MSNBC producer quits because of clickbait nature of the news

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):

An excerpt:

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.

Lastly on this point, I have to emphasize that my concerns are not ideological in nature. My concerns are economic. The flawed structure of the industry affects everyone. And that means everyone – red state, blue state, purple, whatever. My goal is to work to create a fair arena for discussion, debate, and reliable information. Thoughtful, independent voices should be promoted. I firmly believe that our democracy will not succeed otherwise.

Here’s the headline from Fox News, but it’s almost the same as the headline from a more centrist site, The Hill:

Fox:

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.

44 Comments

  1. Posted August 5, 2020 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Interesting times.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I do not think she is saying anything new on this subject, it has only become much worse over the years. Edward R. Morrow become disappointed in television news long ago for the same reasons. He thought television would be used primarily to educate, but it did not turn out that way at all. He wanted CBS to do strong documentaries on important issues. That quickly was removed for more westerns and comedy shows. If you watched the TV back in the three network days the news on each was doing the same thing. When you turned to the news at 5:30 or 6 PM you would get the same stories on each channel. There was seldom any difference in the coverage. This is why the Newspaper has always been the place to get the real news and the coverage of all the things you don’t get on television.

    • Historian
      Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      “This is why the Newspaper has always been the place to get the real news and the coverage of all the things you don’t get on television.”

      You are correct. Even the round the clock cable news stations can only cover a limited number of topics and they are ones most likely to attract an audience. Wonky stories, such as those on the details of the economy, receive must less attention. Hence, MSNBC gives saturation coverage to the virus and Trump, often demonstrating how much Trump is the cause for the severity of the pandemic. Of course, coverage of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or a terrorist incident is always given high priority. Most of the guests on MSNBC are reputable journalists or specialists in epidemiology. The hosts are always trying to get them to utter political opinions, but, from what I’ve noticed, most of the time they try mightily to retain a degree of journalistic detachment. The politicians interviewed are almost all Democrats. But, really, what else would you expect from the business model, which is designed to attract left leaning viewers?

      Ms. Pekary strikes me as very naïve. She apparently had no idea of what cable news is like before she took the job. The cable news model is as it is because as a money making enterprise it airs stories most likely to attract views. This is not going to change. People who want to get a better understanding of the world need to sample a range of newspapers, magazines, and books. Cable news can’t do this, nor should it be expected to do so. It exists to appeal to particular biases.

      • Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        I think they ask Republican politicians to be on MSNBC, CNN, and the like but they don’t want to. When they are able to get them on, they probably get high ratings. People love to see the controversy and hope to see the interviewer “win”. Probably the same situation exists with Democrats going on Fox or OANN.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

          The top rated individual show to hit cable news was a few weeks ago when Rachel Maddow interviewed Mary Trump. I believe they said 5 or 6 million was the number. So it indicates not really that many people watch the cable news channels. People here at this web site give them more credit than they really produce. Instead, people are on twitter and face book getting the really screwed up news.

  3. nay
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    “…producers still want to focus on the politics ….” When I started watching MSNBC, it’s motto was “The Place for Politics”, so I’m not surprised that that’s where they go. I’ve also seen people with opposing views interviewed on MSNBC and proposed COVID-19 treatments and vaccines have been covered as well. Maybe such views and treatments haven’t been given as much coverage as Pekary thinks they should, but they are being covered. Admittedly, I’ve become fond of MSNBC’s talking head personalities since they are mainly what I can see in my time zone and their liberal bent comports with my own, but I am somewhat annoyed by the overuse of “Breaking News” – once reported, it’s “old news” or, at least, “previously reported news”.

  4. notsecurelyanchored
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Old enough to watch the evening news on TV, but not the morning news because I can’t stand all that blather in the best part of the day.
    In the car I listen to NPR but find them slanted, and on PBS Judy Woodroff is the worst for leading questions.
    Of our two small local newspapers, one has cut service from twice a week to once a week and the daily has cut Mondays.
    Online I read CNN and FOX news as antidotes to each other’s poison. I scan Slate for the silly headlines to amuse the spouse but I get most news about subjects I am interested in from WEIT, Unz Review (love James Thompson), Border Beat, and friends.

    • Historian
      Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      I’m sure your friends are a source of objective news.

      • notsecurelyanchored
        Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        No, but at least I know their crotchets.

        • Dean Reimer
          Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

          Today I learned that “crotchets” is a word.

          • jezgrove
            Posted August 5, 2020 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

            I know the musical sense (what is called a quarter note in the U.S., I believe) but have no idea about the meaning here!

            • notsecurelyanchored
              Posted August 5, 2020 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

              A country way of saying I know their biases. “Crotchet: A perverse or unfounded belief or notion”

  5. John Donohue
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Miss Pekary came from PBS to MSNBC. She says this: “… my concerns are not ideological in nature. My concerns are economic. {…} My goal is to work to create a fair arena for discussion, debate, and reliable information.

    The inference, clearly, is that the profit motive drives the click-baiting. Leaving aside my curiosity on why she moved away from “public funded” media to profit-driven, I’d point out that a) PBS has a massive slant to the left; it is not non-ideological; and b) government ought have no part whatsoever in creating an orthodox authority on thought, such as PBS.

    A potential solution would be the endowment of a private institution with so much money it would not need to seek funding every year, and a visible, living, transparent accountability to “strictly news, objective.” No opinion pieces, and no opinion spin in the news stories.

    • Dean Reimer
      Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Where does it say she came from PBS? She said her background was “public radio.”

      A check of her LinkedIn profile shows she’s worked at NPR and several radio stations. I didn’t check them to see if they were PBS, and I did check one and found that it airs some NPR programming.

      • John Donohue
        Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        Okay, I stand mildly corrected. “She comes from ‘public radio’ and NPR.” Thank you for the detail correction, and note that NPR/PBS/Public Radio are all the same from the POV of my post — I am arguing essentials.

        Do you have anything to say about my point?

        • Dean Reimer
          Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

          Well, half your point was related to an incorrect statement of fact, so there’s not much to respond to there. I’m not familiar enough with PBS (or NPR) to know if they are as massively slanted to the left as you claim. I suspect they aren’t, but probably appear that way to anyone with a conservative bias.

          To your final suggestion of an endowed private institution, I still don’t see how you can keep bias out of it. Sure, you could reduce the incentive for clickbait journalism, but as long as it employs people it will be subject to bias, or at least perceived bias. And as soon as one part of the political spectrum believes it is biased the other way, they will start to ignore it. Most people don’t actually want facts, they want to be justified in their beliefs.

          • John Donohue
            Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

            @Dean Reimer you say you are not familiar, then make a claim out of thin air. This is a science website.

            “I suspect they aren’t, but probably appear that way to anyone with a conservative bias.” Again, a construct that is only air. Any child could slap it down thus: “I suspect PBS/CPB are slanted left, but probably appear fair and neutral to anyone with a left bias.

            So, nothing!

        • Posted August 5, 2020 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

          I do.

          Here’s what we found. From Dec. 1, 2017 through March 30, 2018, NPR’s newsmagazines interviewed 121 Republicans, 137 Democrats and six independents who fit in those categories.

          Doesn’t sound horribly unbalanced to me. More details at npr.org

          • John Donohue
            Posted August 6, 2020 at 12:05 am | Permalink

            @paultorek

            A count of those interviewed. Means nothing if you are out to mildly valorize Dems and get bored, then host a lot of Rep in order to bend the narrative against them through question selection, editing, and tone, plus commentary before/after the direct interview.

            I’m not saying PBS/NPR/CPB are flaming Marxist/Woke. Just nicely positioned off center.

            • Posted August 6, 2020 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

              Your evidence is sorely lacking. Your speculation is rampant.

    • William Boecklen
      Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Your claim that PBS has a “massive slant to the left” is not supported by data and analysis. Consider the following:

      • Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        Truth often appears to be slanted left. 😉

        • GBJames
          Posted August 5, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          As Stephen Colbert noted, facts have a clearly liberal bias.

        • rickflick
          Posted August 5, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          Yes it do.

        • Mark R.
          Posted August 5, 2020 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

          Human decency also has a left bias!

      • John Donohue
        Posted August 6, 2020 at 12:21 am | Permalink

        William Boecklen It’s not supported by Ad Fontes’ data and analysis, you mean.

        I could counter-post quite a different chart, and link to all the challenges against Ad Fontes, but that would just be a link battle.

        Clearly, any chart with NYTimes, Washington Post, HuffPo, and VOX as high credibility and neutral has it’s structure skewed. Not the relative ranking … the graphic location of the x-axis and y-axis.

  6. GBJames
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    sub

  7. rickflick
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    This kind of journalism is yellow like lemon jello.

  8. Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    The Hill is not centrist. It is (very) right-wing.

  9. Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    And even them most newspapers are just pure garbage. I would recommend reading the New York Times and little else.

    • Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      NY Times has become slavishly woke. Jerry gives one good example in this post: Bari Weiss harassed out of her job there. She was apparently too moderate (and a real affront to wokeness, too Jewish).

  10. Steve Gerrard
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    News is crappy – film at eleven.

  11. Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure I understand why you think older people are not susceptible to clickbait. It’ll be different clickbait for sure, but I bet the right clickbait still works.

  12. Roo
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I definitely see the problem she is talking about, although I don’t know what the alternative, other than some sort of state-sponsored tv, is.

    On the positive side, it seems to me that there are some good things about our current system of information distribution:

    – The news being click bait-y may increase overall interaction with the news and even political engagement in general. If there was nothing on but news that people found boring, it’s possible they just wouldn’t turn on the news much at all (or it’s possible they’d watch the ‘boring’ news, hard to say.)

    – The internet means that people can find information on any given topic much faster. So if there’s a story they are interested in and they Google it, some portion of their info may come from the news, but some may come from blogs (not necessarily even news blogs – in the event of a hurricane it might be a years old post on hurricane preparedness, for example,) and other websites. Of course this also increases the bad information that people come across, so it’s not 100% positive, but as long as attempts are made to stem the tide of bad info, I think this is a net positive. Maybe not by a gigantic margin, but still. Overall our access to information has increased a lot.

    – Money talks. The Founding Fathers wanted a free and independent press, and, realistically, that probably has to mean a rich press, which means a market driven press. On the downside, this means the press is so powerful that they can be an abusive force in their own right, who in turn need to be countered. But, again, having a well established, powerful counterbalance is a very difficult ecosystem of power to create, and it is quite fortunate that we have that in this country. Again, when looking at positives (counterbalance to equalize power) to negatives (can abuse power in their own right,) it might not be a huge, 100% net positive – but I think all things considered, still an overall positive when all factors are considered.

    Hopefully the market will correct the worst extremes of click bait news, as many people are now angry over national divisions and every time people see ‘their’ group being represented in a sensationalist, negative light, the news outlets risk burning bridges and losing viewers (I will say, it is worrisome that this dynamic only works domestically. It does not apply to, say, war mongering in other countries. I do worry that after a few cycles of this dynamic, news outlets could settle into a dynamic of bashing other countries to avoid personally insulting a viewership group in the US.)

    • Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      “Hopefully the market will correct the worst extremes of click bait news…”

      No. The market is the reason we have clickbait news. The networks give what the market wants, unfortunately. They spend a lot of money measuring this. Those of us who want fair reporting of news we should care about are in the minority.

      The good old days of network news was because the networks were dedicated to informing its audience and were willing to eat the cost of doing so. At some point (in the 70s?), they forced their news divisions to be a profit/loss center and that forced them to start catering to what most viewers wanted to see. Unfortunately, that was clickbait as we now call it.

      • Roo
        Posted August 5, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        I think the correction comes when people get so fed up with outlets that they walk away or support diametrically opposed news outlet as a means of protest. Again, this only works domestically as, for the most part, people only get viscerally upset enough to do that when they see a group they feel they are a part of sensationalized or misrepresented in the news.

      • TJR
        Posted August 5, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        The public wants what the public gets.

        I’m going underground……

        • Posted August 5, 2020 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          Underground might become popular once climate change takes hold.

  13. Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    It is not a matter of these networks being strapped but the fact that advertising revenue is how they are measured against each other. They could eliminate the clickbait but it would cost them in their stock price and their bottom line, probably not to the extent that they would go out of business but perhaps to the extent they would become irrelevant.

    If eliminating clickbait got a network more viewers, they would definitely do it as that’s what advertisers care about. That they don’t should be laid at viewers’ feet. Most people seem to prefer that junk unfortunately.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted August 5, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Way back in the beginning when television was three major networks, the news divisions were not profit centers. They were mostly run by people from newspaper journalism and their mission was serious news. Once large corporations bought up the networks this was all changed and suddenly these newsrooms found themselves being stripped and reduced financially. Getting ratings and beating the next guy to the headline came first. This is when the news on Television really started to go south.

  14. Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    The general outline of this problem was written by Chomsky and Herman in the excellent, must-read book “Manufacturing Consent”. Matt Taibbi has updated the ideas more recently with his own experiences from the presidential campaign trail.

    In one long presentation, check YouTube, he explains that producing such news is extremely expensive. To recoup the costs, journalists now must produce quick content all the time, and naturally want to deal with more colourful or “entertaining” candidates or personalities that make their jobs infinitely easier. That’s just one side this. (Chomsky and Herman originally called these “filters“).

    Simply put, every major network is Fox News now. They pick an advertiser-suitable, and profitable demographic and then produce content that keeps them around long enough to see as many ads as possible. To do this, the content must be cheap to make, yet interesting enough. Aside of the dynamics laid out above, the easiest way to do this us through having faux debates, i.e. opinion, that are never resolved, and with high stakes. This quite naturally leads into conspiracy territory, from QAnon to Russiagate. It‘s yet another way to describe Wokism: as manufactured ideology that is controversial, profitable and ideal (i.e. even if it goes wrong, people “for social justice” always remain with good intentions, it can never quite come back to bite them etc).

  15. eric
    Posted August 5, 2020 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I see something of an analogy with the science’s basic vs. applied research funding tension. I.e. you have one component of the industry (clickbait, applied research) that typically makes the majority of the money, another component (in-depth journalism, basic research) that typically doesn’t, but if you do only the first you will eventually kill or severely reduce the effectiveness of your entire industry. You need some of the first for short-term survival (i.e. tomorrow’s operating revenue), but you also need some of the second for long-term survival (i.e. revenue ten, twenty years from now).

    Perhaps the Fox’s, CBS’s and MSNBC’s of the world could do something similar to a “director’s budget.” I.e. you set aside some percentile of your revenue for use in more in-depth journalism, and for those projects you define metrics of success different from views or ratings, something more like organization reputation or pulitzer prizes or employee retention etc. that is a more relevant measure of long-term corporate outlook.

    It’s not by any means a perfect solution. IMO in science this approach still ends up giving something of the shaft to basic research. However, I’ve also seen the “long-term benefit” argument succeed in convincing higher-up corporate types whose primary focus is the bottom line, to at least maintain a minimum capability (even if the argument doesn’t often succeed in growing that component into what it should probably be).

  16. Posted August 5, 2020 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that what’s happened is that the system has evolved into an “inadequate equilibrium” a la Eliezer Yudkowsky. It can be a situation in which everyone knows that it’s broken, recognizes the inanities and insanities, but the incentive structure is self-reinforcing, and it would be to no individual’s (network, newspaper, whatever) benefit at all to try to unilaterally change things, and it wouldn’t have any overall effect.

  17. Posted August 5, 2020 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    I used to watch NBC news to know what the average American was being spoon fed. Nothing international, for instance, man-bites-dog,etc. So dumbed down pitched at 5th grade.

    I watch Al Jazeera, PBS news hour, (Japanese) NHK and that’s about it.
    American TV news is crap, CNN is intellectually bk and woke and Fox is a joke.
    D.A., J.D., NYC


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