|The job of the media is to make interesting what is important. That was Bill Maher’s challenge to CBS’s Lesley Stahl on his show last night. He’s exactly right. What the legacy media do mostly now, an indication of lazy, cowardly, chintzy, risk-averse journalism, is try to make important what the lowest common denominator of viewers find interesting — irrelevancies like celebrity trials and sensational crime stories. In a recent post I said it was time to give up on the mainstream media and create new ones with a progressive compass and a deep sense of journalistic responsibility — the responsibility to do precisely what Maher challenges them to do.
The example he used, and which he has used more than once on his show, is the environment. I’m delighted that he understands this as one of the most important issues of our time. He even took Howard Dean to task on this issue. The way you make this important issue interesting, he suggests, is to present it in a context that people can personally relate to, and can and should be outraged about — the poisons in the air, water, in our food, and in the medicines largely doled out to remedy the poisons in the air, water and food. He blames big agribusiness (and the massive agricultural subsidies paid to them by governments of every stripe) for the poor state of nutrition and the accumulation of toxic products in the food we eat — hormones and antibiotics in meat, over-marketed milk, and high-calorie low-nutrition corn-based sugars that are added to almost everything on the grocery shelves. (Contrary to rumour, he’s not a vegetarian, though, like me, he is working towards it). And he suggests that big pharma is quietly working in cahoots with big agribusiness — the former selling people treatments for the illnesses the latter are negligently and recklessly causing.
The American and Canadian media have been at least sporadically on issues like trans fats, asthma, and the dangers of aspartame, e coli bacteria infection, anti-depressants and, of course, the Swine Flu threat. They appreciate that these items are news, and they have even done a bit of investigative journalism on them. The problem is that the media are set up to deal with news that are either one-shot events that are reported and promptly forgotten, or ongoing stories where there is a continuous feed of new facts to report. Because they fit this model so well, stories about crime, law and justice make up over half of all legacy media news reports. “What is important” — issues like the environment, the debt crisis, the cycle of poverty and illness in the third world, global warming, domestic violence, the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill and animals in factory farms and laboratories, the lunacy of the ‘war on drugs’, etc., do not lend themselves to this model — they are not manifested in a single ‘event’, nor is there a continuous daily flow of new information that ‘keeps the story alive’. So what are the media to do?
The answer: Change the model. Unless you’re cynical enough to believe most people don’t care or want to hear about issues that are really important, the media need to come up with a new model of how to report the news, one that does accommodate and “make interesting” important news stories. The New Yorker has done this by providing insightful, in-depth investigative reporting, and analysis, and allowing its journalists to write about meta-issues that have nothing to do with daily events — issues like learned helplessness, the tipping point, and the wisdom of crowds. The success of the magazine and the many successful books it has spawned (not to mention the volume of online journalism that has picked up the conversation on these issues) suggests that people do care and want to hear about these issues. Programs like ’60 Minutes’ have tried to emulate this model by doing in-depth analysis and even some investigative reporting, and such programs are quite popular.
But as worthy as these attempts are, they do not constitute a new model, and have had minimal impact on the quality or quantity of information conveyed to the average viewer, listener, or newspaper reader. We need a completely different model to “make interesting what is important”. That new model cannot pander to the short attention span or passion for gossip of the audience, nor can it self-censor information that the audience might not really want to know, because it’s unsettling or suggests popular wisdom is wildly misguided. Such a model should be built on the following principles:
I think that’s all the principles. To me these are common sense, a simple explanation of “understand what the customer needs and deliver”. But the implications are enormous. Imagine a whole daily paper consisting of 50 in-depth stories on a single subject, each concluding with well-reasoned advice every reader can take. Imagine that at the bottom of page one of that paper it says “No paper tomorrow — our next issue on Saving the Family Farm will be out Thursday”. Imagine the content of these newspapers being so useful — so valuable — that readers keep them for years in their library and refer back to them regularly (especially if you’re an advertiser).
If you think this is a stretch, recall that newspapers started as broadsheets — partisan, single-subject reports cranked out by activists, and that at one time people were so engaged in long-term thinking that they flocked to meeting halls to hear advocates, philosophers, scientists, and writers talk at length about one subject, and then retired to the local bars to debate about what to do.
Now, think about the current model for online journals (blogs). Let’s see, we write mostly short articles talking about events we read or heard about in the legacy media, those articles are displayed in reverse date order, and after a week or so, they disappear into the ‘archives’ never to be seen again. Hmmm…