The sh***y model of news that we are fed is based on an antiquated system that is not reflective of who’s watching it.”
Jon Stewart offered the insight during last week’s opening moments of his Apple TV+ program, “The Problem.” The program offered a critical look at television news – its goals, its methods, and the product it offers up every day to millions of eager eyeballs.
Many have grown accustomed to hearing news critiques from more conservative American enclaves. But to come from the liberal side of the spectrum was both refreshing and, as Stewart himself predicted might happen, just the match to ignite a blowback from inside the industry.
“Generally, our news media has been collected into two major categories, for the most part. You got your, what they call the mainstream, liberal corporate media. And then you got your right-wing, also mainstream, corporate media,” Stewart said, “One side of this media equation believes they are purveyors of truth and justice. The guardians of our democratic republic. The other side is effective.”
Stewart did not hold back during the program, stating that television news has largely become a vessel to deliver ratings-tested material to willing and eager viewers. In his opinion, the industry focus is now on delivering what the viewer wants, rather than on what the journalist is worthy of time or trust. He feels a journalist’s job should be to lay out the facts and truth as he sees it and let the chips fall where they may.
The host didn’t hide the fact that his bias may lead him to see a specific tilt to a story. His main point, however, is that television news should provide what the journalist believes to be true, rather than offering up what they think will simply be popular or agreed with by their audience.
Stewart zoned in on the issue of “Critical Race Theory,” offering up a montage of conservative media opinion, referring to CRT as “poison,” “marxist,” “communist,” and “racist.” He blamed the conservative media for creating the issue and “lighting the fire” of outrage across America.
“The right-wing media, working seamlessly with their political arm, made that happen,” Stewart said. “That’s how fucking good these guys are. If you’re going to battle this coordinated effort – political and media together – we’re gonna need a hero.” Stewart feels that this narrative was born not from truth but rather from the corporate media’s effort to create the hullabaloo only to exploit it to the max.
“Unfortunately, if they are the one thing that stands between America and chaos, we are in trouble. Because there has rarely been an institution that has such a distance between its aspirations and its execution,” Steward said. “The media keeps informing us how incredibly important they are to our survival because knowing keeps us free. But when given crucial informational tasks, they instead build us prisons of what the fuck are you people talking about?”
The program then moved on, with its host saying the media was correct in its initial pursuit of the Trump “Russia conspiracy.” However, he said they quickly descended into absurdity, hurting their credibility in the process. Stewart played montage after montage, featuring mainstream media claims of “bombshells” about President Trump and featuring the qualifier, “if true.” Most of these “bombshells” turned out to be either untrue or far different than what had been portrayed. Trying as they did, the media’s claims of “walls closing in” on the former president turned out to be nothing more than false promises to their eager audiences.
“The media is such an important part of a democracy’s immune system, but can the saviors of our democracy be saved themselves,” Stewart asked.
“The problem is that we’ve become moral imbecils, as we are being spoon-fed little pieces of outrage day by day, no, stay with the story, stay with the story. You can’t lose any number. The death knell is if your numbers go down,” said Chris Stirewalt, former Politics Editor at Fox News. “That’s why we only get one story at a time. Producers know that that will work and that will rate, so we’re going to stick with the thing that people are expecting and that they know, because if you take it away from them, they may get mad, the number may go down, and they may go someplace else to get it.”
During his time at Fox, Stirewalt was known for his wit, political expertise, and, when the situation dictated, for offering a less-than-popular opinion.
“I think what people don’t realize is that it’s a ratings-driven business, but it’s also driven by meetings. People have meetings and make decisions every day that affect the tone, tenor, and direction of coverage,” Stewart said. The panel added that producers are guided by ratings showing minute-by-minute audience reactions, a trend that allows decision-makers to remain focused on the stories and angles that attract and keep the most eyeballs.
The table is set, giving the audience what the networks feel they want and will pay for, regardless of many of the producers and producers feel, in actuality, the most important and relevant stories or angles of the day.
“There are meetings that set the agenda for the network, that set the agenda for the morning shows, that are gonna set the evening show agendas. You have to divvy up who’s gonna have which guests because you can’t have everybody shared on every single show,” former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien said. “And then the shows themselves have specific meetings. What are we gonna start with? What are we gonna end with? Who’s the guest? How long do they get? I think this idea of, hey, we just report the news, is ridiculous because, of course, it’s a zero-sum game. If you’re covering something, then that means you’re not giving coverage to something else.”
In addition, social media is now the shiny new object attracting news producers and compelling them to chase left and right. The excitable cat is trying to land his paw on the laser pointer.
“You can see a television news story in which people are like, this idiot said this about this idiot on Twitter, and they treat it like it’s a whole new story,” Stirewalt said. “So it has permeated the thinking in very profound ways, and it’s made us dumber,” Stirewalt said in the ten years he was at Fox; he saw the business change from keeping away from ratings talk to relying on it before all else.
Stewart added that when he started the Daily Show at the age of 35, he led with what he believed in, hoping it would attract an audience, rather than starting with what he thought the audience would want and “backing into it.” In his words, this purity of intention led to a more honestly-rooted journalistic effort.
“I think what this is really about is a lack of courage of changing the model,” Sean McLaughlin, VP of News at EW Scripps, said. “The part about the minute-by-minutes, you’re looking at data that is already incredibly flawed from the beginning.” He explained that today’s hyper-fragmentation makes the Nielsen-collected data much less reliable than in years past. And even then, many have felt that the reliance on a relatively small set of households recording their viewing patterns was an already-skewed method, to begin with. “At some point, you just start realizing, I wonder if what we’re looking at is any degree of realism at all,” McLaughlin added.
O’Brien said most newsrooms now perform under essentially the same set of unwritten rules.
“I think for most of the working there when I was there, they loved journalism, as I did, and I do But I think the mission was to do the best job you could do and win,” O’Brien said. “Win as in the ratings. Win is making sure that you’re getting picked up by the New York Times. Win is not about educating the public. It’s not so complicated.”
The prevailing theme of this episode of “The Problem” was that television news has become an all-too-tailored production. Especially in cable news, the product has become opinion-driven entertainment.
“What differentiates news from entertainment is that sometimes we have to tell you what you don’t want to hear,” Stirewalt summed up. “We are supposed to be the vegetables. We are supposed to be the nutrient-giving portion of the plate. Not dessert. What cable news has tried to do, and what local news sometimes does, is getting the green beans in the shortbread, and you’ve got now you’ve turned the news into entertainment, and you’re treating entertainment like news. Both of those are bad things. News should be news; entertainment should be entertainment.”
The episode concluded with a conversation between Stewart and former Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger. Iger felt news organizations may currently be on the defensive because they feel they’ve been under the microscope like never before.
“My advice to them was to not hear the noise as much, to continue doing the job that we’ve entrusted them to do,” Iger said about his 30-plus years overseeing ABC News. “Which is, to tell the truth, to state the facts. To present the news on an accurate and a, fair and a timely basis. But we never sought to drive ratings or even bottom-line success at the sacrifice of what we consider to be quality. It wasn’t part of our discussion.”