As a journalist in the United States, some questions become unavoidable. Whether you’re doing an interview on the radio or making an appearance on a podcast, there often comes a time when you’re expected to answer for your industry as a whole regarding the dreary state of the media. While the wording of the questions often changes, the premise is constant: what can we do to get news outlets to do a better job?
Let’s be clear: news outlets are indeed doing a bad job. It’s gotten increasingly difficult to find outlets that can claim any sort of objectivity without a grin and a wink, with CNN all-but-happy to advertise its impeach-Trump agenda and Fox News serving as a de facto extension of the White House Press Office, and both networks leading the rest of the American media. As a writer for a smaller outlet, I can certainly criticize CNN’s clear and apparent bias and I can rage against the president bolstering the ratings of Fox programs that are kind to him in their coverage. There’s no denying that their positions are soundly fortified by the giant piles of money their form of coverage nets them.
And there’s the real problem. Americans keep saying they want objective news coverage. Americans keep saying they want a media they can trust. We criticize these outlets for prizing revenue over truth and we shake our fists at the disembodied idea of our corrupt media landscape, but nobody’s asking where those big piles of money are coming from. Why aren’t we asking? Because the truth hurts: We’re giving it to them.
Americans don’t want to hear that they’re wrong, so once they’ve picked a team, they pick the news outlet that sides with their team. You might think that you’re above all that. You might be one of the people shouting from the sky about needing better news coverage. But if you’re also one of the people regularly sharing links to Breitbart stories, what you’re really doing is complaining about the taste of a sandwich you made yourself.
These media companies aren’t without a hefty share of the guilt, of course, but at the end of the day, they’re companies. “The customer is always right,” isn’t an ethical or moral argument, it’s a fiscal one. If the customer keeps asking for bullshit, you’ll go out of business if you keep serving hamburgers. And boy oh boy, do we love our bullshit.
Over the weekend, the UK tabloid Daily Star published an interview with former-wrestler-turned-Hollywood-superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, in which he apparently decried America’s “snowflake culture” in a number of quotations that couldn’t have been more perfectly tailored to the Fox News crowd if Sean Hannity had written them. Fox, not one to miss out on a good thing, immediately published a story citing those quotes as though the Daily Star was suddenly a reputable outlet. You couldn’t get away with citing the Daily Star in a fifth grade essay without being called on it by your teacher, but somehow Fox’s writers and editors figured this time the story must be real. They went ahead and ran this headline:
That headline (and entire article) has since been taken down, but the link lives on via search function. In the piece, Johnson was quoted as saying, “Generation snowflake or, whatever you want to call them, are actually putting us backwards,” among other things. Those quotes weren’t married to qualifiers like “allegedly,” they were just reported as real by Fox and others. That’s not to suggest that the entire media world was fooled by the tabloid; it was just the outlets that wanted it to be true.
Maybe I’ll turn out to be wrong, but this “The Rock hates snowflakes” story sure reads like a phony article. There’s no context whatsoever, so I’m left to believe Dwayne reached out to the Daily Star on his own to…vent about Millennials? https://t.co/hphs2HRoi4
— Corey Erdman (@corey_erdman) January 11, 2019
Of course, if you click on the link above now, however, you’ll find this new story in its place:
It’s interesting that Fox’s editors are now certain that the Daily Star is a tabloid, so certain that it became a part of the title, when their previous story simply called the outlet by name. It’s almost as though they were aware that the Daily Star isn’t a reputable source, but wanted to run the story anyway because they knew it would drive lots of traffic. And of course, it did. So much so that Dwayne Johnson had to come out himself and point out that the story wasn’t true before outlets like Fox (and numerous others) felt the need to look into it at all.
“I can’t believe I have to do this again,” Johnson opens his video with, “and set the record straight on something, but I’m happy to do it.” He goes on to explain that the interview never took place and was “100% fabricated.”
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Settin’ the record straight. The interview never happened. Never said those words. 100% false. If I ever had an issue with someone, a group, community or a generation — I’d seek them out, create dialogue and do my best to understand them. Criticizing ain’t my style. I don’t cast stones and we all get to be who we are. #millies #plurals #boomers #TequilaGeneration 🤙🏾🥃
While Fox News deserves to be dragged through the mud on this one, it was far from the only culprit that jumped on the “Rock hates snowflakes!” bandwagon, but here’s where the blame game gets fuzzy. Did conservative outlets want this story to be true? Sure, but it’s the why that’s important. This story sells. One of the biggest movie stars of our day, a guy that’s renown for his carefully-crafted PR persona and his efforts to keep politics out of his work, suddenly came out as a snowflake-hating conservative? A story like that would probably get shared more than 35,000 times, prompt nearly 5,000 comments and elicit nearly 170,000 likes off a single Facebook post before anyone had to run a retraction (spoiler: it did).
So who do we blame? Fox for knowing what its audience wants? Or the audience for voting with their likes, clicks, shares, and comments? Remember, the customer is always right, after all.
If we want better from our news outlets, we need to not only demand good coverage, we need to stop incentivizing the bad. Biased journalism consistently draws the highest traffic on sites like Fox and CNN because we still prefer our own confirmation bias over reality. We keep claiming we want the truth, but overwhelmingly, our actions show something different.
We need to take responsibility for the role we play in the modern media landscape, because as long as we keep making the bad guys rich just because they’re on “our team,” nothing’s ever going to change. We’ll still be here, clamoring for more bullshit and then lamenting the media for giving it to us.