It’s old news, of course, that the media industry has undergone nothing short of a revolution these last couple of decades. For traditional newspapers, advertising revenue has all but dried up, shuttering hundreds of city and local dailies as a consequence. Those still standing now rely on reader-generated revenue, as traditional advertisers go with the more efficient technologies offered by the Google/Facebook duopoly.
Any reader of Andrey Mir’s latest book, a case study of disruptive innovation called Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers, will come away thinking that we haven’t at all grasped what’s really been wrought. From the warping of traditional news reporting, our politics and political rhetoric, and even our collective psychology, America’s post-media, post-journalism reality is truly terrifying.
Mir, a media studies professor at the University of Toronto (home of the late, pioneering media analyst, Marshall McLuhan), spends most of Postjounalism grappling with the ramifications of traditional outlets having moved from a funding model based on advertisers (primarily) and subscribers, to one relying on “memberships” and donations. Unlike the newspaper subscribers of yore, he writes, new, paid-up “members” of outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post don’t actually need the news they pay for. Like everyone else, they can basically get it elsewhere for free; through non-paywalled sites, social media outlets, and other digital platforms. What they’re actually paying for is a cause.
As Mir writes, what triggers the membership fees and donations for today’s Times and Post readers is the knowledge that they help spread an agenda and influence others. The reader-publisher relationship is no longer transactional, but one where the payer subsidizes the creation of the content and pays to validate the perceived worthiness of that content. In essence, says Mir, the new membership model “incentivizes journalism to mutate into propaganda.”
Pre-internet, the reigning media-studies approach, created by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, held that, due to newspapers’ reliance on corporate advertising and government access, it was their function “to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.” Editors wanted a large and wealthy audience buying what was advertised and more or less supporting whatever government was in power.
To the extent that this was true, it is certainly no longer the case. Editors now have to take into account the ideological views of their paid-up members and craft the news in a different way. No longer is reporting driven by the genuine importance of a story or market fundamentals; what drives the daily editorial search is “the most resonating pressing social issues that could justify fundraising and stimulate readers to donate.” In other words, the Times, Post, etc., are now in the business of selling fearmongering and outrage; not the news.
Needless to say, under the new model, there isn’t even the pretense of separation between editors and funders. According to Mir, while editors often speak platitudinously about “listening to the readers”, etc., they actually do far more than that. Today, “newsrooms must let the readers in, in any form that may please them.” “Impartiality”, or what the media previously hung their reputations on, “will not succeed in soliciting for donations.” What pays the bills now is the “proactive and intensive signaling of a newspaper’s endorsing or opposing stances” and, more alarmingly, the “exaggeration and even inducement of the public’s concerns.” The Times and Post create worry, anger and frustration because they have to.
With all traditional outlets feeling the same industry pressures, they’ve all jettisoned impartiality to some extent (Mir rightly separates his concern for the bigger traditional media from blogs and other post-internet media that are more or less open about their agendas and seek to fill niches). But, unfortunately for most (the L.A. Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, etc.), people won’t subscribe to multiple news sources. Considering it is agenda-spreading they want, they’ll pick only the biggest and most impactful outlets. Hence, the Times and Post being the only US papers, Mir notes, whose digital subscriptions have outpaced their past, pre-internet circulation figures.
Noticeably, Mir offers a very apolitical explanation for what is a very political phenomenon. To summarize his position: major media has become so warped due to basic economics. In an anticlimactic conclusion that eschews the typical explanations, such as motivations of journalists and editors to mold public opinion, “guide” democratic decision-making, and generally grab power in the name of progressive enlightenment, Mir states that: “There is no evil plot, nor ‘liberal bias’  behind this.”
Glaringly absent from Mir’s analysis is any mention that the ideological membership-base he criticizes also contains the very journalists and editors who apparently harbor no “liberal bias.” Just like their readers, Times and Post staffers are predominately of a northern, liberal background; people who generally share the same animosity towards and alienation from middle America, the South, and white working people generally. As Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger himself said back in 2003: “If white men were not complaining, it would be an indication we weren’t succeeding and making the inroads that we are.”
This makes Mir’s analysis appear naïve and incomplete; so much so, it makes one wonder if his position can be explained by his place in such a hyper-woke institution as the University of Toronto. After all, conservative professors Tom Groseclose and Jeff Milyo faced considerable backlash when they published a paper on left-wing media bias in the US, and that was nearly 20 years ago. Speculation aside, while today’s problem of industry-dynamics is deeply serious, it doesn’t seem to explain the fundamentals and foundations of American media bias.
But without a doubt the new normal Mir lays out in Postjournalism is terrifying. A desperate media industry can be deadly serious. As we have seen, and as Mir notes, the media can and does induce reality through its coverage. Just look at the altering of public perceptions as seen in the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or George Floyd cases, or the recent poll showing an alarming number of Americans believing unarmed shootings of blacks run in the tens of thousands per year, and not in the low double-digits suggested by the available data (137 since 2015).
And by seeking financial support from members, the incentives now are, as Mir says, “to dramatize the agenda and continuously seek for new triggers”; that is, the media must manufacture or inflate forever new and exaggerated threats to the nation. In other words, if it isn’t Trump or Russia’s threat to American democracy, it’s black-voter suppression, “misinformation”, white domestic terrorism… anything.
So, until a new model emerges, media literacy increases, or the Times and Post somehow admit their own biases, the great triggering of America will continue.
Bradford H.B. is a US-based lawyer, former political staffer, and has contributed to Quillette, American Spectator, and Areo Magazine, among other publications.