The media sold its soul to liberals for clicks and subscriptions

The media sold its soul to liberals for clicks and subscriptions. By Batya Ungar-Sargon.

When advertising moved online, Google and Facebook captured more than half of all advertising revenue. That left much less for the newspapers. Under desperate financial pressure, and led by The New York Times, they succumbed to telling their readers what they wanted to hear — what made them feel good — rather than the facts. Oh dear. This largely accounts for today’s wokestorm.

The New York Times entered the digital era under duress. In 2011, the Times erected a paywall in what it called a ‘subscription-first business model’. The gamble was that readers would want to pay for quality journalism. It was a risk, and at first it didn’t seem to be paying off: after a challenging 2014, the company shed 100 people from the newsroom in buyouts and layoffs.

A.G. Sulzberger, who was getting ready to replace his father as publisher, commissioned an in-house report, its title ‘Innovation’. The report made it very clear who was to blame. A journalist’s job, the report said, no longer ended with choosing, reporting and publishing the news. To compensate for the ‘steady decline’ in advertising revenue due to digitization, ‘the wall dividing the newsroom and business side’ had to come down. The ‘hard work of growing our audience falls squarely on the newsroom’, the report said, so the Times should be ‘encouraging reporters and editors to promote their stories’.

Of course, journalists have always been aware who their readers are and have catered to them, consciously and unconsciously. But it was something else entirely to suggest that journalists should be collaborating with their audience to produce ‘user-generated content’, as the report put it. ‘Innovation’ presaged a new direction for the paper of record: become digital-first or perish. … Journalists were asked to accompany advertisers to conferences and were pushed to collaborate more closely with the business side, something many of the old-school editors were loath to do. The executive editor at the time, Jill Abramson, resisted strenuously. She was given the boot.

And then came Trump.

As a candidate, Trump attacked the press as ‘the enemy of the people’, used the term ‘fake news’ and called the Times the ‘failing New York Times’. But the relationship between the press and Trump was symbiotic: Trump capitalized on the widespread feeling that the journalists chronicling American life looked down on regular people (he was not wrong). As he trashed the class norms of politesse that the press expected from a presidential candidate, the liberal media couldn’t get enough of him.

Trump’s antics in the 2015-16 campaign were catnip for a flailing industry. Trump is estimated to have received free coverage worth around $2 billion, six times more than any of his rivals in the Republican primary received. This coverage planted the seeds of Trump’s 2016 victory — but he was not the only one to profit from it.

CBS’s executive chairman, Les Moonves, said that the Trump campaign ‘may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS’. In 2016, MSNBC was set to take a 30 percent hit if Hillary Clinton was elected; that hit was avoided when Donald Trump won. Leaked tapes revealed that the president of CNN, a channel that made a big show of opposing Trump, encouraged Trump to run and even offered him tips on how to win a CNN-sponsored debate.

Hating Trump drove massive amounts of engagement to previously floundering publications, channels and shows. And individual journalists didn’t need to be told by their bosses to promote Trump’s name: they could see firsthand how their opposition generated likes, retweets and exploding pageviews. With the incentives thus aligned, there was no need to break down the remains of the wall between advertising and editorial. It happened on its own.

Justified by class warfare, but that’s just the excuse for the money:

The New York Times played a prominent role in the liberal media’s justification for its Trump strategy, pointing out over and over that he was not a ‘normal’ president. …

During the last three months of 2016, the Times added 276,000 digital subscribers: nearly 100,000 up on 2015. In 2017, the paper gained $340 million in online subscriptions: 46 percent up on 2016. Forty-six percent growth is what Facebook boasts, and double Google’s growth rate. In 2019, the Times added more than one million net digital-only subscribers, reaching a total of 5.2 million. Thanks to Trump, the company met its $800-million digital revenue target for 2020 a year early. …

The press imitates Facebook:

There was another equally important way that the Times was successfully imitating Facebook. In 2018, high on the success of the Trump era, the Data Science Group at the Times launched a project to understand and predict the emotional impact of the paper’s articles. They asked 1,200 readers to rate their emotional responses to articles, with options including boredom, hate, interest, fear, hope, love and happiness. These readers were young and well-educated — the target audience of many advertisers.

What the group found was perhaps not surprising: emotions drive engagement. ‘Across the board, articles that were top in emotional categories, such as love, sadness and fear, performed significantly better than articles that were not,’ the team reported. To monetize the insight, the Data Science Group created an artificial intelligence machine-learning algorithm to predict which emotions articles would evoke. The Times now sells this insight to advertisers, who can choose from 18 emotions, seven motivations and 100 topics they want readers to feel or think about when they encounter an ad.

And you thought they were reporting what happened. Well, you might have assumed so until a few years ago.

If you want to know what makes America’s educated liberal elites emotional, you only have to open the Times. Judging by the coverage of recent years, two things make them more emotional than anything else: Trump and racism.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy soared to the top of the bestseller list as blindsided liberals sought to understand how people could have voted for Trump. For a brief period, it seemed like the American mainstream might truly grapple with the question of class. But this quickly disappeared in favor of an easier explanation: Trump voters were racists.

Liberal news media pushed study after study allegedly ‘proving’ that the class narrative — that Trump’s voters had chosen him out of economic anxiety — was false. They were simply racists, we were told by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlantic and Vox. You could feel the relief seeping through the repetition: if Trump’s voters are racists, we no longer have to care about them! This line absolved journalists of the inner twinge of doubt that must come to any honest reporter when they realize that they are afflicting the afflicted. There is only one problem. It’s just not true.

Many of the white voters who proved most decisive for Trump had voted for President Obama, the first black president, in both 2008 and 2012. As the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi pointed out, if these voters were motivated by racism, why did they vote for Obama twice? …

Anyone who talked to Trump voters knew their reasons for voting for him. But journalists at America’s leading publications did not know any Trump supporters socially, and that made it easy to caricature and misrepresent them. When New York Times reporters did venture into Trump country, they inevitably found some reason to tar the people they interviewed as racist.

This penchant was part and parcel of a larger dynamic that preceded Trump, in which liberal news media, increasingly reliant on digital advertising, subscriptions and memberships, have been mainstreaming an obsession with race, to the approval of their affluent readers. And what was once a business model built on a culture war has over the past few years devolved into a full-blown moral panic.

Any journalist working in the mainstream American press knows this, because the moral panic is enforced on social media in brutal shaming campaigns. They have happened to many journalists, but you don’t actually have to weed out every heretic to silence dissent. After a while, people silence themselves. Who would volunteer to be humiliated by thousands of strangers, when they could avoid it by staying quiet? The spectacle alone enforces compliance.

Once upon a time, telling the truth ‘without fear or favor’ was the job description of a New York Times journalist. Today, doing the job that way could very well cost a journalist his or her job. …

It is now normal for editors at legacy publications to capitulate to outrage not only from their readers, but from their own staff. That’s what’s so shocking about this censorious development in American journalism. It’s not that online activists would try to use their power to enforce their views. It’s that older journalists — people who should, who do, know better — now surrender to the pressure. …

It isn’t just a culture war anymore, between antiracist wokesters and the last old-school journalists committed to objectivity. It’s a class war between highly educated young elites and their older middle-class colleagues who offend their woke sensibilities and thus, they think, deserve to be fired.

So they can take their jobs 🙂 Again, follow the money.

The power of the press — despite its unpopularity — is still immense. And it has used that power over the past decade, and with exponential intensity over the past few years, to wage a culture war on its own behalf, notably by creating a moral panic around racism.

Nor is it surprising that the New York Times played an outsized role in shaping our moral panic. Its business model is deeply bound up with the mores of affluent white liberals. …

Racism has replaced crime as the preferred political porn:

The hunt for insufficiently antiracist Americans has become its own genre. The Times has run articles declaring that wine and surfing are racist, and that it’s time to ‘decolonize botanical collections’ by ridding them of ‘structural racism’. It even ran an article about a 15-year-old girl who used the ‘N-word’ when she bragged about passing her driving test in a private video to a friend — which another student got his hands on and saved for three years until he could use it to get her kicked out of college.

Stories like this seem to attract an unlimited audience in the way stories of crime once did for Joseph Pulitzer’s papers. That’s because articles that offend the woke person are crime stories for the affluent: stories of people just like themselves who commit crimes of thought or speech, and lose everything when they fall on the wrong side of the reigning orthodoxy. As the Twitter mob pursues small infractions as avidly as it does large ones, and as the etiquette keeps shifting, who dares trust their own ability to judge right from wrong?

It’s how you know we’re in a moral panic: only the mob has the right to judge you.

This is why the media became a politically correct fantasy world, the way the left wish the world were. Those of us on the non-left look on in horror and amazement as the left’s daydreams become the official version of reality.