This week, one little attack on a reporter by a temporarily insane politician has us all fretting over the “Rough Treatment of Journalists in the Trump Era.” The real threat to journalism is much more insidious.
Getting screamed at at Trump rallies, body slammed by congressional candidates, or insulted by Fox News propagandists may suck in the moment, but it’s not any different from the usual hatred that’s been hurled at reporters by those they cover for hundreds of years, and has resulted—in this scary Trump Era of ours—in GoFundMe pages for newsroom pizza parties, and other misguided efforts indicative of general public support. Newspaper subscriptions and cable news ratings are up, not down. At least until he starts putting us all in jail, Trump has been good for the media business, and has allowed reporters to cast ourselves, momentarily, as crusading heroes rather than drunken slobs.
It’s not mean words that threaten journalism in America. It’s money. The advertising market of the future will be concentrated overwhelmingly in the hands of a few enormous tech companies. Facebook and Google control not just the online traffic that feeds the media, but also the ad dollars that keep them afloat. It is increasingly clear that legacy media like newspapers—the places that everyone thinks of as the headwaters of “good journalism,” where News Itself is born before it flows out to TV and radio and internet aggregators—are only able to survive as luxury products for the rich. Rich owners, that is. Yes, newspaper owners have always been rich, but in the past, they made their money from newspapers. (The robust earnings of pre-internet newspapers insulated them from financial pressures and allowed the “journalistic ethics” we now consider standard to flourish. There are no ethics without, first, money to pay for them.) Now they must make their money elsewhere, then buy a newspaper for the same reason they might buy an expensive artwork. It’s a prestige toy. There are a handful of national papers still able to sustain themselves, but there are many more that can’t, and the trend lines are not good. And don’t imagine that a vast new crop of righteous startups will take over the job of producing quality journalism themselves—the days when the internet was an open frontier are over. The walls have been erected. The moats of corporate American power have now been fully installed on the internet. The golden age is over.
So, the newspapers will be toys of the rich, and the online media will be completely at the mercy of Facebook. We are entering an era in which, more than ever before, journalism is dependent on hoping that rich people are good and not bad. That has not been a historically promising bet. Even the rich people in this equation who have proven themselves to be relatively good, like the Sulzbergers of the New York Times or Mark Zuckerberg, come with the blinkered, centrist world view that inherently comes with being a wealthy member of the establishment. The contours of public discourse are inevitably narrowed to exclude anything that might, for example, threaten the fundamental nature of the system that produces Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth. This narrowing of the debate is the best case scenario.
The worst case scenario is that journalism just dries up and disappears. But that is unlikely as long as a market exists for it. For a more realistic almost-worse-case scenario, just look at the New York Observer, a once-great small paper that was purchased by Your Boy Jared Kushner in 2006 and turned to shit. Besides decimating the paper’s staff over time, Kushner’s greatest insult was installing as the Observer’s editor Ken Kurson, a man who was not a journalist at the time (though he had worked in journalism earlier in his career), but a Republican political consultant who had worked for Rudy Giuliani. During Trump’s presidential campaign, Kurson dutifully endorsed him—which is morally repugnant enough by itself, but was then topped off with the revelation that Kurson had helped write a speech for Trump, while editing the paper.
This week, Kurson announced he was leaving the paper to go back to political consulting, the job which he had really been doing all along. The Observer will never recover. Jared Kushner is in the White House and Donald Trump is our president, and Ken Kurson is in part responsible for both of those things. All of that was done under the cover of “journalism.”
Any rich guy with ulterior motives can buy a newspaper, and any political hack can sit in the editor’s chair and call himself an editor. If the rest of the journalism world is not thriving and independent and bold, these people come to represent what journalism is. It’s not the body slams we need to worry about. It’s the fucking snakes.