Magazine and newspaper critics -- like Liebling, Mencken and I.F. Stone -- once wrote bitingly and insightfully about the greed, hypocrisy and warped values of the people who ran conventional news organizations, and about how those traits affected media coverage. This criticism gave us some context with which to grasp and comprehend what we were reading and seeing. But as media became increasingly corporatized in the 80s and 90s, such critics vanished. Media criticism turned into celebrity journalism, with a growing focus on media moguls and TV superstars. Even greedy capitalists like Bill Gates were fawned over by the toughest reporters and critics, when they should have been paying more attention to his business practices.
Every now and then, however, an old and new media issue pops up. It's disingenuous for media gasbags to wonder why the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart from Salt Lake City gets tides of media hype while the kidnapping of 7-year-old Alexis Patterson from Milwaukee gets so little. We know why. The answer has been the same for years now, and only gets more clear with each corporate acquisition of a media property: modern media is about making money, and that depends entirely on selecting stories that entertain, titillate, blow up or confront.
Last week, CNN devoted a whole program to the mysterious process by which some tragedies -- the Death of Di to name one -- get staggering amounts of media coverage, while others -- like Mother Teresa's death the same week -- merit relatively little. CNN's high-minded panelists debated whether racism was the issue: Smart is a rich white kid, Alexis Patterson is poor and black. Is there a double standard? Others suggested Smart's parents were understandably working to promote media coverage, to involve more people in searching for their daughter. But this dichotomous coverage is familiar to Net veterans. Kevin Mitnick got as much media coverage in our time as Al Capone, even though he never killed anybody. Hacking gets vastly more media attention than assault or robbery, cyber-porn more than the newsstand kind. Media are always selective about what makes them hysterical.
It was striking to realize that none of CNN's panelists came close to the simple truth: media are market-driven, not idea-substance-or-content driven. Even the once-staid weekly newsmagazines are as likely as not to have movie stars on their covers, despite the number of important stories worthy of coverage. Cable channels, newspapers and newsmagazines cater to wealthy people -- no matter what color -- because those are the consumers advertisers want to reach. To some degree, this has always been true. But as more media have been taken over by massive corporations like AOL Time-Warner, Disney and General Electric, the process has vastly accelerated. News gets marketed just like cereal. Numbers rule. Ratings shape not only news coverage, but our very perceptions of the news. Such companies don't decide not to cover Alexis Patterson because she's poor and black. Profoundly pragmatic and opportunistic, they'd be happy to exploit blacks as well as whites, if the demographics worked. They don't cover Alexis Patterson's abduction because poor viewers in Milwaukee or elsewhere have nothing to do with ratings, ad revenue or profit margins. Blonde kids from wealthy families in Salt Lake City do.
Even so-called serious media like the New York Times and Washington Post are market-driven, focused increasingly on high-end consumer products spawned by digital technology, and on entertainment and controversy. The Times runs several weekly sections brazenly aimed at affluent second home buyers, wine connoisseurs and other high-end consumers. Stories about redecorating million-dollar cottages don't appear because they're newsworthy, but because they draw readers with money, thus advertisers with revenue.
The Elizabeth Smarts of the world will always trump the Alexis Pattersons. Modern media online or off, aren't steered by editors and producers making moral and creative judgments, but by business conglomerates, lawyers, analysts and market researchers. Their sole imperative: generate controversy (a la Monica Lewinsky), select stories that draw the most desirable readers and generate the greatest profits. This principle is evident in media coverage of computing and software as well, and has been for years. Stories about the Net invariably center on marketing -- what will make the most money, or what might be of interest to frightened and confused parents, rather than what is significant. Look how much coverage child pornography online gets, and how little coverage there is of truly revolutionary techno-stories, from gene mapping to AI. And most Americans have never even heard of open source, let alone had the chance to consider it's many implications. Intellectual property and copyright laws have been re-written, thanks to digital technology, yet these stories get sporadic and incomplete coverage.
Media debates about story judgment and ethics are often this hypocritical and disingenuous, mostly because critics and panelists aren't really free to speak the truth -- moral media died decades ago. From Princess Di to terrorism to kidnapping, stories grow in a hyper-information environment, one which promotes argument and hysteria and, increasingly, filters out the lives of poor, ordinary, or non-marketable people. Modern media takes stories and filters them through an increasingly sophisticated marketing machine.Online, blogs and small sites are freer than conventional journalists to set a broader agenda, but their audiences remain small and fragmented.
Thus, there's no mystery about why Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping gets so much more attention than that of other kids. The only mystery is how long it will take the media -- and more importantly, the public -- to understand and acknowledge the reality of their own new, intensely corporate, value system.