The advertising duopoly of Facebook and Google currently procures 60 percent of all digital ad revenue and more than 90 percent of all digital ad growth. Online publishers of all sizes and ideological commitments are thus left to salvage the scraps of an ever-shrinking piece of the ad revenue pie. Since only a small number of online publishers charge subscriptions for access to their content, media producers in the “free content” digital news market desperately compete for the attention of media consumers, exchanging clicks and views for advertising dollars.
The implementation of this business model has hastened the public square into the “Age of Clickbait,” making Donald Trump—a walking, talking Buzzfeed headline—the quintessential public figure for our cultural and political moment. His early morning tweet-storms, incendiary rhetoric, and disorganized governance provides an endless stream of content for an industry incentivized to monetize outrage.
While some of the content is substantive, plenty is sensational, and almost all of it is unsurprisingly critical. Antagonism from the fourth estate has prompted the president to double down on his campaign rhetoric, asserting that the news media is “the enemy of the American people.” He habitually levels ad hominem attacks against dissenting media personalities and regularly peppers press conferences with monikers such as “fake news” CNN and the “failing” New York Times. Members of the media take issue with these attacks, with some, perhaps hyperbolically, claiming that such actions are indicative of the president’s totalitarian effort to delegitimize the free press.
Yet this supposed war, with the president on one side and the news media on the other, has the makings of a win-win proposition, as both entities have benefited from the chaos and outrage. Despite the editorial weeping and gnashing of teeth, Trump’s unorthodox candidacy and presidency has been a boon for internet traffic, newspaper subscriptions, and television ratings. Meanwhile, the president’s continued attacks of the press further bolsters his anti-elite bona fides and endears himself to a sizable contingent of Americans that can no longer tolerate the sneering smugness of the coastal intelligentsia. Despite his abysmal approval ratings, even critical members of the media are entertaining the possibility—in no small part to his symbiotic relationship with the press—that he could win re-election.
But if both sides stand to benefit, perhaps the war between the president and the “fake news media” is little more than a mirage. Rather than enemies, perhaps they are actually frenemies with benefits—two sides in a stage performance as authentic as a WWE wrestling match. While ideological differences certainly abound, the profit motive of sensationalism has rendered nuanced discussions of public policy nonviable. As media critic Neil Postman wrote in his 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, our politics and news “have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.”
Published long before the advent of the Internet and social media networks, Postman’s thesis is arguably more accurate three decades later. In an illuminating piece published in the April 4 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Mahler profiled CNN president Jeff Zucker, and discussed the network’s challenges and opportunities in the age of Trump. In it, Zucker shamelessly affirms CNN’s effort to model its content in the image of entertainment and sport. Mahler writes:
As pure TV spectacle, arguments like this were reminiscent of the head-to-head battles pioneered a decade ago by ESPN’s daytime talk shows like “First Take,” which pitted sports pundits against one another in loud disagreements about the topic of the day. This was not a coincidence. Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s election coverage. “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” he told me.
And so, we have advertisements for presidential debates that resemble Monday Night Football promos, and a press corps that live tweets insta-commentary as if it was the Super Bowl. Chasing the algorithmic sweet spot of virility, the news media has stolen a page from the playbook of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless: blustering hot takes reign supreme.
As the line between editorial autonomy and business interests continues to blur, the degradation of the public square has accelerated the well-documented erosion of civic participation. In an age of political and economic consolidation, the news media has followed suit. Media deserts dot the American landscape as the ratio of local, state, and federal coverage continues to gravitate towards the Big.
With an upward gaze fixated at the national level, it is worth considering whether Americans are truly citizens (in any classical understanding of the term) or whether they are merely a captive audience—passive consumers of a reality television show in which they do not even make appearances as extras.
Daniel Kishi is associate editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielMKishi