Ariana Pekary was an award-winning producer at MSNBC who just quit her job because she couldn’t take the clickbait-y nature of the station, a feature she says is shared by all commercial news stations. This is apparently not a small deal, for it’s reported on sites like The Hill, Fox News, The New York Post, and so on. The story appears mostly in right-wing venues, since they mistook Pekari’s resignation as a slam on Left-wing news, but that’s mistaken if you read the explanation given on her website (click on the screenshot below):
Although the examples that Pakary uses come from a Left-wing station, they’re equally applicable to the Right, and that’s certainly Pekary’s intention (see below)—to show that commercial considerations from advertising and the like dictate how the news will be covered. A few excerpts:
My colleagues are very smart people with good intentions. The problem is the job itself. It forces skilled journalists to make bad decisions on a daily basis.
You may not watch MSNBC but just know that this problem still affects you, too. All the commercial networks function the same – and no doubt that content seeps into your social media feed, one way or the other.
It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would “rate.” The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.
But behind closed doors, industry leaders will admit the damage that’s being done.
“We are a cancer and there is no cure,” a successful and insightful TV veteran said to me. “But if you could find a cure, it would change the world.”
As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others… all because it pumps up the ratings.
A few examples:
This cancer risks human lives, even in the middle of a pandemic. The primary focus quickly became what Donald Trump was doing (poorly) to address the crisis, rather than the science itself. As new details have become available about antibodies, a vaccine, or how COVID actually spreads, producers still want to focus on the politics. Important facts or studies get buried.
This cancer risks our democracy, even in the middle of a presidential election. Any discussion about the election usually focuses on Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, a repeat offense from 2016 (Trump smothers out all other coverage). Also important is to ensure citizens can vote by mail this year, but I’ve watched that topic get ignored or “killed” numerous times.
Context and factual data are often considered too cumbersome for the audience.
. . . Occasionally, the producers will choose to do a topic or story without regard for how they think it will rate, but that is the exception, not the rule. Due to the simple structure of the industry – the desire to charge more money for commercials, as well as the ratings bonuses that top-tier decision-makers earn – they always relapse into their old profitable programming habits.
Now Pekary is calling attention to a problem, not proposing solutions, but she quotes James Baldwin in saying, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The same criticism was leveled at the Harper’s “Cancel Culture” letter, and my response is the same as Baldwin’s.
I’m not sure whether television stations are so strapped that they simply must do clickbait-y news to keep afloat, but I doubt it. The demographic who watches television news is older: it’s not the kids who watch the news on CBS, NBC, MSNBC or CNN, and the commercials are for stuff like antacids, remedies for incontinence, and other products that make me feel much older when I watch the evening news. I doubt that people of a certain age are as susceptible to clickbait.
To show that she’s aiming her shotgun widely, not just at the Left, Pekari has a follow-up note about ideology, referring to her interview with Fox News about her decision (click on screenshot):
As it turns out, Fox News inadvertently proved me right. My concern, clearly stated in the post, is with the entire industry because each outlet uses the same funding model. That includes Fox News, of course, but they couldn’t help but to turn my statement into a divisive piece of clickbait. The headline skewed the intention of my piece and they removed almost all of the context in which I explain the systemic nature of the problem. That is unfortunate, but not surprising.
I regret if my piece was presented as an attack on a single network, but that only gives me motivation to continue on this new path. It’s just another example of the division I’m trying to alleviate. My purpose isn’t to drive people away from the industry, but to raise awareness (as a first step). We all deserve better and we can do better.
Here’s the headline from Fox News, but it’s almost the same as the headline from a more centrist site, The Hill:
Now the question is whether this applies to newspapers as well as broadcast news. I think it does. Print media is catering to the young and woke in a possible attempt to stem declining circulation. This has caused papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, not to mention
rags magazines like the New Yorker and New York Magazine, to completely alter their content towards Wokeness. Now that doesn’t apply to Right-wing print news media, and I don’t follow them so often, but I see that they have their own form of clickbait by going after what they see as the follies and icons of the Left: Nancy Pelosi, Biden, Ocasio-Cortez, and so on.
Pekary’s note on the Fox headline seems to confirm that. As does Bari Weiss’s resignation from the New York Times on the grounds that her centrist viewpoint, which conflicted with Woke ideology, subjected her to denigration and ridicule from the coworkers.