There are those industries that rise and fall on customer service where the top concern is pleasing those who use their products.
Think hotels, restaurants, airlines and rental car companies. Basically, anything with a loyalty rewards program.
But the media is not one of those industries. At least they’re not supposed to be. The media is supposed to tell people what they need to hear — not just what they want to hear. If it were the latter, all the newspapers, radio stations, and television networks in the world would be known as public relations firms.
Unfortunately, that’s changing. More and more media companies seem to have decided that the way to survive in this tumultuous era is to play to their base and take care of what they define as their core readers, listeners and viewers.
When you’re playing cards and holding a short stack, you’re looking at “scared money.”
Today, we’re living in the time of scared media. And we’re all going to be worse off for it.
Many of the providers of news, information and opinion — via newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet — have lost their way.
Yet, how many people realize that the real danger the media faces is that it has become too eager to please its audience, too timid in reporting what makes people uncomfortable, and too afraid of chasing away customers?
The old slogan of delivering “news you can use” is becoming “news you agree with.”
Why? Because of the risk that, if you tick off your audience, they’ll just tune you out. There are countless choices, after all, of how we can consume our news — or even spend our time, without news and information being in the mix.
As a journalist with 30 years on the job, I can’t tell you the number of people who have come up to me over the years to tell me that they’ve unplugged and no longer follow the news.
Media companies are feeling the squeeze, and the people who run them are afraid to lose what they’ve got.
It was not long ago that newspapers, radio stations, and television networks went out of their way to rile up the audience. They were living up to the calling to afflict the comfortable and hold the powerful accountable. Think CBS News’ Edward R. Murrow making mincemeat of that charlatan Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, on live television.
That’s old school journalism, and it’s sacred to me. My personal heroes include people like the late John Seigenthaler, a confidant to Robert F. Kennedy who was named editor of the Nashville newspaper, The Tennessean, in 1962. From that perch, the newsman shepherded the paper’s civil rights coverage — producing important and necessary stories that sometimes ruffled the feathers of the powers-that-be in that Southern city. That’s a real jouro.
I got my first full-time newspaper job as a reporter for The Arizona Republic in the late 1990s. At the time, Arizonans were just starting to come to grips with the fear associated with illegal immigration. Angry readers would call up reporters, columnists, and editors to yell at them. One day, a cranky white woman upset over an immigration story made her way to the senior editor — my boss’ boss, whose desk was just a few feet from mine. After talking to her for a few minutes, and hearing her out, he had finally had enough. “Lady, you’re a racist! Goodbye!” he said as he slammed down the phone. That’s a real journo.
It’s hard to imagine that scene playing out today. Gone are the days when media companies relished in challenging readers, listeners, or viewers. Now all they want to do is coddle them. Even when what is called for is a cold shower, they offer a warm bath. Anything to keep them happy.
It happens on the left. During the Obama administration, an editor at CNN — which had hired me to write columns — told me to stop writing about how the first black president had broken his promise to push for immigration reform, separated thousands of families, and deported millions of Latino immigrants. “People are tired of hearing that,” he said.
And it happens on the right. The program director of a conservative radio station, where I sometimes serve as a guest host, recently advised me to keep the core audience in mind when I talk about immigration, and to avoid throwing curve balls. “You don’t go to a Chinese restaurant and order tacos,” she said. In other words, people like predictability. Don’t mess with that.
You have no doubt heard the rumors that journalism is dead — or, at least, in the best-case scenario, on its deathbed. I don’t believe that. But if I’m wrong, and death comes, don’t be surprised if the coroner rules it a suicide.
Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”
Start your day with Always Forward, our award-winning e-newsletter. Get this smart, handpicked selection of the day’s top news, analysis, and opinion, delivered to your inbox. Sign up absolutely free today!