The news is a product, not a utility

(Ah, he’s complaining about the news again)

On May 31, 1889, after unprecedented heavy rainfall, a dam 14 miles east of the bustling mill town Johnstown failed. 20 million tons of water poured out of Lake Conemaugh and, within an hour, turned poor Johnstown and its neighbor towns into a swamp. Over 2,000 people died, a third of whom remain unidentified to this day.

The rescue and relief efforts that followed are exceedingly well-documented, thanks to a second flood that occurred shortly afterward: the flood of newspapermen into the stricken city.

In the weeks that followed, stories of the flood and recovery dominated the front pages of newspapers in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Several publications smashed sales records, as crowds of people hungry for information on “The Great Calamity” bought out every available issue.

To meet this demand — and to adhere to their editor’s exhortations for detail, the reporters at Johnstown took extraordinary “liberties” with the facts of what happened. The stories were too good to pass up. Reporters wrote of the “Slaughter of the Innocents” — more women than men had died — complete with colorized lithographics showing an army of orphans roaming the streets of Johnstown hungry for scraps.

“FIFTEEN THOUSAND CORPSES” blared one publication (there weren’t). “FIENDS IN HUMAN FORM” screamed the New York Herald, reporting the Hungarian immigrants so callous that they were cutting fingers off of corpses to get their wedding jewelry (they weren’t).

Horror-stricken readers in East Coast cities were rewarded with lurid stories of dogs eating corpses, drunken rioting, families who had met their deaths singing hymns, and in one account, five little children being pulled from the water, their hands still clasped in their final game of “Ring around a rosy,” innocent smiles on their faces.

What nonsense!

So, what was going on here? Were reporters just lying?

Well, they were — and they weren’t.

What they were doing was their jobs.

It is a common misconception that the jobs of reporters and editors is to document reality and turn out objective analysis. The job of a reporter and editor is to tell stories. So much so that we literally call them “news stories.”

They’re not just any stories, mind — they’re products. Like any product, news stories are conceived of, developed and promoted with a specific audience in mind. News organizations use the world’s happenings as a framework for developing products that excite and stimulate their audience, under the guise of “informing” them.

If you see the news as duty-bound to report the truth, and nothing but the truth, then you’ll be continually disappointed (at best) or sucked into its hellish, mentally-unbalancing, stress-spiking reality (at worst).

If you see the news as it is, however — a product, engineered, marketed and sold — then a lot of how it operates will begin to make sense.

The news-as-product metaphor explains, too, why guys like Jeff Bezos and Carlos Slim — brilliant businessmen who know consumer purchasing behavior — have made a habit of purchasing news outfits (the Washington Post and New York Times, respectively).

If the news was a virginal undiluted source of truth, then there would be no need for different companies; one service would be indistinguishable from the other. But Bezos, and Slim, know what you and I know too — that news companies are corporations selling products to the masses. The product can be differentiated, it can be marketed differently, and it can be molded to fit the agenda of whoever holds the pursestrings. They’re no different from any other corporate entity under the sun.

I don’t watch the news.

To me, today’s news media is like the dying baby Voldemort that Harry Potter runs into during the King’s Cross dream at the end of Deathly Hallows. It is a repulsive, infantile consolidation of human suffering that is painful to even look at from afar. When I engage with the news I am conscious of it making me worse as a human being. It is a path towards unhappiness.

Do I think we should be purposefully ignorant about the world? No. I just think we need to be exceedingly careful about who we let define “the world,” and what sort of stories they’re crafting for our consumption.

Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves in a perverse Johnstown of the soul — continually under the deluge of “fake” news — and wondering how on Earth we’ll ever get to shore.


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All information about Johnstown is sourced from David McCullough’s exceptional book, Johnstown Flood, which I’ve been reading.

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