When I was starting out as a novelist, I read a lot of how-to books. I didn’t study literature or writing in university, so I had to teach myself. One of the books I read was called Writing the Breakout Novel by Literary agent Donald Maas. And one the things he stressed in the book was that if you wanted to “break out” as a novelist, you needed to have conflict on every page. Every page.
That could be internal conflict, person vs person or person vs nature. But the idea was that to keep the attention of the reader, particularly readers less interested in literary fiction, you had to have some form of conflict to hold the reader’s attention. Now the Maas Agency is, when it comes to fiction, what you call a super agency. They represent some of the most popular novelists in the world.
And in the wake of the cable and technological revolution, this is now the model that media follows. The new pattern for getting people to watch your network is to put conflict on every page.
So why does this matter? And what does this have to do with how media shapes cultural opinion? What does the technological revolution mean for the way we engage media and current events?
As with most things, it isn’t about the smoke, it’s about what’s causing the fire, and if there’s even a fire in the first place.
Peace is the thing we all seek. But war is the place we go. Even when it isn’t necessary.
Attacking the Media
This article is going to sound like I’m attacking the media. I’m not. I have a number of friends who are journalists, and they do their best to report the news in an unbiased and truthful matter. (I’m not talking about columnists here, there’s a difference)
The truth is that newspapers are being gutted throughout North America, and the reporters that are left are being asked to do double the work. I know that people think newspapers aren’t important, but print journalism is still the number one source for what you see on the news. And if we don’t have the same amount of quality journalists to get the facts correct, then it goes without saying that what we see in the media is not going to have the same kind of depth.
Another thing to keep in mind is that journalists do not decide what to cover. They pitch stories, but that’s an editorial decision, and the editors report to bosses, and the bosses are interested in making money. For all that journalists can take care to do the right thing, newspapers and magazines and TV shows are there to make money. These aren’t non-profits we’re talking about.
For example, a story recently published in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer, The Making of the Fox News White House, details at length how Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch built an empire (including his other magazines and tabloids) by specifically telling the people running Fox News that he wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator. He wanted a “news” station that was essentially a tabloid rag like the National Enquirer. People think of Fox News as being “conservative” but that really wasn’t the intent. The intent was to go low and stay there. So people would watch, kind of like the way we flip through the screaming headlines of those tabloids when we’re standing at the checkout line in the grocery store.
The article, which is worth reading – and yes, this is high quality journalism – also details the numerous sexual harassment cases and overall sleaziness of Fox News and its ties to the Trump White House. That’s important, but not what I want to focus on, suffice to say that Murdoch, who is not admirable in any way as a human, really shows us what “News” is about simply by removing the veneer, the shiny polish left over from generations of news programs doing things differently before the advent of cable.
I have to give him credit, because as a novelist, this is exactly what you want to do. If I I create a “news cycle” based on drama and hate and fear mongering,” I get conflict on every page. Not only that, but I light up the brain centers of my audience. They aren’t just immigrants, they are immigrants looking to kill and rape you. These aren’t just people seeking asylum, these are terrorists bringing drugs into the country. Or, as President Trump said recently, immigrant and asylum seeking women feed their female children tons of birth control pills because they know they’re going to be raped.
It’s hard to understand how people believe this stuff, but it plays in the sense that it’s so outlandish it’s hard not to watch. Considering Trump was a reality TV star, it’s not a surprise that his presidency also feels like a reality TV show. Unfortunately, the difference is that his stunts to get eyes on him affect millions of people in profound ways.
But in the sense of what the media, as a business, does, he’s just following the new template.
And I think its the biggest thing that people miss.
We talk about truth and veracity and hypocrisy and lying. And none of that matters. Not really.
And that’s dangerous because you now hear Trump using a term like “Fake news” and having people repeat it when the news reports something they don’t like or a fact they disagree with.
So what you get in this age is the case of certain companies offering low hanging fruit and not interested at all in facts, citing whatever conspiracy theory they can to get you to pay attention, and you contrast that with other news sources who are still trying to do solid reporting on real things and issues and base it on facts, and in this wash you have reasonable thinking people saying about the news what is often said about politicians. “They’re all bad!” “All news is bad!”
And that’s dangerous, because it gives people like Trump room to do whatever the hell he wants.
Again, the issue here is conflict. And so whatever media outlet you get your news from, whether you think its leans progressive or conservative, the goal is ensure the story has enough conflict in it to keep your attention. Because the bottom line is to make money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, by the way. The media has always been in the business of making money. I think, however, for those of us of a certain age, it sure as hell is nothing like it used to be.
In 1991, a little thing called the Gulf War happened, and media mogul Ted Turner had just started the first 24 news network, CNN. No one had heard of a 24 hour news network before. Believe me, there were all kinds of questions when it was started. No one, back then, could understand how you could just do the news, a one hour or 30 minute show for decades, every day all day.
The Iraq War cost tens of thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and the slaughter of innocent people, but it was a boon for the fledgling network. And as TV expanded thanks to advances in technology and more stations were added, and the internet became a thing, suddenly it was quite normal. Within a decade society had gone from three major networks to over a hundred new stations.
With that kind of competition, there’s a reason networks and newspapers and magazines are fighting for any kind of story that will grab your attention. And much like it was back in the day, if someone reports a story and it becomes a “hit,” than the mob mentality of jumping on the band wagon happens, regardless of the importance of the story itself.
An example of this is the so-called SNC “scandal” dominating the headlines right now. (I go into much greater detail about this on my podcast.)
The issue is not what happened, but why it was reported the way it was reported and the implications of that. People hear the word “scandal” read a 1000 word op-ed piece by a commentator or columnist they usually agree with, and decide how they feel about it. Which means to say that most people are not well informed.
The key here is tribalism. What has been built over the past twenty years, as I documented in an earlier podcast about politics as sports, is something that people like Trump have mastered. (Conservative leader Andrew Scheer does the same thing) It doesn’t work as a governing model, but it works splendidly when it comes to attention. And votes.
This also happens in sports. Look at the Celtics. Considered a title contender at the beginning of the season, they have been in all sorts of disarray and despite their talented roster they sit in 5th place in the Eastern conference. Most of this surrounds their best player, Kyrie Irving, who is a free agent at the end of the year. He has been sullen and whiny in the media, complaining about the attention around him, even though statistically he’s having a great year and makes around thirty million a season. He claims the media attention is unfair which, ironically, brings even more media attention.
Again. Conflict and clicks. The Celtics drama and the Lakers drama with LeBron has dominated the headlines. Only occasionally will you get a story about the Denver Nuggets’ terrific season or what’s happening in Toronto. Why? For the same reason. Tribalism, drama and clicks.
What’s true in sports is true in politics, because its true of our culture.
We prefer war and divisiveness. I imagine it has always been this way, and with the advent of technology it has only served to amplify it.
What’s important is to understand that the stuff we see and read is trying to divide us for a reason. And when that happens, we can no longer unite on things that really matter, whether its climate change or refugees or health care.
And so, it becomes the same old story. A bunch of rich people counting their profits while the rest of us fight amongst themselves.
So the next time you read an opinion piece or listen to some talk show host, just remember this—they aren’t journalists, and they aren’t nearly as interested in facts as they are attention. And only we can decide if they deserve it.
So let’s make sure they do. Because playing this tribal game of bait and click isn’t working. Sure, these companies get their numbers and their profits, but it doesn’t help the rest of us at all. They want us to go to war. But maybe its time we choose peace over divisiveness, because one thing is certain.
You and I are the only ones who can change it.
Let’s make sure we do.
Note: This is a shortened and edited version of my latest podcast. You can find SCooP (Sports, Culture and Politics) here, or over at iTunes. If you enjoy it, please give me a follow and leave a review. Thanks, folks!