I’ve been in and around newspapers for decades. After all that time, I finally noticed something about the news business.
At a convention in San Antonio some years ago, the keynote speaker was John Fund, who wrote the popular “On the Trail” column for The Wall Street Journal and sat on the paper’s Editorial Board for years. Him being someone generally admired for deep thought, I decided to ask him about what I had noticed.
“It seems to me that at least half of Americans tend toward conservative, and at least 90 percent of American newspapers and TV newspeople tend toward liberal, if not wildly so,” I asked during the Q & A. “It seems to me that this polarity cannot endure. So, what it is going to give?”
He thought about it, then said, “It’s a good question. You’re right. And I don’t know the answer.”
I’ve thought about it some more since then, and then the answer came swirling at me the night Donald Trump was elected president. For good or ill, Trump thumped much of the national news media and turned their narrative on its head.
Let me explain. Winning, or losing, a presidential election is like winning or losing a war. There are lots of variables and factors. By and large, though, it comes down to message and impact. The successful candidate gets the best message out to the most people with the greatest impact.
Usually, that means money. One big-hitter political consultant put it best when he told me, “You need two things to win an election: the first is money, and I don’t recall the second.”
Why is money so important? Because money is what buys media time and space for a candidate’s message via advertising.
But Clinton outspent Trump at least two-to-one. Not only that, she was endorsed and supported by almost all major American media. So what happened?
Well, don’t forget that many Americans disdain the national news media. Some feel the adage, “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” bloomed into, “Don’t believe anything you read in the papers – or hear on TV or radio, especially editorial comment.”
And, for many reasons we don’t have time to get into, Clinton already made herself unelectable. So while most major newspapers attempted to bolster her campaign, it only made things worse with many voters. Like a drowning swimmer pulls under an attempted rescuer, she tugged them downward.
But what about Trump? How did the near universal disdain of the news media not sink him? It’s the opposite of Clinton, really. Their hatred probably helped him in the eyes on many voters. And by making his rallies “must see TV,” Trump found a way to get his message directly to the people.
That election changed America in many ways, including the media landscape. Some feel that so many things were and are blown out of proportion by the media, liberal and conservative; that people stopped believing reports, even if they turned out to be true.
And it comes down to this: There is no such thing as consistent objective journalism. If there ever was, I never saw it nor did it. It is a contradiction in terms. The reporter’s personal point of view comes through not only from apparent approval or disapproval of the subject, but also who and what a reporter chooses to quote. Sometimes the same event is reported so differently by different writers that is hard to believe they are talking about the same thing.
So, in answer to my question to John Fund, what happened in the dichotomy of conservative society versus liberal media is this: what emerged was social media, a retreat to our own corners to consume the news we agree with and an increased faith in the community paper. While shrinkage goes wildly unchecked in the circulation of “national” newspapers, smaller dailies and weeklies are rolling just fine.
In perspective, I guess credit has to be given to publications that cling to a point of view rather than moderate their styles, but it makes no sense to me. Or to John Fund, I reckon.
It reminds me of this verse from my eighth grade literature book:
This is the grave of Mike O’Day
Who died maintaining his right of way
His right was clear, his will was strong
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong
The banshee wail for over-the-top reporting grows louder. A third of newspaper reporters have been laid off, and there are only three thirds of anything. Payraises don’t make up for paycuts, and many veteran reporters have been forced to “reapply” for their jobs.
The good news is that weekly papers and small dailies – the heartbeats of their communities – seem to be holding. People trust them much more than the daily dose from TV news, which is where folks get an inkling of the news, though it is mostly editorial comment.
Some polls show about 54 percent of consumers get their news from TV, and mistrust about half what they hear.
TV news will never fully replace newspapers, though. Shelton Prince, the late and great former publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle, said to me once that, “I’m sure news on TV is a good thing and all that, but you’re never going to see somebody carry one to the restroom.”
He’d be amazed to see where all people take their iPhones these days.
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War.