they’d be reprinted almost verbatim in newspapers. In most newspapers only local events and editorials seem to be of even remotely original content.

  12. Internet is more than just downloading movies, music and updating your Facebook status.

    Internet transforms societies. It redistributes information (= power) from corporations and governments to consumers and citizens.

    People are already becoming pro-active in seeking out sources because they no longer trust journalism. Sure, many still rely on traditional media but it’s quite amazing what’s already happening considering the internet only really caught on about 15 years ago.

    Thank god for the internet… and for the fact that people are not just motivated by cold, hard cash! (That would be an interesting one to analyse… the ‘economics’ of blogs, open source, etc)

  13. Figuratively the Forth Monkey,
    ‘Do No Evil’,has never
    been able to be represented..
    Yet,seems able to manage most,without a
    Thanks RA ..Cheers JR

  14. Charles Ponzi

    What makes my blood boil is the blatant real estate spruiking sold as news. So much for Ponzi schemes being illegal in Australia.

    The blatant use of First Home Buyers as fodder by the present government to prop up the Australian Real Estate Ponzi scheme has made me very sceptical regarding the true motives behind the carbon tax.

    The older I get the more I start sounding like my parents who lost their childhood innocence in Europe during the war.

  15. El Zorro Dorado

    Nice post. What’s not said often enough is that the media are also partly responsible for the erosion of trust within our society–much to its detriment. It’s not such a long bow to draw if you consider the superficiality of questions, the failing to keep to account obviously devious pollies or to query their policies in depth, or to highlight the evasion of questions/glossing of details. Too often, the reader,or listener, understands that the media are not interested in truth or pertinent detail, but in perpetuating the spin; in marketing the message of the many moral bankrupts who can claim an easy PR platform. Day in Day out, cynicism builds, so that whatever the message in print and on the air, the clarion cry of the younger generation of “whatever” seems truly apt.
    Journalistic bias is fundamental but proprietor bias is now the vogue –with Murdoch’s stable going wherever there is perceived to be a long term dollar for the company. Fairfax’s bias to Labor is clear.
    Interesting to see the circling vultures around the Murdoch mess in the UK; patent glee pastes the faces of the competition at the opportunity to stick big knives into a wounded pig; but where were their courage and ethics earlier on? They are tarred with the same brush.

    • Completely agree. I will probably post on this issue again, because there is so much more to say. Apart from the obvious bias of Murdoch outlets like Fox News, one of the other issues I have with the media today is the “false balance” that pervades much of the reporting. This is where you have a public debate about a big issue, and one side is clearly wrong, but the media will simply report both sides of the story with equal weight without the slightest attempt to ascertain which side is telling the truth.

  16. The_Mainlander

    Prince we love hnh and you equally. Besides where would we be without your incisive critique!

  17. And yet most newsroom editors and journalists claim (particularly when justifying covering so much crime and entertainment ‘news’) is that they are only delivering what audiences want.

    Always suspected that was rubbish and this certainly lends to that view as well.

  18. Q Continuum, I have always found those that that disseminate the mass media are the ones with the power. So I don’t believe the tabloid journalism of today is from consumer demand. I believe it is deliberate to dumb down the consumer.

    When change comes, e.g. toll roads or peak hour toll roads, we might not like it at first but we adapt and change our habits and eventually we get used to it & can’t imagine it any other way.