walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Feed
Features
Reviews
Podcast
The “News” That Isn’t News

The Iowa caucuses are coming much too early this year, but it feels as if we have been waiting forever for them to actually arrive.  A barrage of excessive and pointless press coverage has drowned the country for months.  Iowa’s caucus for years was seen as the prequel to the actual presidential race which began with the New Hampshire primary.  Now it is treated as the climax of a long and winding story, every twist and turn of which needs to be breathlessly covered in exquisite detail.

In reality, Iowa is still a prequel rather than a climax; little of significance happened during all those endless months of stultifying coverage.  People followed the ups and downs of obscure campaigns under the delusion that they were following Important News but, as usual, the Iowa caucuses will say more about who won’t be the nominee rather than who will be.  Unless you are a political operative or somebody angling to get an appointment in the next Republican administration, you could safely ignore every word written about the GOP contest up until this point without being any less well informed about the important things going on in the country and the world.

In fact, if you invested the time you saved by ignoring the endless Iowa chatter in following actual, significant news about the US and the world, you would be much wiser and better informed than if you wasted all that time and mental energy on the Iowa soap.

Yawn.

An unexpected consequence of blogging regularly has been that I spend more time with legacy media than ever before.  The attempt to sift out the handful of stories each day that can help discerning readers trace the development of the world system inescapably involves at least a brief scan of the news catch of the day on display from the great news collecting agencies of our time.

That experience has made me more critical of the legacy media than I was at the beginning.  There is too much noise and not nearly enough signal in most of what appears every day.  Vital stories are covered poorly if at all; most news organizations appear to spend little time thinking in a disciplined way about what is going on in the world and their coverage reflects this lack of a thoughtful and centered approach to world events.

The US presidential race is a prime example of the poor judgment and poor use of resources that legacy news media coverage displays — at least from the standpoint of the serious student of world events.  The coverage begins much too early, contains much too much fluff and spin, and provides the reader with next to no serious insight about where the country is headed.

There are good economic and competitive reasons why the media covers the presidential race in mind numbing detail, but just because they write it doesn’t mean we have to read it.

Many people follow politics the way sports buffs follow sports news, or supermarket shoppers read People magazine and there is nothing wrong with this.  Apart from the schadenfreude and love of gossip, it is an innocent human pastime and a perfectly reasonable leisure activity.  But it is not the same as a serious interest in events, and people who really want to understand what is happening in the world and help build a better future need to spend less time following horse race chit chat and more time both following the real news and carrying out the historical, economic, cultural and intellectual study programs that will enable them to understand the news in greater depth.

Big budget legacy news providers love long running horse races like American presidential campaigns and fill their pages with race coverage for reasons that have nothing to do with serious news.  For one thing, endless political campaigns are the news equivalents of the long running soap operas that dominated decades of daytime TV: essentially mindless story lines that can be produced at a predictable cost and keep the readers coming back.

It is also a way that the big budget papers news magazines and networks can establish themselves as members of an elite press corps.  Nobody else has the resources to deploy multiple reporters and/or camera crews to Iowa for the long, pointless marathon.  Reporting the pointless twists and turns of the Iowa ordeal and the ordeals still to come, the rise and fall of candidates whose candidacies will be long forgotten before the convention: this has little if anything to do with serious news, but it has a great deal to do with establishing the journalistic pecking order.

Media critics often rail about the bias and the blindness in so much mainstream media coverage, and this is clearly an issue.  Watching the media try to turn OWS into a genuinely significant movement of left populism that would counter the Tea Party was one of the funniest spectacles in some time: so much earnestness lavished on such an unpromising corpse.

But at the end the vapidity and the stupidity of the news industry is more worrying than the bias.  News is ultimately a matter of stories: constructing a series of continuing narratives that help us identify what matters in the daily and weekly news flow, and using those narratives to organize and present news in ways that allow busy readers to see what is happening and what it means.

The mainstream media is failing by and large at this essential task. It isn’t telling the important stories in a compelling way.  The new great game in Asia, the global green meltdown, the crisis of the blue social model, the global contest between Christianity and Islam and a handful of other big narratives aren’t being covered by the mainstream media in a serious and useful way.

That’s good news for Via Meadia: it gives us something to do.  We can do the editing and the selection that the mainstream outlets ought to do for themselves, and present our readers over time with distilled and useful news and comment.  We can add value to the news flow by an intelligent filtering process.  This ought to be the chief goal of any serious news enterprise.  That the mainstream media have become so flabby and flaccid in their basic intellectual approach to the ‘what matters’ question is a social problem — but also an opportunity for a small organization to add real value.

That’s what we will be trying to do at Via Meadia and The American Interest Online in 2012.  Meanwhile, heartiest New Year’s greetings to all the reporters and editors analyzing the campaigns so industriously vying for that all important fourth place Iowa finish.

Features Icon
Features
show comments
  • http://thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    I think you are doing a really good job and this claim you make is true.

    “The mainstream media is failing by and large at this essential task. It isn’t telling the important stories in a compelling way. The new great game in Asia, the global green meltdown, the crisis of the blue social model, the global contest between Christianity and Islam and a handful of other big narratives aren’t being covered by the mainstream media in a serious and useful way.”

    But I would also argue that the biggest player in the MSM – TV – only pretends to engage the intellect. In fact it primarily engages the emotions – the visceral. It is the child of cinema which in turn is the child of theater. You correctly identify election reportage as soap opera. It is also shares a great deal with sports coverage and not just horse racing. Consider that it is the pictures that dominate TV. The picture tells the story – and is cut using the techniques of cinematic fiction – while the words are secondary and edited to fit the footage. The whole production is aimed at getting people to suspend disbelief and make them think they are experiencing reality. The facts of the day are just the raw material out of which to create drama.. Ersatz experiences that people recall as real experiences. Print media, no matter how manipulative, is the experience of reading. It is never half mistaken for the experience of personally witnessing some candidate lose his marbles, or a building collapsing. I’m 100% for what you are doing on Via Meadia. I’m just saying I believe that most people live in a Matrix like world constructed by Television.

  • Mrs. Davis

    We can do the editing and the selection that the mainstream outlets ought to do for themselves, and present our readers over time with distilled and useful news and comment.

    Yes, you can and do. And thank you very much for it.

    Happy New Year to the Meads, interns and Meadians. 2012 looks to provide a content rich environment.

  • walt

    “…present our readers over time with distilled and useful news and comment.”

    That you do, and do it very well. Believe me, it’s refreshing. Thank you!

  • Andrew Allison

    I would add that the glaring absence of logic and reason in, i.e., the sheer stupidity, of much MSM “reporting” is even worse than it’s collective ignorance of the English language.
    Thank you, Prof. Mead, for your work.

  • Gary Hemminger

    Thank you Professor for this work. I really appreciate it and I have been doing similar filtering myself for about 3 years now. Having Via Meadia to turn to makes this job more effective and easier for me. Thanks again.

  • Kenny

    “The mainstream media is failing by and large at this essential task.”

    The mainstream media isn’t failing; it has failed.

    And it failed due to its adopting a pro-liberal, pro-Democrat Party posture starting in the 1970s.

  • Kansas Scott

    It is clear that the mainstream media are still trying very hard to adjust to a very different world. They’ve not done a very good job of it but that’s true of lots of industries. They have to figure out not only what they “should” be covering but what news buyers will actually buy. That is what they are desperately trying to do (and should be doing).

    An industry built on selling all news and pseudonews to all people is struggling to reinvent itself. As frustrated as I get with that industry, I very much wish it success in its efforts to change. No matter how much I love your blog and the manner in which you present news I would otherwise miss or misunderstand, the great Via Meadia does not have the resources nor the assets to provide the legwork needed to bring me the initial raw news that you so ably filter.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I agree, with so much garbage being created in the media, an intelligent filtering process based on the real world and truth, is a necessity. Thank you WRM and Via Meadia, and Happy New Year.

  • jeremy morris

    Walter you’re a must-read for me but I wish you’d edit yourself a bit better. Your posts would be much punchier at 50% length.

  • Lexington Green

    I resolved in August to ignore the GOP race. I occasionally fell off the wagon, but mostly I did it. A better use of time would be find a down-ticket race you care about where you might be able to have some impact. The presidential race is just one more opiate for the masses.

  • jono39

    The decline of American journalism can be traced directly to college education. When reporters learned their craft on the streets, started as copyboys etc, cultivating sources, working at trading for information, reporting was a craft. Many were simply ordinary, but most knew [nonsense] when they heard it. Now, its all about “talking” to news sources, discussing with them their policies. Flattery has overtaken them. Now all the manufactured news is made outside newsrooms. It shows, badly.

  • Sam harris

    Thank you Dr. Mead – and thank goodness for the Internet.
    The legacy media survive by ad revenue. Ad revenue depends on “eyeballs”, in part.
    As a retired businessman, I suggest that some part of ad purchases is motivated by fear, particularly, ads in local newspapers. Fear of being “mau mau’ed” by the media if you don’t support liberal causes which includes supporting the local media.
    What the media did to AirTran Airlines was laziness and ignorance. What they do to businesses that don’t toe the line is of more concern.w

  • http://www.smalldeadanimals.com Kate

    Today’s “news” formula: 1/3 opinion, 1/3 prediction, and 1/3 weather.

  • ckc (not kc)

    News is ultimately a matter of stories

    I’m sure you’ll tell some good ones.

  • Marty

    Completely true. I don’t always agree with you, but you’re always well-informed and thoughtful, and when I don’t agree I have to critically examine my opinions and that’s good. Blogs like yours and a handful of others are a light in teh wilderness.

    I am reminded of Michael Crichton speaking of Murray Gell-Mann, that somehow when the media report on anything of which you have first-hand knowledge they get it wrong–not a little wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Yet we then go on to believe what they say about everything else, where we don’t have first hand knowledge. Logically, we should believe next to nothing they say or write, beyond the simplest verifiable facts.

    Counting on the media to provide more than the basic facts, and even there an edited and incomplete version that supports their world-views, is more than a waste of time, it actually makes people less informed and even less intelligent. Reading some of that stuff, I can feel brain cells dying in agony.

  • nadine

    “The mainstream media…isn’t telling the important stories in a compelling way. The new great game in Asia, the global green meltdown, the crisis of the blue social model, the global contest between Christianity and Islam and a handful of other big narratives aren’t being covered by the mainstream media in a serious and useful way.”

    Which of these stories is appealing to ideologues of a liberal stripe? Ans: none of them. Hardly a coincidence the mainstream media doesn’t want to cover them, is it?

    On second thought, perhaps I should ask, which of these stories is even VISIBLE to ideologues of a liberal stripe? You can’t untangle the unseriousness from the ideology.

  • http://moneyrunner.blogspot.com/ Moneyrunner

    It’s 2012 and there are a few things that will happen this year with almost perfect certainty. The European Union will continue to dissolve; not all at once but in parts and pieces. It was predictable. Forget the headlines referring to emergency meetings of heads of state. Look for “root causes” as they say when referring to cultural rot. Germans, Greeks, Italians and Spanish have never been a great team and forcing them into a political and economic union only made sense to people who believed that humans, like mechanical parts, are interchangeable.

    The second thing that will happen is that Iraq will quickly revert to a one-party state. Saddam is still dead, but the country is Arab with no history of democratic government. Once the American military presence evaporated, it reverted very, very rapidly to the natural condition of Arab states. The dust had not settled on the parade ground after the last American troops left before an arrest warrant was issued by the Iraqi President for his Vice President and rival. This happened as suicide bombings resumed in the capital and elsewhere. Religious and tribal hatred does not die in a brief year or two, it takes a generation or more. We will now see the rapid unraveling of the gains made at great cost by the military under the direction of the previous administration.

    To cover the failure of Obama’s policy, not just in Iraq but the entire Middle East, the blame will be placed on the Bush administration for starting the war in the first place. The roots of 9/11 and other attacks on Americans globally by the agents of resurgent Islam are airbrushed from current events. The history of Middle Eastern violence will begin with Bush; Obama’s decision to place politics over policy, destroying the fragile equilibrium in that unhappy country will not be allowed to enter conventional thinking. As we enter the fourth year of the Obama regime, it’s still and always will be Bush’s fault, world without end, Amen.

  • Tim

    The mainstream TV News is doing exactly what it is intended to do–sell ads and eyeballs. The fiction that it is there to inform or educate the public is nonsense. It is crafted to draw the most people possible to watch the sponsors. Not to insult the American public, but the percentage of people truly interested in understanding the complex issues of the day is pretty small. The larger majority like to watch soap operas and be entertained, while imagining that they are “keeping up with the news.”

    Fortunately, for those who do want to understand realities, the Internet and sites like this are available to keep up with real information. But, don’t expect “TV News” to ever try to really investigate and present complex information. Not only is that not their real mission, it would actually harm their real mission by boring or irritating more viewers than it pleased.

  • willis

    “…the global contest between Christianity and Islam…”

    Actually, the media actively attempt to cover up the global contest by establishing a moral equivalence between the two. They attempt to protray those who deny the equivalence as being hypocrites. The usual method is to compare Christianity of centuries past with Islam of today. The fall back position is to equate the killing of an abortionist to slaughter by jihadists on a worldwide scale.

    I thoroughly enjoy your writing and look forward to more of it, and on this topic in particular.

  • teapartydoc

    Before I got a computer, which I resisted for years because I could see how many people were wasting their lives in front of these things, I was one of those people who read several newspapers and magazines every day, and filtered things for myself. Now I find that I can access even more material and not have to wade through nearly as much useless material in order to keep abreast of events. What remains is for those still involved in legacy media to learn to waste less verbiage and get to the point of whatever it is they are saying. After we have read a few bits of any author, we develop an understanding of what narrative they believe in and what their prejudices are. They can no longer count on slipping into the unconscious of some unsuspecting mass of people to subtly influence events. They, in other words, have yet to respect the sophistication of their audience. And this is not something that is restricted to people with college degrees or post-graduate training, either. In medicine, I have a great deal of exposure both to patients and to staff that surround me who do not have the benefit of a liberal arts education, and who have levels of knowledge about how things work politically and economically that far exceed what people in these same strata had twenty years ago. I agree with the one who posted that TV appeals mainly to emotions. Regular folks know this and that is one of the reasons why TV and movie audiences are dropping. They don’t like being taken for fools any more than a college professor does.

  • http://whenfallsthecoliseum.com/author/kwatson/ megapotamus

    Let me echo the plaudits above but with the caveat that there are many others doing very credible work in this regard at levels of near obscurity. Heck, total obscurity.
    You probably get a post like this regularly but still I have to ask, in what sense are you a “Liberal” in the current idiom? Clearly you subscribe to a Lockian classical liberalness but that has long been surrendered, at least by conventional wisdom, to the Right, n’est ce pas? Or is it that the internet hive-mind has forced the label upon you? Going through the comments here I am always expecting the sort of leftist cant denouncing you as a neo-con robber-baron nutcase that is routine anywhere else views like yours, skeptical of interventionism and critical of clear boondoggles, are exposed. Well, I find plenty to agree with here so you must be a capable fellow. May your notoriety expand until you can’t stand it, and then decline a bit. Happy and Prosperous New Year to us all.

  • Mr. Wonderful

    News is ultimately a matter of stories: constructing a series of continuing narratives that help us identify what matters in the daily and weekly news flow, and using those narratives to organize and present news in ways that allow busy readers to see what is happening and what it means.

    Lemme get this straight: News “is” a construction of a series of narratives that helps us identify what matters in the news (which is a series of narratives), and using those narratives (the first ones) to organize and present news–which is a different series of narratives–to help readers see what is happening and what it means.

    Well, as they say, good luck with that. Then again, there must be a market for mannered, self-satisfied, redundant ruminations and ruminations rendered redundantly. (Methinks.) If the comments here are representative of your readers, you and they are perfectly matched.

    Jeremy Morris at number 9 has it right.

  • joeyess

    Mr. Mead, I can’t believe that you got that Commodore Executive 64 to fire up for this post. Wow. You truly have joined the 21st century.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Joeyess: not sure what you mean by “Commodore Executive”. It sounds like some kind of mechanical writing device. Here at Via Meadia I use quill pens made from free range, organically raised, fair trade geese. (To avoid cruelty and pain we only use discarded and cast off feathers.) The ink is handmade by a women’s agricultural handicraft cooperative from naturally occurring, locally sourced ingredients and is fully biodegradable. I write the posts on recycled papyrus/linen paper and give them to the interns who take them down into some sort of technical room where, I believe, they are set in some sort of “cybertype.” perhaps by one of these mechanical devices to which you refer. Does that help?

  • Luke Lea

    Your regular readers agree: you do a good job separating the wheat from the chaff. And your commentaries are usually thoughtful, always well-written, often provocative. Your commenters are diverse and well-educated.

    If I might offer a suggestion, I wish you would include edit and delete buttons for your commenters. I’m prone to embarrasing typos.

  • pasta65

    After reading your blog and many of the replies here, I have deduced that “the mainstream media” that you are whining about and promising to correct is quite simply media that does not conform to your ill-informed sensitivities.

    What you really want is a conservative journalistic [vulgarism frequently used by ill tempered persons deleted –ed].

  • MacKenna

    I fail to spot the difference between this allegedly cutting-edge blog expressing more stupid conservative views and, say Fox News punditry.

    “Media critics often rail about the bias and the blindness in so much mainstream media coverage, and this is clearly an issue.”

    Because there’s no blindness or bias here…right? Riiiiiiiight.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2014 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service