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By Thomas Baekdal - January 2021

What the heck happened in the US?!?!

In the US, the first week of January was pretty crazy. We saw the riots, the hatred, the attempted coup, but most of all, we saw how privileged white people believed they could get away with anything.

This was particularly shocking to see when we compare it to what happened just half a year ago (with Black Lives Matter). The tone, the response, the actions were so dramatically different.

The global reputation of the US has been severely damaged (not that it was that good before), and the country has been left in shambles. I think we can all agree with the Times cartoonist Morten Morland, when he illustrated it like this.

But I'm not going to talk about that here, instead, it's time to reflect and talk about us (the media). I have spent a lot of time, both the last week and over the past four years, looking at what we did in the press. So let's take a look at that.

Keep in mind, I'm a media analyst. I'm not a political analyst, I'm not a news journalist, and I'm not a tech reporter. Baekdal Plus is a site about the media industry, not the tech industry. And from this media perspective, there are a lot of things we need to talk about, especially things that may make us uncomfortable.

We will start with Facebook and Twitter removing Trump's accounts. We can have a long discussion about this. In many ways I agree with what Mike Masnick wrote. However, I do think Twitter and Facebook should have done this a long time ago.

People in power should not be granted leniency to do bad things just because they are powerful. Instead, they should have to live up to an even higher ideal than the rest of us.

As such, I completely agree with what Emily Bell wrote the other day:

Suspension of accounts is step one, step two is implementing a policy which reflects the fact that powerful individuals need more restrictions, and more scrutiny from platforms ...rather than less.
Take for instance the fact that executives and others cannot tweet or share certain market-moving information on social media without falling foul of the SEC . But shareholders it seems, get more protection than citizens in this regard.
"The idea that power should pave the way for additional opportunities to abuse is antithetical to democratic principles . Public figures, those with power and responsibility, are bound by more rules in most realms. Platform policies need to be made to reflect this

I said something similar back in September, when I wrote this:

Moderation should always meet a high bar. However, people 'in power' should not be granted special permission to do things that normal people aren't allowed. If hate speech is not allowed, it should be taken down regardless of whether you are the president or some random dude.

It's the same for other aspects. For instance, back in November 2019, I called on Facebook to stop enabling politicians to do micro-targeting, which allowed them to deliver targeted messages to different groups. Being able to do that is massively undermining a functional democracy.

But now Facebook and Twitter have removed him from their platforms ... so, that's it... right?

Well, no. Because now we suddenly see the other side of this. Our side.

First of all, Kevin Roose asked: Can President Trump stay in the spotlight without the huge platforms? The answer is obviously 'yes' because he has the biggest spotlight of them all. The press spotlight.

As Mike Masnick wrote:

President Trump is not being censored. He is not being limited. At any moment of any day (certainly for the next two weeks, and likely beyond) he can walk out of his office and have every major TV news channel (and every internet streaming platform) broadcast whatever he wants to say, and people will see it.

And we can see this very clearly. If you head over to the Index Trump, a bot that automatically records how many times Trump is mentioned on the front pages of news sites, we see that there is never a single moment where Trump isn't getting 10 or more mentions per day ... and this has been going on for the past 4 years.

This is the problem. Trump might feel anxious about losing his Twitter account because of his narcissism, but he has not lost his voice. We are still giving it to him.

For instance, last week in the middle of the riots when Twitter deleted three of his posts (before they blocked him completely), what do you think happened?

Well, as I wrote at the time:

And I continued:

If the big social platforms remove posts because of how they are potentially escalating an already dangerous situation, having every single newspaper then "report what they said" is totally irresponsible.
I know you think that you are "reporting important news", but you should not do that while the information itself can actively cause more harm.
Report that his account is closed, DON'T REPEAT THE TWEETS! (You can report about them tomorrow or on Friday. Now is not that time!)

And this isn't an isolated story. During the terrorist attack in New Zealand in 2019, every newspaper blamed Facebook for not taking down the terrorist videos fast enough ... while many newspapers were posting clips from the same videos to be included in their articles.

The lack of situational awareness of the press is astonishing.

And the problem with Trump is that we are likely to continue to give him this voice regardless of where he goes. If he sets up an account on some of the less reputable social channels, as journalists, you are just going to follow him there and report every single time he posts something on those platforms.

In fact, he doesn't even need a social platform anymore. He can set up a blog, and then every single time he posts something new, every newspaper will report to the public what it said.

This is exactly what is happening right now. Look, we even included a link to where people can sign-up.

Again, the lack of situational awareness is astonishing. We are so focused on 'just reporting' everything he is doing that we are paying no attention to what it is that we are actually facilitating as the press.

Let me give you an example. The day after Twitter blocked Trump, journalists apparently started having withdrawal symptoms. So we started seeing articles like this:

When I saw this, I tweeted:

Seriously newspapers. Stop. ... Just stop. What you are doing here is an unhealthy addiction. You have become so high on Trump, and now you can't let go.
You have already spent four years writing about his Tweets pretty much every single day. And now that he is no longer on Twitter, you are trying to fill the gap.
Please newspapers, get help. You need rehab to learn how you can avoid these cravings and not have another relapse.

I mean... seriously!

And if you think this is an isolated example, here is another:

What annoys me even more is that over the past four years, and especially last week, I came across many people in the media industry who claimed that the reason why it had taken so long for Twitter and Facebook to block Trump was because "they were making money from the traffic."

Well, what the heck do you call what we're doing in the press? There is no journalistic reason to write yet another article about his tweets.

And, again, this isn't an isolated case, it's the same about everything else. For instance, on Twitter, I saw many people blame Facebook for helping to organize the Trump rally. I even saw media people calling for Facebook to be regulated because of it, and to demand that Facebook should have taken down those event pages.

And sure, it was organized on Facebook and other channels, (although the really bad elements of this mostly happened on some of the more obscure social sites). I'm not trying to defend Facebook here.

But what about us in the press? What did we do?

Well, for one thing, we spent weeks leading up to January 6th reporting about everything that was planned to happen. And, specifically, many ABC-affiliated local news sites even posted guides for Trump supporters.

Sure, these newspapers will say that this is just "good journalism" where they are providing a public service, and then they will say "And we didn't know it would turn out the way it did". But we all know that is not true. In fact, their own journalists have reported that this was likely to turn violent.

And this leads me to the thing that really makes me uncomfortable to say, but let's evaluate.

In the press we believe that it's our role to keep those in power to account. I believe in this too. In fact, I think this is a critical element of the press. We are the fourth estate!

However, think about the past four years. Compare where the US was as a country four years ago (in 2016), with where it is today. Have things improved or have things gotten worse?

The answer is obvious, the US is in shambles. The public is more polarized than ever, hate crimes are up, the press is increasingly attacked, extremist groups have become way more popular, and the list goes on and on.

But the even bigger question for us is, did we make anything better? We spent four years writing thousands of articles about every single thing that Trump did. We "hold him to account" every single day, with fact-checks, commentary, analysis ... the works.

So, did any of this make Trump a better person? Did any of it cause Trump to do a better job? Did any of that help the public?

I mean, just look at the election. Sure, Biden won overall, but Trump got 17% more votes in 2020 than in 2016. After four years of holding him to account, where he pretty much lied every single day ... he got 17% more votes!!

OMG !!!

And the reason he managed to do this was because he turned the public against the press. By doing this, he could use all the attention we were giving him (massive levels of exposure), while convincing his growing number of supporters to only listen to his side and then ignore whatever else we added in our articles.

The result was that all our articles helped him. We boosted him higher and higher. We never intended to do this. In fact, we were trying to report about his constant lies ... but none of that matters. The result speaks for itself.

The reason why this happened isn't because Trump is some kind of master manipulator of the media. He is a blithering buffoon who doesn't know anything and is just doing whatever to please his narcissistic tendencies. There is no plan.

Instead, it happened because we, in the press, never adapted to a changing situation. When you have a president who thrives on conflict, polarization, and attention, writing thousands of articles about all the conflict he causes doesn't work.

As the press, we should have realized this long ago, but instead we just kept reporting, and reporting, and reporting, and reporting.

I mean, even one day before the attempted coup (or whatever we want to call it), we wrote this:

After four years, we have still not learned a damn thing!

This is what frustrates me as a media analyst, and I hate to point this out. I love the press, that's why I became a media analyst. But if you look at the data, the past four years, the before and after ... The only conclusion you can come to is that we failed.

We did not manage to hold Trump to account at all. We did not manage to use our journalism to make the situation any better. Instead, we ended up with the picture we saw last week and a wannabe dictator whom 46.9% of the public love.

We failed. But the worst part of all was that we failed while believing that we were doing our best.

So... What to do?

How do we fix all of this? Well, there are three things I want to mention here.

First of all, we need to shut up about Trump....

No seriously.

After January 20 (when he is no longer the President), he will take his lies, his polarization and everything else with him to another platform (or possibly his own media site), and in so doing, he will continue to drive all the problems we have seen over the past four years.

Our role as the press is to not follow him there because that would only help him grow his new channel. Nothing good can come from that. So, literally, as the press, our job is to stop talking about him. Facebook and Twitter have already done this. Now it's our turn.

Make the world forget that he even exists.

Secondly, we need to change the way we focus attention.

What we need to realize is that, for a certain section of society, the type of people/politicians/extremists who thrive on conflict, polarization and attention, writing more stories about them doesn't work.

It's the 'loud people wins' syndrome. This is something every company knows about. If you have a meeting and there is always that one person who is the loudest, allowing that person to dominate and to speak even more makes your company worse.

You cannot hold loud people to account by handing them a loudspeaker.

It's the same for politics.

So imagine you have three people, and one of them is a really loud person, who is often creating scandal, and who thrives on attention.

What we have been doing for the past four years is to give that person all our attention while everyone else isn't getting heard.

This is what we did wrong.

But, wait a minute, you say, that's because he is (was) the President of the United States. We had to cover him. No, you didn't. The press is not the PR channel of the White House. There is nothing in the role of the press that dictates that you must report everything the president says.

But, also, this is a terrible excuse, because we did the same thing before he even became the President, back in 2016. It was because of this focus of journalism that he got elected in the first place. And more than that, this isn't unique to the US at all. We see the same pattern in other countries (often with the same negative effect).

What we need to do instead is to minimize our attention on the bad people, and instead focus on the people who actually have something meaningful to say.

It's that simple. And this doesn't just apply to politicians. The same thing applies to political commentators and pundits that you might interview for a story.

And I'm not talking about hearing what other people think about what the liar is saying. If you do that, then you are still focusing on the liar. Instead, focus on the topics the liar isn't talking about.

Imagine if we had done this in 2016. Trump lied the very first day he announced his campaign. So imagine where we would be today if we had instead said, "what you are saying isn't true. So we are not going to cover you until you learn how to bring us factual information".

Right?

The third thing we need to do is to return our focus to the issues.

Last week, I saw many people call for the press to focus more on the 'personality of those elected' to fix the problem that was created with Trump. Their argument was that if we had just focused more on 'the person', we'd know how bad he was.

Just ... no!

This is entirely wrong. In fact, it was doing this that got us into this mess.

Let me explain. The whole reason the US ended up in the way it did was that the press lost its focus on the real issues the country faced and instead turned everything into a 'personal' fight between political candidates.

In fact, if we go back to 2016, people were shouting at the press to stop focusing on 'the person' and instead focus more on the issues ... and in the press, we saw this very clear slide away from topics affecting the public.

So, the solution is NOT to focus even more on the person. That is a terrible idea, and it completely misunderstands the problem.

If we actually want to fix the problem in the US, we need to get back to focusing on the issues and the topics that directly impact the public's personal lives. This is what we have forgotten about over the past four years, and we need to go back to it.

Specifically, we need to get back to the issues that the public is facing. Not the issues that they are facing in Washington. We have forgotten who we are writing the news for.

I talked about this in more detail in a podcast episode back in 2019. As I wrote:

For instance, think about the last US presidential election. Imagine that you are a mother of two teenage children in, say, Minneapolis, and then you go to the news and all you see are stories about one candidate raving about immigrants and that another candidate had a personal email server ... how useful would that be? Would any of those stories have any relevance or impact on this person's life? Would it change anything, either for better or worse for this person? Would it solve some of the issues she is having with planning for the future of her kids? Or does it help her achieve her own future dreams?
The answer to all of these is no.

This is what we must change. We have lost our focus as the press. The past four years have been one big reality TV show. We need to go back to being newspapers. That is where our future is.


Finally, I will add one more thing. I was having a discussion (privately) a couple of months ago with an editor, and while he agreed that things were bad, he also said that it had helped show the value of news and drive more subscriptions.

This is true, and as a media analyst, I am very happy to hear about publishers doing well. However, I don't think the past four years is a good example of this. The problem is polarization, and as I tweeted:

Polarization can help you convert half your market faster ...while completely shutting you out of the other half of your market.

This is what has happened in the US ... and I don't think this is a good thing.

If you want to learn how to actually build a successful newspaper, without political polarization and scandals, I will urge you to look at Norway. I wrote an article about this back in November.

Take a look at: "Why do Norwegian newspapers perform so much better than the industry average?"

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
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