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It’s amazed me for some time now that so many of the Media seem able to ignore the elephant in the room: Fox, Limbaugh, Becker, et. al., are making money where the others are, to put it mildly, not. The demise of Air America, which ultimately resulted in Franken’s being demoted to Senator, should have been a wake-up call, but somehow was not.

William Jacobsen touches on the matter, quoting a New York Times editorial noting that “… their newsroom[] had not been fast enough in following stories that Fox News, to the administration’s chagrin, had been heavily covering through the summer and early fall…” But Jacobsen, like most others, has been concentrating on the free speech implications of the Obama Administrations attacks on Fox and, indirectly, the rest of the Press, later wondering if the Press realizes that it’s created a monster. That dim realization is (or so it would seem) beginning to creep in on little cat feet, but it isn’t at all what I would have expected to get attention.

A newspaper, a TV station or cable channel, a radio station, is a business that has to make money. In our system, that money comes from advertisers; viewer payment to support the system comes as the time viewers spend looking at the ads, as well as the surcharge on product cost represented by the advertisements themselves. In order to make that system work, the paper or station has to be able to attract viewers. In a very real way, the function of the programming is to attract “eyeballs” to look at the ads — and it hasn’t been serving that function very well.

It’s not a new statistic to note that Fox has more viewers than all its major competitors or cable combined, and it’s not news to anyone that newspapers and over-the-air TV stations have been hemorrhaging readership, viewers, and consequently ad revenue, and as a result have been cutting staff and taking other measures to contain costs. What’s amazing is that the directors and executives of the corporations that own those organizations haven’t noted that they aren’t making money and their competition is making money, and tried to figure out why that might be.

Sam Goldwyn is supposed to have said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Most “news” people today are famously devoted to “making a difference” by endorsing messages they like and sending messages of their own. It gives the lie to the very concept of “journalism”, and isn’t a profitable way to go about things, either, especially when the “message” being sent is blatant and differs in important ways from the basic philosophy of their potential audience.

More important,  anyone seeking a wide audience must titillate. Things have to be shocking, amazing, titillating, or they become boring and people tune them out. (That’s why car crashes are so popular on the local news.) Messages are always boring, especially on the nth repetition. A profitable news organization would never let a juicy scandal go to waste, because blaring it across the masthead attracts eyeballs and therefore the advertisers who pay the bills.

Our news media have been ignoring that in their eagerness to get the message across. Only Fox covered the ACORN scandal, and it gained a lot of viewers that way, not because people were attracted to honest journalism but more because they were titillated by the scandal. The rest missed out because they were trying to support the message. In an age where the struggle to attract viewers or readers has become ever more frantic, it isn’t profitable to cede juicy scandals to your competitors.

…of the kine that tread out the grain.

It’s not just humanitarian advice.

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When I Posted

October 2009