Sourcing: news supply in the media. The switch from news to opinions and from bureaucrats to “experts”

The media cannot afford to have correspondents everywhere where something might happen. They need to rely on other networks through which important information circulates – the bureaucratic networks of government and corporations. Thus, the information supplied by the bureaucracies has economic value: it would cost the media a lot to obtain equivalent information, particularly from overseas, on their own.

Besides, governmental and corporate sources are usually seen as recognizable and credible sources of information in their respective areas. If not from them, then from where would society have obtained vital information about the state and business affairs? Bureaucracies not only provide, they also produce information of high importance. That is why they were the primary and often exclusive sources of crucial information.

The recognizability of the source, credibility, expected trustworthiness and originality of information made the use of ‘official’ information a necessity for journalism not least because the media declared pursuing ‘objectivity’ and ‘factuality’ as use-value of their product.

According to Herman and Chomsky, “The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 [1988], p. 18).

***

Herman and Chomsky highlighted a scale on which the government and corporate bureaucracies produced public information, often specifically aimed at the media. By 1988, the Pentagon had the public-information service with many thousands of employees. The U.S. Air Force alone revealed that its public-information outreach included the following:

  • 140 newspapers, 690,000 copies per week
  • Airman magazine, monthly circulation 125,000
  • 34 radio and 17 TV stations, primarily overseas
  • 45,000 headquarters and unit news releases
  • 615,000 hometown news releases
  • 6,600 interviews with news media
  • 3,200 news conferences
  • 500 news media orientation flights
  • 50 meetings with editorial boards
  • 11,000 speeches. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 [1988], p. 20.)

Herman and Chomsky emphasized that, “Only the corporate sector has the resources to produce public information and propaganda on the scale of the Pentagon and other government bodies” (Ibid., 21).

This governmental and corporate information mega-machine unavoidably became an important link in the supply chain of media production. As a result, the media became affiliated with and dependent on the government and corporate sources and narratives they produced.

Their service had the political price of acquiring the pre-adjusted narrative and the economic value of the bribe. The controlled sourcing is a structural factor that creates “economic necessity and reciprocity of interest” and makes the media dependent on governmental and corporate information.

***

Since Herman and Chomsky introduced their model, two important tectonic shifts have occurred in the media and have impacted the nature and structure of sourcing. First, the media switched from ad revenue to reader revenue. Second, the media swayed from journalism of fact toward opinion journalism. These shifts predefined three major changes in sourcing.

1) Decline of bureaucratic sourcing. The importance of ‘raw materials’ and bureaucracies as sources has decreased, while the importance of content curation and expertise has increased.

2) Rise of expert sourcing. The structure of the body of experts in the media has changed. In addition to experts in economics, politics, military, security, and foreign affairs, more academics in liberal studies and experts with a background in activism have joined the media as opinions have become required more than facts.

3) Polarization of sourcing. The growing polarization in the media, caused by the focus on reader revenue, has powered the formation of opposing expert filter bubbles, thus furthering polarization.

***

Decline of bureaucratic sourcing. The bureaucracy loses the status of objective and unbiased primary source. The most obvious example: the attitude of the American mainstream media toward Trump extends to Trump’s administration. It is not the case that bureaucratic sources of the White House or the rest of Trump’s key administrative institutions are considered as authoritative or beyond question for the media, as was implied in Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. It is quite the opposite, as no matter what view is expressed by a Trump appointee, it will most likely be received critically. In a polarized society, the bureaucracy is most likely seen as impacted by partisanship.

Another factor that weakened the sourcing role of the bureaucracy is the internet. It undermined the exclusivity of the bureaucracies over information from distant areas or closed structures. For example, in the time of Chomsky’s criticism of the US military policy, almost the only way journalists could get information about overseas military operations was to collaborate with the military. Now, any journalist can reach out to locals, bypass official filters and get alternative information. Moreover, alternative information from locals will reach journalists on its own. The same is true for closed and secret structures: the internet has created an environment that facilitates leaks bypassing official filters.

Herman and Chomsky thought that government and corporate bureaucracies subsidized the media by supplying news, as it was rather expensive to have correspondents everywhere. And they were right. But now it costs almost nothing to get evidence from wherever you need it using the internet and social media. As a result, the bureaucracies now subsidize spam.

Of course, the huge and ever-growing amount of content produced by governments and corporations can impact and frame the worldview of some media outlets or journalists, particularly those that are lazy or biased. But in general, this content is, for the media, either an object of criticism or white noise, not a source.

Thus, the bureaucracy, be it governmental or corporate, is not a highly valued primary source for the media anymore because all its value factors have diminished or are gone:

1) The bureaucracy is not seen as objective because of polarization.

2) The bureaucracy has lost exclusivity because it can be easily bypassed.

3) The bureaucracy does not subsidize newsgathering because newsgathering costs almost nothing in the era of the internet.

***

The divorce of the media from the bureaucracy as a news source has, however, a flip side for the media. The issue is that the bureaucracy also does not need the media as much as it used to. The internet emancipated authorship for everyone, including those in power. They can communicate with the public directly. They have all the technological means to be the media themselves.

This tendency was first detected in the US in the early 2010s. The media jealously pointed out that the White House had created its own “Obama’s media machine, state run media 2.0”.[1] Indeed, as the 2012 re-election campaign was approaching, the White House started using all media formats, old and new, to cover the president. The media complained that the White House had replaced them with its own media capacity. As ABC News reported,

Over the past few months, as White House cameras have been granted free reign behind the scenes, officials have blocked broadcast news outlets from events traditionally open to coverage and limited opportunities to publicly question the president himself.[2]

At the time, the White House had 1.9 million followers on Twitter, 900,000 fans on Facebook and an average of 250,000 visits to its YouTube channel per month. Its website had roughly 1.1 million unique monthly visitors in January 2011. By comparison, ABC News had 1.2 million followers on Twitter, 150,000 fans on Facebook, and averaged 21.7 million unique visitors per month, reported ABC News.[3]

The practice continued after Obama was re-elected. As journalists were accustomed to being gatekeepers and democracy watchdogs, they were not happy with the White House becoming a more successful medium at covering the president. In 2013, CBS wrote:

It’s all courtesy of the Obama image machine, serving up a stream of words, images and videos that invariably cast the president as commanding, compassionate and on the ball. In this world, Obama’s family is always photogenic, first dog Bo is always well-behaved and the vegetables in the South Lawn kitchen garden always seem succulent.[4]

“Barack Obama is the coolest president ever. Period,” stated The Indian Express in 2016, featuring a gallery of the official White House photographer Pete Souza’s amazing pictures.[5] Many of them were true chef-d’oeuvre, the best in the genre, capturing Obama with kids, staffers, politicians, family, etc. In these pictures, he looked the irreproachable ‘People’s President’. No president before, not to speak of after, could have had such a photo- and tele-genic portfolio.

The media rightfully worried that such content was always controlled and doctored. It always showed the president from the needed angle. “You’ll have to look elsewhere for bloopers, bobbles or contrary points of view,” pointed out an observer in CBS, stating that “Flattering Obama images flourish as White House media access narrows.” [6]

No censorship, filtering or any of Herman-Chomsky’s Propaganda machine systemic distortions were needed for manufacturing consent regarding Obama’s coolness. It was still a recognizable and highly trusted (in Obama’s time) bureaucratic primary source that supplied exclusive content and framed narratives, but absolutely not in a way Herman and Chomsky saw as sourcing. “Capitalizing on the possibilities of the digital age,”[7] the bureaucratic source supplied exclusive and doctored content directly to the public. The source still worked, but not for the media. The filter still aimed at manufacturing consent, but not within the Propaganda model of the media.

***

Those were the salad days in the relationship between the president and the media corp. Then came Donald Trump. He completely broke the Herman-Chomsky Propaganda model.

Trump became one of the most powerful sources for the American and world media, but totally not in a way described by the Propaganda model, because he is the source and the medium for himself at the same time. He is also the most valuable source for the mass media but, again, completely not in a way implied by the Propaganda model. For them, Trump did not supply news, he supplied triggers. He defined their agenda, but this agenda did not manufacture consent. The media used him to commodify polarization on both sides of the political spectrum. They treated him depending on their polarized stances, but he was able to bypass them on Twitter extremely efficiently.

All in all, the digital emancipation of authorship, coupled with political polarization, changed the nature of bureaucratic sourcing for the media. In the US, the divorce of the media from official sourcing started with Obama and completed with Trump. “Misinformation from the Trump administration is the biggest challenge,” said Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American and the former health and science editor at the Washington Post. “Really good reporters are wasting a ton of time refuting misinformation from the White House.”

In the time of the release of Manufacturing Consent, 1988, such a statement about the role of the White House as a source would have been unimaginable.

***

Rise of expert sourcing. Since the introduction of the Propaganda model, the media has completed the reversal from journalism of fact to opinion journalism. The divorce from bureaucracies as the prevalent primary source, coupled with the move toward opinion journalism, has forced the media to search for a new sourcing mechanism. This new sourcing has to:

1) be an alternative to official sources – in terms of the status, but also often the stance, and

2) supply not news but rather curation, selection and interpretation, because facts are plentiful, but navigation is scarce.

The media cannot sell news downwards, because news almost always is already known via other channels, mostly from the newsfeed on social media. The media cannot sell agendas upwards, because payment from above, both in advertising and political forms, migrated to more efficient channels on the internet. So, the media sell agendas downwards, having implemented an unprecedented and weird business model, within which the audience join a cause and pay to support the media that validate the news or promote a cause. Raw facts are not in demand under this business model. The new model requires more opinions and expertise as the primary source for more or less saleable content in the media.

The focus of sourcing has moved from ‘raw materials’ for news toward the expertise around already-known news.

***

According to Herman and Chomsky, the promotion to the rank of experts used to be done through, in a sense, corrupting intellectuals by affiliating them with think tanks and other sorts of governmental and corporate research institutions. With such a profile, intellectuals could be propelled to experts in the media. But they had needed to have at least some prior intellectual record and expert verification, such as an academic background and a think tank affiliation.

Now, this promotional power undividedly belongs to the media. With this tendency, the promotion of columnists to the rank of experts was oftentimes made. The rule of the validation of significance by dissemination has worked out: someone who wrote a lot on something became an expert in what he or she wrote a lot about. At a certain level of fame (based on the factor of distribution: readership, followers, media appearances, etc.), some experts, particularly those recruited from columnists, had a broader area of expertise. They became a sort of expert ‘without portfolio’, a universal expert.

This is quite a postmodernist phenomenon. Some modern – postmodern – celebrities, for example, have not grown out of any area of preceding fame or success, such as arts, show business, sports or politics. They at once have become ‘pure’, self-induced celebrities, as exemplified by Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, persons famous solely for being celebrities. Social media with their mechanisms of virality, Instagram first of all, have made being a celebrity a professional occupancy.

The market value of celebrities is a function of celebrities’ ‘dissemination’. Since social significance is also a function of dissemination, celebrity-value is an expression of pure significance: in this case, a significance without meaning. Similar to how money represents an abstract pure value without a material application and therefore is useful for the measurement of any value, celebrities also represent the pure value of significance without meaning, the pure abstract value of virality.

The same mechanism of the validation of value/significance by dissemination entailed the formation of a body of experts, made by the media, in the media, for the media. They might or might not have some preceding academic or field expertise, but essential for the expert’s status is their frequency of media appearances and a modicum of intellectual, writing or speaking skills, of course coupled with a proper demographic and political profile.

The most advanced experts of the postmodernist era become universal experts, the Kardashians of expertise. In fairness, it is noteworthy that some areas of expertise objectively favor the universalism of scope and vision (such as media expertise, for example, to which I must confess I luckily belong, or politics).

All in all, the media have managed to ride the wave of demand for expertise and have produced a required body of experts out of their columnists and frequent interviewees, in addition to those recruited in academia and practical fields.

***

Besides a wide range of columnists and commentators promoted to experts, one more rich and prospective niche of expert recruitment has appeared – activism.

Activism is a good way to bolster one’s reputation and publicity; in many cases publicity is an important amplifier for activism, as it helps to raise awareness. These settings meet the principle of validation by dissemination. If an activist has gained some reputation, their publicity verifies their significance (in addition to the actual personal qualities that are required for succeeding in activism). Activists with a certain level of publicity can be propelled by the media to expert status. A part of today’s expert body in the media have trodden this exact career path.

With the decline of general trust in institutions, the role and number of classical experts will decrease, and the role and number of expert-activists will grow. Experts-made-of-activists serve the needs for polarization in the media very well. Navigation in the turbulent news environment assumes not just the rational assessment (actually, the rational assessment least of all) but also the emotional evaluation and validation of what is right and what is not through forming an attitude. This sort of expertise is moral expertise. People often need guidance to define which aspects of the current events are appealing and which are appalling, according to the shared system of values. To this end, experts with activist backgrounds are the best suited, as they are allowed to, nay even required to, impose moral guidelines.

In the conservative media, the moral expertise of events, actions, behaviors and persons will be judged based on whether they comply with the sense of nostalgia for the Great Past and fuel resentment. For this, experts are likely recruited from among activists with backgrounds in activities related to the Second Amendment, religion, the pro-life movement, the right conspiracies of all kinds and alike.

Resentment expertise in the conservative media is symmetrically mirrored by grievance expertise in the liberal media. Grievance expertise organically comes from civic, humanitarian and social justice activism.

***

Polarization of sourcing. With a higher stake in the media, the donating audience increases pressure on newsrooms in terms of what experts or columnists are inappropriate to be given the floor. The Twitterati furiously condemn newsrooms for the wrong choice of authors, commentators and experts.

Flak from the donating audience narrows the newsroom’s choice of experts and commentators down to the carriers of ‘politically correct’ views (on both opposing sides). The necessity to spark the audience’s feelings to join the cause (and better subscription) incentivizes the media to involve more ‘ardent’ experts.

Technically, experts cannot be ‘ardent’. If they are, they are probably propagandists. Considering that the mechanisms of expert recruitment in the media shifted towards columnists and activists, it is possible to say that the tone of expertise has moved more towards political and moral judgment and less towards balanced consideration. This move is needed for the media to succeed in soliciting subscription as donation.

The switch of the media towards more opinion journalism, married with polarized flak, leads to the shaping of expert filter bubbles, the circles of regular experts around politicized media brands.

Expert polarization occurred not only in politically loaded developments such as, for example, the 2017–2019 Mueller investigation in the USA or the 2019–2020 impeachment, but also during the COVID-19 pandemic. With their ardently founded reasoning, the opposing expert bubbles set two completely different agendas, helping to polarize audiences and secure their loyalty to the media propounding competing worldviews. Even distant-from-politics topics, such as mask-wearing, were polarized and politically weaponized.

***

Eli Pariser, the author of the term ‘filter bubble’, saw the instant and unmediated accommodation of the news supply to people’s reaction as one of the prerequisites for the filter bubble. He compared the newsroom of Gawker, the then-skyrocketing tabloid-type new online media outlet (the late 2000s), and good-old the New York Times. In Gawker’s newsroom, there was a Big Board, a huge screen showing the top posts by page views. “Write an article that makes it onto the Big Board, and you’re liable to get a raise,” reported Pariser. “Stay off it for too long, and you may need to find a different job” (Pariser, 2011, p. 32).

The New York Times at the time held a completely opposite stance, disregarding the instant reactions of the audience. Pariser appraised this as an advantage and even the dignity of journalism. His account of it deserves a longer quote:

At the New York Times, reporters and bloggers aren’t allowed to see how many people click on their stories. This isn’t just a rule, it’s a philosophy that the Times lives by: The point of being the newspaper of record is to provide readers with the benefit of excellent, considered editorial judgment. “We don’t let metrics dictate our assignments and play,” New York Times editor Bill Keller said, “because we believe readers come to us for our judgment, not the judgment of the crowd. We’re not ‘American Idol.’” Readers can vote with their feet by subscribing to another paper if they like, but the Times doesn’t pander. Younger Times writers who are concerned about such things have to essentially bribe the paper’s system administrators to give them a peek at their stats. (The paper does use aggregate statistics to determine which online features to expand or cut.) (Pariser, 2011, p. 32.)

The editor whose newspaper is funded predominantly by advertising can allow themselves to say that “Readers can vote with their feet by subscribing to another paper if they like”. The editor whose newspaper depends solely on reader revenue cannot.

After the reversal in the business model from ad revenue to reader revenue, the relations between “our judgement” and “the judgment of the crowd,” as NYT editor Bill Keller called it in the quoted fragment, have reversed, too. In 2020, just 10 years later, “our judgment” can no longer allow the risk to be too different from “the judgment of the crowd” vocalized on Twitter. “We’re not ‘American Idol’” went the same way as “We are not resistance”. These are not the right mottos for the media business based on soliciting subscription as donation. Journalism surrenders each next “We are not…”.

Some might be tempted to accuse the leadership of the New York Times of this surrender, as the ‘paper of record’ has suffered from it, perhaps, the most. But such are the environmental conditions, including those related to the fading business, not someone’s individual fault. It has impacted journalism in general.

***

The instant and constant pressure of likes (rather ‘hates’) from those who pay or who can initiate powerful flak most likely makes editors very cautious about picking the ‘wrong’ authors and experts. This environmental and irresistible force insulates the media in their ideological filter bubbles when pitching for support, including their bubble of experts. The experts orbiting each media outlet gradually turn into a set of speakers pre-approved by the donating audience; actually, by the most vocal part of the donating audience. This is not even a stable state; it represents the progressing and escalating dynamics of the media moving towards extremes on the chosen side of the political spectrum. Polarization is not a stage; it is a developing process.

With the expertise and opinion supply split into two opposing echo chambers, experts, authors and commentators whose opinion does not chime with the party line are unlikely to have access to pages or airtime.

The political cocooning of expert selection is just half of the problem. The other half relates to the amplification of extremes and the suppression of centrist views. Centrist experts can appear in the media, but they are not those who generate buzz, virality, and spin-off in the polarized media environment aimed at frustrating and engaging the donating audience. Moderateness does not work well in this market. The business model aggressively eliminates undesired opinions and passively disincentivizes modest and centrist opinions.

Sourcing in the media has not just switched from news to opinion supply; it has switched to the supply of opinions, preferably those more ardent and necessarily pre-approved by the most vocal part of the donating audience.

Andrey Mir

An excerpt from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”

 

[1] Dwyer, Devin. (2011, 14 February). “Obama’s media machine: state run media 2.0?” ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/president-obama-white-house-media-operation-state-run/story?id=12913319

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Associated Press. (2013, April 2). “Flattering Obama images flourish as White House media access narrows.” CBS DC. https://washington.cbslocal.com/2013/04/02/flattering-obama-images-flourish-as-white-house-media-access-narrows/

[5] The Indian express. (2016, November 13). “Barack Obama is the coolest president ever. Period.” https://indianexpress.com/photos/trending-gallery/barack-obama-is-the-coolest-president-ever-period-2952012/4/

[6] The Associated Press. (2013, April 2). “Flattering Obama images flourish as White House media access narrows.” CBS DC. https://washington.cbslocal.com/2013/04/02/flattering-obama-images-flourish-as-white-house-media-access-narrows/

[7] Ibid.



Categories: Corporate communication, Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Future of news, Media ecology, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Trumpism and Fake news

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