Bias isn’t the biggest danger of the new media age

November 10, 2008

Toward the close of the presidential campaign some respected journalists of no special political bent denounced the news media for tilting unfairly toward Barack Obama. Harold Evans, ex-editor of the Times of London and onetime editorial lord of the New York Daily News,  wrote in the Guardian that “the coverage has been slavishly on [Obama’s] side.” On ABC News.com veteran technology writer Michael S. Malone wrote that the favoritism had gotten so bad he was, for the first time, ashamed to be a journalist.

To me, the criticisms were obsolescent. The media they were complaining about – the broadcast networks and prestige newspapers — are outlets that fewer and fewer people pay attention to. Looking ahead, the media world that Obama will have to engage as president is in nobody’s pocket. It’s a fractured and fractious online and cable universe with little capacity for coherent bias — or, more disturbingly, for civic coherence of any kind.

These new media aren’t polarized, at least not in the traditional sense.  Increasingly, the media the public relies on for news and topical commentary don’t sell recognizable political polarities at all. They’re carving out far more surgically precise brand identities in a marketplace that rewards loud, strong-minded, sure-footed, narrow-casting, which encourages an unshakable loyalty to whatever fragment of perspective and audience particular outlets hope to profit from.

The news media are in a major, historic transformation, away from a commercial dependence on drawing large, diverse publics so that broad-market advertisers can make their pitches, and toward a hyper-targeted industry consisting of myriad channels, their audiences differentiated by age, ethnicity, race, religion, cultural predilection, neighborhood — and political preference too, of course.

The buzzword is verticality:  identify attributes that set an audience apart, that distinguish them in ways that can be packaged and sold. New tracking technologies enable advertisers to identify, with great precision, where people have been on the Internet, what they’ve paid attention to, and consequently how receptive they’ll be to sales messages.

The thinner you can slice the audience, the more cost-effective the ads. That’s why online advertising puts a premium on what distinguishes people from one another, not what they have in common. Content — news and commentary – no longer serves as the great aggregator; now its commercial value is as a differentiator.

It stands to reason, then, that content will be selected and customized with an eye to differences within that audience.

Hence the problem for elected leaders, whatever their politics: Dealing with  a media business that has an abiding interest, meaning a commercial interest, in deepening and perpetuating political difference in the populace — picking at scabs, scratching grievances til they bleed.

Even the so-called mainstream media, weary of getting their whiskers tugged for being such old fogeys, have leapt into the new discourse of tough talk and freewheeling commentary. I’m consistently surprised to see staffers from established news organizations holding forth online or on cable with careless descriptions of newsmakers that are miles beyond customary limits and which, to me, make a mockery of the sober discipline that used to be part of news professionalism.

But there’s logic to it: Those commentators become names and personalities that can be repositioned as branded kiosks that mainstream media can point at to draw the new media audience back under their big tent.

The upshot is a media universe that’s peevish and contentious, peopled by commentators with a cause and anchors with a chip on their shoulder, which sows outrage and thrives on discord. During the campaign, whenever one candidate or the other backed off an especially unsavory charge, you could practically smell the frustration, hear the hot air hemorrhaging from the windbags at Fox News and MSNBC.

Hence the problem for political leaders. Obama, like his successors, will have to do their best within a political culture that depends on media that are structurally hard-wired to treat negotiation, agreement and consensus with skepticism and hostility. Harmony’s bad business.

It’s not an attractive prospect for a president who’ll take office at a time of unquestionably historic challenge, when hard choices and sacrifices lie ahead. The new news media don’t get along with getting along, and that’s not good news for the rest of us.

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