Already, the Koran-burning contretemps is yesterday’s news and the hounds of the internet are hungrily roving for the next incidental story to turn into major headlines. Jena McGregor of the Washington Post had a terrific piece today on “Falling Victim to the Tyranny of the Moment.” Yet, the Washington Post, itself, and other major news outlets has an enabling relationship with the tyrants.
Last week, a revealing story buried inside the New York Times (“Some Newspapers, Tracking Readers Online, Shift Coverage” by Jeremy W. Peters, September 5, 2010) shed a few dim rays of light on other newspapers’ increasingly strong reliance on internet data to determine news reporting emphases. Among other things, this article goes on to tell us that:
“Editors at The [Wall Street] Journal, like those at other large newspapers, follow the Web traffic metrics closely. The paper’s top editors begin their morning news meetings with a rundown of data points, including the most popular search terms on WSJ.com, which articles are generating the most traffic and what posts are generating buzz on Twitter.
“At The Washington Post, a television screen with an array of data — the number of unique visitors to washingtonpost.com, how many articles those visitors view and where on the Web those visitors came from — is on display for the entire newsroom. A red or green marker designates each data point, indicating whether the Web site’s goal for the month on that particular metric has been met. About 120 people in The Post’s newsroom get an e-mail each day laying out how the Web site performed in the closely watched metrics — 46 in all.”
The writer’s own newspaper, he explains, treats web data this way:
“The New York Times does not use Web metrics to determine how articles are presented, but it does use them to make strategic decisions about its online report, said Bill Keller, the executive editor. “We don’t let metrics dictate our assignments and play,” he said, “because we believe readers come to us for our judgment, not the judgment of the crowd. We’re not ‘American Idol.’ ”
So, it seems, despite that editor’s disdain for the American Idolatry phase of modern life, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the New York Times hallowed slogan, is fast becoming “Only the News The Crowd Thinks Is Important” And, the crowd now has a great deal of power to determine what is or is not important when it comes to headlines and how we perceive “the news.”
I shudder to think that the same people who offer the screeds and rants that now accompany online articles are the same ones who are shaping my view of reality as presented through the news media. Yikes! Do I really want the guy who writes, “All Republicans are lunatics,” or the one who writes, “Since Baraq Husseini Obama is 0-5 in his support for Dimmokrats, maybe Baraq should consider going on vacation when it comes to “helping” Dimmokrat candidates…” determining what news I get to read?
Knowing that the data centers are now running editorial meetings does help to explain some of the more bizarre recent “news.” Even before I read that New York Times article, I did my own little experiment. For days and days around the time that Glenn Beck took his circus to the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Post online was all-Beck-all-the-time. Finally, sick of not being able to see any other headline news even a day after the circus left town, I spent five minutes checking other online front pages. Interestingly enough, outside of Washington, I could not find any online front-page headlines about the Beck event among other major city newspapers — not the LA Times, nor the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer or Miami Herald. All of which let me to reflect on the “inside the Beltway” phenomenon of Washington, and how our only local news outlet of note frames the news in ways that skew reality. If the Washington Post is making up its online front page based on the number of hits or reader comments, that’s pretty scary.
Another recent example of “news” manufactured out of rumor and bias was the unending discussion of President Obama’s religion. Since the man had already, on many occasions, established the fact that he professes the Christian faith, why would any respectable news outlet run a “reader poll” asking readers for their opinion on whether President Obama is a Muslim, as various news websites did? Reader opinion is irrelevant on the fact of whether someone espouses one faith or another. Whatever happened to some modicum of journalistic integrity when it comes to basic facts? The news media today seems to suggest that all facts are up to the crowd, working through various social networking sources.
Media leaders are quick to deny any claim that they are biased or manipulated by political operatives, but the facts are certainly otherwise. By letting online data now drive newsroom decisions, major newspapers and other media outlets are less and less likely to be credible, unbiased sources of today’s news, tomorrow’s history.
Biasing history, however, is not the worst result of the current media fashion for flash mob reporting. The real danger lies in the power of the mob to inflame passions by controlling headlines, resulting in social destabilization and actual violence. The “butterfly effect” of a small-time bigot gaining international headlines triggers reaction and violence around the world.
Far from using truth to illuminate fear, the manipulation of news media now spreads fear and anger. News outlets are complicit in this when they allow their preoccupation over what ‘sells’ to the mob to dictate headlines.
What do you think? Have the media become pawns of the radical fringe? Comment by clicking on the “comment” link below.
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Check out the discussion On Success at Washingtonpost.com