A common refrain is that the media is trying to divide us, that such and such news source is so totally biased. How about a more realistic assessment? That media outlets are businesses that get paid when people stick around for the advertisements or get addicted enough to pay for a subscription. What seems to captivate people is conflict, the more specific and personal, the better. In other words, the media is in the entertainment business. If they don’t think they’re in the entertainment business, they will be outcompeted for ratings by organizations that do resign themselves to that depressing philosophy.
The media cares about neither the monumentally consequential nor the transparently trivial nor anything in between. They care about what keeps you glued to the screen during the commercial break or what gets you to fork over money to get past a paywall. That’s their business model. If in today’s news, a ship of eight hundred refugees sank leaving no survivors, and a celebrity threw dramatic shade at another celebrity, the latter wins the chyron because that’s where the entertaining interpersonal conflict lies.
This isn’t really a critique of the media but rather an observation of what people want out of any content. The human mind seems to be naturally drawn to sudden changes and personal disputes, not statistics and gradual trends. The brain just doesn’t care about persistent plights that were here yesterday and will be here tomorrow. So, we don’t get a special report on a famine in Somalia because we’d readily change the channel. Booooorrringgg.
If there is valid criticism of the media, it’s if they purport to be in the investigative journalism business and not the entertainment business. It’s if they profess to be the actual fourth estate, a veritable peer of the legislative branch, and not a functional sitcom. It’s if they suggest that the reports they put forth are an exclusive and exhaustive collection, albeit summarized, of all that is worthy of our concern. Such claims may well be an effective marketing tactic, a motivating rallying cry for the industry’s underpaid cast and writers, or plausible deniability for lacking the moral high ground.
But it’s not what the market wants, and it’s not what keeps them in business. It’s also not fucking true.
All of this is unsurprising. Imagine a bunch of great apes in the jungle, who, over five million-odd years, very gradually became aware that there exists more to the world than just their local jungle, that their species is made up of more than their few local chest-thumping tribes. Then one day, these primates developed the ability to chisel the day’s headlines into stone. And shortly thereafter, the hominids developed the capability of beaming any and all raw data and synthesized information to and from any corner of the Earth and beyond at the speed of light.
All of the world’s deeply complex, often horrifying, rapidly changing information would become entirely available to these apes, all the time, all at once. Their brain biology couldn’t possibly have had a chance to catch up. One might even forgive them for exclusively using this awesome technology for the purposes of voyeurism and entertainment. That’s obviously our story.
So, we’re still rapt by conflicts and metaphorical shit-slinging. We don’t turn to the media to process the contributors to income inequality, the destabilization of marine ecology, the gradual spread of pestilence and desertification in far-away parts of the world. We don’t instinctively care about such slow-moving, far-reaching trends because our minds never evolved to process or be stimulated by that. We go to the news to feel excitement and fear from the comfort of our homes, and we’re given what we want.
That’s our fault, maybe. That’s the cerebral cortex’s fault, maybe. That’s evolution’s fault, maybe. But you know whose fault it isn’t? The media’s. They’re just trying to make it in show business.