The Media’s “Breaking News” Culture Is Broken

Our news media’s “Breaking News” culture is broken

Dear American News Media:

Breaking news that broke more than an hour ago, is no longer “breaking”. The fact that you continue breaking it all day regardless? That is broken. The same goes for your whole “breaking news” culture.

I write this to you as an avid consumer of your product. By “avid”, I mean news is on virtually all the time in my work environment. And, I live in my work environment. So, when I say your “Breaking News” culture is broken, I speak with a modicum of authority about you. Alas, I must own a modicum of responsibility, too. If I stopped consuming your product – if a whole lot of people like me did – you’d do something sooner rather than later. You’d have to because losing your audience means losing ad dollars. That spells doom to you. Think of this as helpful advice for the both of us!

Helping you will help me in the end. And that, in turn, will help you all over again. It’s win-win-win!

Ultimately, I want to cure you of your “Breaking News” reporting model. For starters, 90% of the time, it’s absolute bullshit. The news in question isn’t breaking (anymore), it’s broken. In some cases, hours or even days ago. Yet, there’s the chyron screaming at us “Breaking News!” – all in red because that’s how breaking it is.

Except it’s not.

Skin In The Game

Look, I didn’t used to be this way. News obsessive. I cared about current events. Hell, I’ve been a newspaper subscriber since college. These days, I subscribe to a half dozen news sources both online and off. It’s up to us – news consumers – to help keep the news business alive. That means I have actual skin in this game. Our system of government demands a free, independent press. Hell, journalism is the only non-governmental job mentioned in the Constitution! The Fifth Estate is supposed to be our ultimate check on power and the powerful.

When the news media does it’s job correctly, we get Watergate – the result, not the crime. Journalistic doggedness brought down Richard Nixon. Afterwards, the Republican establishment stepped in to prevent Nixon from being prosecuted. His actions therefore never made the public record as “crimes”. Though Nixon had to resign, his criminal behavior now fell within the borders of things “we can get away with”.

The power didn’t care that guys like Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Colson went to prison. The power itself did not. If the news media’s angle here isn’t “Richard Nixon got away with extreme criminal behavior”, then rest assured: Richard Nixon got away with extreme criminal behavior.

Corruption’s Brain Trust

It’s not a coincidence that Trump inherited his brain trust from Nixon: Paul Manafort and Roger Stone were both hard core Nixonites. When Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, he gave Manafort and Stone tacit approval to carry on. They both did. In 2016, Manafort notoriously handed Oleg Deripaska (an officer in Russia’s military intelligence) proprietary polling data for Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Stone is a key operative behind the January 6 insurrection. Ford’s failure to punish Nixon guaranteed that, in time, another demagogue would rise and seize control of the GOP. They’re a demagogue-loving party!

You could see that too about them if you understood how to aggregate the very information you report. You’d see it, too, if you understood the difference between America’s two largest political factions. Republicans and Democrats may do similar-seeming things, but they’re not the same people and they don’t have the same vision for America.

Look, this is just me – a member of your audience looking around out here at the rest of the audience I see. Republicans are Republicans for one set of reasons. Democrats are Democrats for another. Yes, both have reasons for thinking what they think and being members of their chosen political parties. But their reasons are very different from each other and they reflect completely different world views and goals for the nation. Both sides – Republican and Democrat – do not regard America’s past longingly. One side does that: the Republicans.

Republicans even have a name for their backward-looking ideal: “originalism”.

Originalism

Originalism insists we accept that America can only be the literal country that the white, Christian, land-owners who wrote our founding documents imagined. For reference, when our founders wrote “All men are created equal”, they meant it literally. Women were deliberately excluded. And the “men” in question were men like them: wealthy, white, Christian land-owners. Originalism isn’t a legal theory, it’s bullshit on steroids.

Unfortunately, our news media now insists that “both sides do it”. If conservatives are intellectually dishonest than so are Democrats. Same goes for corruption. Corrupt Republicans equals corrupt Democrats!

Our news media knows this is rubbish – even as they report it! Their reporters and pundits call out Republican anti-democratic behavior in one breath then talk about them as legitimate candidates for office the next. The correct response – this news consumer thinks – should be “Stop The Presses!” Instead, it’s invariably “But, that’s what they said!” And whatever they said? it’s legitimate just because they said it.

If our news media could aggregate the very story they’ve been covering, they’d have a completely different picture of it. Here’s an example. On April 17, 2017, the Washington Post published a stunning story by Adam Entous. In it, the Republican Party’s leadership 1) acknowledged out loud that Vladimir Putin likely compromised Trump, 2) making him a threat to national security. But, 3) also the GOP leadership agreed to keep this secret about Trump a secret!

“There’s two people I think Putin pays – Rohrbacher and Trump – swear to God!” That’s how current GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy put it on June 25, 2016. Someone recorded the conversation and, later, Entous heard it. McCarthy had just come from a meeting about Putin’s efforts to undermine Ukraine’s burgeoning democracy. Whatever he heard there, it convinced him that Putin had corrupted Trump (and California congressman Dana Rohrbacher – a guy everyone knew Putin had long ago corrupted!)

Despite knowing this, the GOP leadership stood by as their party nominated Trump. They stood by the day after when Trump brayed “Russia, if you’re listening…!” It’s a stone cold fact: the Republican leadership knew that Russia was listening. Intently.

Has the news media ever revisited this story? Not that I’m aware of. When it first broke back in 2017, a few “intrepid” reporters stuck their mics and cell phones in front of McCarthy for his reaction. He assured them all he was just “joking“. Our news media took McCarthy at his word and that has been the end of it.

In retrospect, McCarthy wasn’t joking. That’s because he doesn’t actually know how to do it. Like his pal Donald, he has no sense of humor. It’s true: people who can’t laugh at themselves don’t have a sense of humor. They can laugh – but only at other people. They are incapable of ever laughing WITH other people. The difference is massive.

In our news media’s defense, there is something vaguely journalistic about being where news is breaking. But, simply repeating back what they saw and heard doesn’t make someone a journalist. Perfect example – NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell. She brings nothing to the table. A typical Kelly O stand up entails two to three minutes of Kelly repeating exactly what she – and we – just heard on the air. That’s swell – if we’re playing “telephone”. But, an open mic or a camera locked in its on position would do the exact same thing and for a lot less money. Kelly O’Donnell is a broken analog clock being right twice a day.

In the end, when historians finally get a crack at our times, they will look at our news media’s dreadful performance hyper-critically. “Both sides do it” corrupted American journalism as assuredly as Russian money corrupted the GOP. Our press prefers covering horse races to anything else. Horse races are simple affairs. Someone’s going to win and someone is going to lose. As a result, the last few election cycles, we’ve watched our news media embrace polling as truth. It’s not. Polling is a snapshot in time against a backdrop of events.

My goal, American News Media, is to fix you. I’m an eternal optimist. I believe you can redeem yourselves and pull off another Woodward and Bernstein. First however, you’re going to have to be brutally honest with yourselves about yourselves. Short of that, you will fail. You might end up richer than rich – but that’s only money. In time, you will forget the fact that you ever had integrity to begin with.

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