When I was poor and still living in a group house, one of my housemates, a journalist named Kevin, came through the front door in the middle of the afternoon carrying a cardboard box.
“Jack!” he moaned. “I got fired!”
At the time, Kevin was writing for what’s known as a trade publication, a special magazine geared toward professionals in a particular industry — estate attorneys, research chemists, logistics managers and the like.
Because of the narrow focus of trade publications, their articles usually target professionals in that specific field but are not relevant enough for a general publication like a newspaper.
“You’re a great writer and researcher, Kevin. What happened?”
I won’t blow up Kevin by going into the actual details of what got him fired — Kevin isn’t his real name, anyway — but essentially it was the following:
He’d gotten wind of a highly unethical and possibly illegal practice among many of the most successful practitioners of the trade his publication covered and had written a detailed investigative piece describing the practice and some of those involved.
Evidentially, Kevin’s primary editor didn’t have the courage to tell Kevin not to do the story, so it had gone through the research and writing phase until it reached the editor-in-chief, who killed the story as soon as it arrived on his desk.
I had to restrain myself from grabbing Kevin by the shoulders, shaking him and saying, “What the hell were you thinking? Haven’t you ever heard of biting the hand that feeds you?”
In an ideal world without conflict between ambitious people, in a world where the availability of high-quality information takes precedence over all else, Kevin’s article would have earned him high praise from his colleagues.
And yet in the real world, such conflicts of interest rarely end well for the one trying get out the truth.
Many of the trade publication’s top supporters and contributors were very likely caught up in the practice that Kevin had documented, making the publication a terrible venue to expose their shenanigans.
I could only guess at how Kevin had misread or ignored the cues of his primary editor, who probably tried to discourage him from writing the story while not being able to outright tell him “don’t go there.”
The Means of Production
Whether you’re printing newspapers or paying for web hosting, buying articles a la carte or retaining a group of writers on salary, it’s not cheap to keep a publication running.
The traditional funding model involves a steady (or growing) number of subscribers as well as paying advertisers.
In the case of a trade publication like the one where Kevin worked, the subscribers are members of the trade association and the advertisers pay to publish job offers, training opportunities, and ads for their expensive professional gear.
Somewhere in this reactive mixture there’s an obvious need for— or perhaps more like an expectation of — “the truth.”
But as with other human ideals that exist on a spectrum between the concrete and abstract, it would be naive for anyone to expect that even a well-motivated group of idealistic editors could produce “the truth” every time.
Accurate reporting can always be attempted, but it’s normal for other factors to sometimes get in the way — among them financial considerations to keep the publication running, the political goals and business interests of the publication owners or major shareholders, and simple human factors such as transcription/listening errors.
Journalists who are censored by their own publication sometimes take a canceled story to another outlet or find some other way to get the information out there. And yet we’ll never know what stories have been crushed by a media publisher because they ran contrary to someone else’s interests.
One practice that many people are now familiar with — thanks to the #MeToo movement and President Trump’s 2006 affair with Playboy model Karen McDougall — is known in the media industry as “catch and kill.”
Here, a powerful party is worried about personal information that could tarnish their reputation. They convince a disreputable media publisher (typically a gossip magazine) to “catch” the story before a more reputable writer gets ahold of it. The informant with the damaging information is then paid to sell their story to the publisher and sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) preventing them from sharing the story with anyone else.
Once “caught,” the story is then promptly “killed,” i.e., locked in a safe forever so that the informant cannot share what he/she knows without scary legal consequences.
How many stories have been lost this way to the mists of time?
How many politicians have successfully hushed up their extra-marital affairs?
How many powerful people have literally gotten away with murder?
Manipulating the News Cycle
I will tell you, now, my own anecdote about what can happen behind the scenes at the intersection of news and human ambition.
I don’t want to blow myself up, either, but I feel like I need to give you another example of how the media can’t be totally relied on — not because reporters and editors are deliberately covering things up, but because they’re sometimes subject to manipulation.
A long time ago, around the same time I was living with Kevin in that run-down old group house, I was involved in writing an explosive report that was scheduled to be the focus of a congressional hearing.
The report was going to be damaging to the White House in an area where the President was trying to project strength.
The White House knew about the report and had tapped an official spokesperson to testify before Congress and defend the Administration.
But on the same day as the congressional hearing, literally half an hour before the report was publicly released, there was BREAKING NEWS from the White House in the same exact subject area the report covered.
The BREAKING NEWS was covered by every major news outlet.
It involved the President making a statement that was only moderately newsworthy and could have been issued by someone much lower down the chain of command.
Can you guess which story got reported that morning?
Can you guess which story used up the time of the reporters who usually cover that particular subject matter?
Hint: it wasn’t ours.
The White House had basically blown our story out of the water, preempting it with a different and much less embarrassing story.
While the two stories were available to the public side by side, the relationship with respect to the timing of the stories was invisible, and any reporter who suspected the connection would be unable to prove anything anyhow.
This shows that, in addition to the potential for cover-ups and conflicts-of-interest that I described above, the dissemination of information is also subject to manipulation once it enters the public domain.
Important stories fall through the cracks all the time, and not accidentally either — if you can’t kill a story before it’s born, you can always try drowning it immediately after birth.
The Cleanest Dirty Shirt
I’m not trying to say that everything is fake news or that we shouldn’t pay attention.
Partisan political operators, clickbait advertisers, and state sponsors of disinformation are desperately hoping you turn your back on the mainstream news media.
Perhaps because of the general sense that stuff like what I wrote about earlier is happening all the time, with competing parties jockeying for control of the news cycle, it’s become very popular among fringe media sources to feature a heavily slanted piece of questionable journalism and take an angle that urgently declares: “Look what’s not being reported!”
This is, in my opinion, almost always misleading — in many such cases the supposedly censored information has been twisted to seem newsworthy when it’s really not, while in many other cases it usually turns out the information has already been reported much more fairly by the mainstream press.
For those without the resources to hire private investigators and do detailed research that would include interviewing sources and making site visits, the mainstream news media generally provides the best information in accordance with professional standards.
And contrary to what you might expect, mainstream publishers do sometimes make an effort to include appropriate disclaimers of potential conflicts of interest as well as holding themselves accountable for misinformation.
In responding to the 2003 Jayson Blair scandal, for example, the New York Times created a “Public Editor” position to oversee and implement ethical journalist practices.
Recently, the Times also published a mea culpa in the form of a story about how its producers fell afoul of a hoax when making the award-winning podcast “Caliphate.” Turns out the central informant for the podcast, supposedly a former Islamic State fighter, pretty much made everything up.
As I’ve said before, the mainstream media suffers from the same inherent flaws and conflicts that tarnish any large-scale human enterprise.
But simply having the faculty to imagine an ideal world where ambitious people are not in conflict and the dissemination of high-quality information is everybody’s top priority — in other words, simply being able to imagine a Platonic model of the mainstream media—is not a good enough reason to reject what actually exists.
Yes, the mainstream media is flawed, but compared to eras of the past or even life in countries like North Korea today — where local gossip and state propaganda encompass the totality of available information — the mainstream media is a superb way to remain generally aware of global, national, and local events at a very low personal cost in terms of time and resources.
Mainstream outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC, and The Washington Times might regularly irritate us.
But they’re still far and away the proverbial “cleanest dirty shirt” in the laundry hamper.