What Happens When the Media Ignores You

This morning, a couple hundred graduate students began their studies at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. I was asked to offer opening remarks about “the state of the media.” Below is an excerpt of that speech.

I’d like to talk to you today about what that world looks like right now, and how the work you do here will prepare you not only to work in the media industry, but also help you become an active participant in our democracy.

As you may have noticed, it all seems pretty messed up right now.

Let’s begin with the fascinating, real-time learning experience that is the 2016 Presidential Election.

vs.

In 2016, we are confronted with two candidates for the most powerful position in the world … who most people just don’t like all that much.

Source: Real Clear Politics, 6/16

Of course, both of these candidates have said and done things that make voters like them or dislike them. Or, as is the case with most people, really dislike them.

The rise of Donald Trump can certainly be credited, in great part, to a press corps that first ignored him and then allowed him to control the coverage by failing to challenge him. I am not telling you anything that the self-flagellating, over-analyzing media has not already told itself via a thousand think-pieces or “open letters.” This one, I think, is on us.

(Here I will be transparent about my bias: I am a registered Democrat who would really just prefer to re-elect President Obama.)

But the ascendancy of Donald Trump is not just about a media that failed to take him seriously. This is a failure of a media who, for years, failed to take his supporters seriously.

As it turns out, being ignored makes people despondent.

And angry.

Our current climate, filled with discord and outrage both real and manufactured, was created in part by a media that failed to present the world as it was. The popular narrative of this country was established over decades by people who were overwhelmingly white and male, who had been educated in the Ivy League, and who lived in urban centers on the coast. Especially after the tumult of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, these media gatekeepers became increasingly liberal.

People who consumed media, but did not create it, found what they considered to be their way of life eroding. The manufacturing jobs that sustained their families for generations were gone. You had to go to college, but only if you went into debt to do it. In just the past ten years, something as American as buying a house drove thousands of people into financial ruin.

The world changed socially, too, and a lot of people felt left out. They got angry. They did not see their world, or their values, reflected in the media. What they did see, often, was a media that dismissed their concerns and portrayed them as backwards. So they turned away from the media and went to smaller sources, many on the radio, that said the same things they thought. When the internet came along, the echo chamber grew louder and angrier.

All the while, the dreaded MSM reported on the concerns of other people who thought like the gatekeepers did. People who thought differently were, if not ignored, then marginalized.

“Americans’ Trust in Media Remains at Historical Low” (Gallup, 9/15)

Some of these people think Donald Trump speaks for them. In the UK, similar issues swayed the Brexit vote last month.

There is another group of people who did not see themselves or their concerns reflected in the media. And I’m not just talking about the pages of the New York Times or Esquire magazine. I’m talking about a preponderance of TV shows and movies that presented all-white worlds. Local news broadcasts awash in crime coverage that created a sense of fear. The limited narrative frameworks applied to stories, fiction and non-fiction, about people of color. The advertisements that suggested, for decades, that only white people bought stuff.

Meanwhile, people were dying. From poverty and drugs and guns that were too easy to get. This part was often reflected in the media. The part about people dying at the hands of law enforcement, not so much.

Again, the internet proved a crucial turning point, this time for the way people of color experienced media. About ten years ago, we see the first stirrings of social media — with Facebook, with Twitter, and now Instagram and Snapchat and a bunch of things I’m sure you’ll explain to your professors this year. Around the same time that social media comes into being, so does the widespread use of smartphones. It’s hard not to make media when you have a computer, camera, audio recorder, editor, and means to publish on you at all times. As people of color begin not only to embrace, but dominate, social media platforms like Twitter, and begin to create content that is shared first with people like them but then is distributed by virtue of its value, quality, and interest, to the larger media, you begin to see a change in what counts as mainstream.

And that, my friends, is a good thing.

Because the only way we can make this country better is with empathy and compassion. And there is room in the media for more of that.

There is room to acknowledge another’s truth while advocating for your client’s position. There is room for stories about people who feel marginalized — or even better, room for people to tell those stories themselves. There is room to challenge the bromides of political candidates. When ABC’s Jake Tapper tried 23 times to get Donald Trump to answer a question, he wasn’t being biased. He was being a reporter.

I wish I could say I entered my journalism career with such good intentions. It’s taken me 16 years in media to be able to articulate these ideas with conviction. I hope it doesn’t take you so long.

I suspect it won’t, given that you have chosen to begin your media career here at Newhouse in 2016, in a place where I believe talking and thinking about how the media works or should work or could work is just as important as learning to write a screenplay, create a campaign, recap a TV show, or analyze public data. You have chosen to give yourself the gift of time for intense study and reflection. And though it will be hard to see this time as leisurely — when you are juggling multiple deadlines and muttering unkind things about Professor Gallagher under your breath — I assure you that the next 12 months will be a rare, rare chance in your life to dedicate yourself to something so totally. You will acquire skills, yes. But this could all be so much richer if you leave here with some new ideas, as well.

I wish you all the very best of luck during your time at Newhouse, and beyond.