At the most basic level, the financial crisis has come to be explained as follows: Wall Street banks blew up the world economy through the sale of toxic mortgage bonds, based on even worse individual mortgages, personally enriching bankers along every step of the process, at the expense of essentially everyone else.
This is a simplification, surely, but it’s true enough.
It’s also about time that we grasp that equally alarming incentives have created a new free-for-all that very well may unleash its own wave of toxic destruction.
I am talking, of course, about our media system. A system in which tens of thousands of reporters—bloggers—chasing online traffic bonuses produce sensational, inflammatory and outright dangerous “news” at the expense of the public they are supposed to be serving. A system in which speculative, high valence news—whether it starts as a tweet or a rumor—is packaged, dissected, repacked, and passed along from outlet to outlet until a thinking person can hardly follow what is real and what is fake.
Yes, there are a few instances of outright fraud. After the Super Bowl, a BBC reporter named Alex Collins was caught brazenly asking a source on Twitter to help him manufacture the angle that people were outraged about Beyoncé’s performance. In 2013, one of Gawker’s editors felt safe enough to openly admit that “traffic would crater” if they only printed true stories (the former viral contributor responsible for that dubious viral content is now a senior director for The Hill). There is also the nasty habit of writers benefitting from criminal hacks and stolen information to grab pageviews.
But these instances are really just the egregious cherries on top of a much larger, systemic manipulation—one that most people miss despite its potentially profound implications. Expressing truth the way that only humor seems to be able to, a spoof called the The Wolf Of BuzzFeed, described it perfectly: “It’s simple, we target the easiest demographic in the world…Facebook users.” In fact, Facebook is in a way, the bankroll behind this insanity—actually partnering with Fox News in August to sponsor the first GOP Primary Debate and CNN in October to sponsor the first Democratic Primary Debate.
There is no clearer example of this systemic manipulation than the presidential train wreck which has unfolded before us in recent months. First, look at how the election cycle is deliberately elongated—not for the benefit of the voters or even at the request of the audience, but rather because longer election cycles mean inflated traffic cycles. Second, notice how quickly the campaign is turned into a reality show, with its never ending cast of superficial characters, drama, and drama (did I mention drama?). It was bad in 2008 and 2012, but worse now than perhaps it’s ever been. Yet, you can’t look away can you? Third, atypical candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are effectively subsidized by the media in order to provide the story lines those outlets require to create the compelling spectacles they need to keep the cycle going and audiences hooked.
It is in this last area that we see the highest manipulation. In Donald Trump we have a candidate who has received so much media coverage that he did not need to run his first TV campaign ad until January—some seven months after entering the race and five months after the first televised debate. Has anyone in history gotten as much free media coverage as Donald Trump? Besides Joseph McCarthy and Tim Tebow (and maybe Apple, whose product launches are what the media theorist Daniel J. Boorstin would have described as blatant pseudo-events), one would be hard-pressed to find a more egregious example of the tail wagging the dog. In fact, at one point Mr. Trump was receiving more coverage than all the Democratic candidates combined. The recent observation from Josh Dawsey, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, says it all: “Every candidate but Trump is here in SC [South Carolina], and most are at forum. Every TV anchor in back is filing on Trump.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the rise of Bernie Sanders simply doesn’t pass the smell test. This is a candidate who Nate Silver shows is extremely unlikely to win, who would be 75 year old on Inauguration Day, who embraces, quite openly, the word “socialist” in a country that considers the word more dangerous politically than “atheist,” and who is drowning in headlines. Many of those headlines reveal the great lengths the media is willing to go to legitimize him on the one hand, and on the other, with the rise of the fake “Bernie Bros” trend, the lengths they’re willing to go to turn him into a Trump-level sideshow.
Why are we even talking about either of them? I’ll tell you why. These two unlikely candidates happen to attract massive passionate internet audiences. One gives outlets the traffic of the disaffected, angry Fox News crowd (and its enemies). The other affords the opportunity to soak up millennial audiences.
Am I saying that the media shouldn’t report on these newsworthy figures? I reject that question. Instead, I’m saying the media created the newsworthiness of these figures, just as McCarthy’s power as a red-baiter was a function of uncritical and dangerously negligent reporting, just as the rise of Paris Hilton was a result of bored and lazy reporting. In past eras, brave reporters stepped forward to say enough and, to borrow from the addiction parable, stopped “feeding the monster.”
Today we have a media system and a public that is apparently unable to see or, more likely, unwilling to see what is happening. After all, these are the same outlets who refuse even to stop contributing to the fame of mass shooters and killers by blocking out their names, despite the convincing pleas of the mothers and fathers of the victims. With that level of avarice, what do we expect?
Instead of just shaking your head at the next new low in this election cycle, ask yourself: Who is profiting from it? Pause for a second to tally the millions upon millions of pageviews outlets from Salon to Breitbart, Gawker to Huffington Post have raked in writing about Sanders and Trump and Rubio and Cruz and Clinton’s emails and all of the rest of it. Consider the pundits and their inflated follower counts and the endless fodder for jokes and snark. Consider the technology and social networks that make all of this possible from Twitter to Medium which see spikes in usership each time the crowd rushes to their computers and phones to chatter about it. And especially Facebook, who according to a report in The Guardian, tracks every bit of data related to the election—particularly which kinds of posts you share or like—so it can shake down campaigns, media companies and agencies for big ad buys.
We’ve begun to talk a lot about the impact of corporate greed on our society. Big Pharma, Big Banks, Big Oil, special interests. Well, it’s about time we shine that light on the media itself. Because it has shown itself capable of shamelessly corrupting, distorting and skewing our most sacred institutions for its personal gain.
When reporters are paid based on how much traffic they get, when the amount of anger an article elicits is the greatest predictor of its virality, when sites are forced to compete in the cacophony of the Facebook feed for eyeballs and audiences—not unlike newsboys selling yellow newspapers on street corners—when there are hundreds of millions of venture capital dollars at stake, when editors openly claim that they do “not think as a profession that reporters and editors need to think of themselves as bound by an additional, secondary set of ethical restrictions,” how could we expect anything different?
We know that bad incentives were too much to resist in the banking industry, we know that the revolving door in government makes it difficult for collective interests to prevail. Why is it so hard to believe that the very real and very toxic incentives of the media would affect what we see, hear and read?
It’s more than that. Over a 100 years ago, the psychologist and media critic Hugo Munsterberg observed that “we’re a country governed by public opinion, and public opinion is largely governed by the press.” “So isn’t it critical,” he asked, “to understand what governs the press?” The cost of not understanding is immense, because as James Fenimore Cooper put it—in 1838 no less—“if [the press] are useful in overthrowing tyrants, it is only to establish a tyranny of their own.”
There are profound implications to the kind of manipulation we are seeing. This incredible, deliberate focus on the sensational over substance and extreme candidates over reasonable ones isn’t harmless. It’s a form of tyranny. To serve the interests of a media shit show, we risk electing one of these extreme candidates, we trade good policy and politics for good press.
FiveThirtyEight reports that “Trump has received 54 percent of the media coverage of the GOP primary — about six times more than Jeb Bush.” What do you think this kind of attention bubble does to a candidate’s chances? What does it do to the other candidates who are forced to move along the Overton Window if they want to get their own few seconds in the spotlight?
It’s the creation of its own kind of bubble, an attention bubble—for the profit the media industry. And whoever ultimately wins the office, the winner of this election is either going to be the DIRECT beneficiary of the media’s unquenchable, amoral thirst for pageviews or a direct reaction to it. It is skewing the entire balance of a democratic system.
The General Smedley D. Butler defined a “racket” as “something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people,” something that is “conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.” It has become inescapable to me that we are governed by such a racket. When we once had, or at least paid lip service to the idea that the media was a semi-public good, an industry that had responsibilities to the audiences it served, now we have actions bordering on naked swindling and deceit.
Instead of being a force of reason and accountability in 2015 and 2016, the pageview-hungry media has become an enabler of chaos and divisiveness. Candidates know they can lie with impunity, violate even the most basic standards of decorum or respect, know they can simply throw out a message on social media and generate headlines within seconds. Candidates have come to realize that actually obtaining the office is not the only benefit of campaigning—it may arguably be the least beneficial of all the perk of winning. For every second they stay in the race is more book sales, higher speaking fees, and more followers, all as a result of the increased fame.
Politicians have always sought to manipulate the public. What’s changed is that media is now not only a willing co-conspirator, they are often the driving force behind the manipulation. No longer seeing itself as responsible for reporting the truth, for getting the facts to the people, it has instead incentivized a scrum, a wild fight for attention in which anything that attracts an audience is fair game. And as long as theirs is the ring where the fight goes down, they’ll happily sell tickets to as many as will come.
Well, we know where that attitude has brought us before. The meltdown of the world economy happened because an industry whose internal standards and self-interest ceased to be a sufficient form of self-regulation (and all other forms of regulation failed along with it). Brazen greed meant catastrophic consequences for essentially everybody but the people who took the system to the brink.
Today, we have a media system that has embraced almost that exact approach. Whomever is elected come November, whatever the consequences in foreign and domestic policy, one group of people deserves the blame.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.