How the Media Polarized Us

ByJosephine J. Romero

Jul 19, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Public trust in the media has hit an all-time low. Common explanations for this crisis of credibility include bias, polarization, and fake news, but these causes are themselves effects of the tectonic, and generally overlooked, shift in the media’s business model. Throughout the twentieth century, journalism relied for its funding predominantly on advertising. In the early 2010s, as ad money fled the industry, publications sought to earn revenue through subscriptions instead of advertising. In the process, they became dependent on digital audiences—especially their most vocal representatives. The shift from advertising to digital subscriptions invalidated old standards of journalism and led to the emergence of post-journalism.

Everything we once knew about journalism depended on the model of the ad-funded news media. Advertising accounted for most of the news industry’s revenue during the twentieth century.

This business model provided a selective advantage to certain kinds of media. Since the revenue from copy sales was not sufficient to maintain news production, news outlets needed to attract advertising. As a result, media that relied mostly on the reader’s penny, such as the formerly influential working-class press, eventually lost out in the marketplace. The mass media that oriented themselves around the “buying audience”—the affluent middle class—received money from growing advertising and thrived.

In political economy, this selective effect is called “allocative control.” The ad money did not tell the media what to do; it just chose the media that encouraged its audience to buy goods. Media critics Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky argued that it affected the mechanism of discourse formation, as the media maintained a context favorable for consumerism and political stability, and thereby “manufactured consent.”

This business model was extremely successful. By the end of the twentieth century, the news media had reached the apex of their 500-year history. Even regional newspapers such as the Baltimore Sun possessed several well-staffed foreign bureaus. Never were the media as rich and influential as in their golden age, just 25 years ago. Plenty of journalists still on the job remember those glorious days.

Under the ad-based model, media capital represented a significant social force. It protected its interests, its market value, and therefore its independence. The abundance of money enabled newsrooms to develop an autonomy secured by the division between news production and ad-sales departments—a “glass wall” between ads and news. Preselected by ad money, news organizations geared toward affluent audiences became influential to the point that their autonomy determined their market value.

Ad money carried the risks of advertisers’ pressure in news production, which would have undermined newsroom autonomy, a source of reputation and therefore capitalization. So professional standards were elaborated to protect journalism from advertisers and establish the credibility of news coverage. Credibility was seen as a professional virtue but also as a commodity. “The theory underlying the modern news industry has been the belief that credibility builds a broad and loyal audience, and that economic success follows in turn,” declared the American Press Association in its 1997 “Principles of Journalism” statement.

Thus, paradoxically, the allocative control of ad money determined the allegiance of mainstream media to corporate elites (hence, “corporate media”) but also sustained high-quality journalism. Newsroom autonomy was protected by the standards of objectivity, nonpartisan and unbiased reporting, attention to the arguments of all parties involved, investigative rigor, the separation of fact from opinion, and other guarantees enshrined in the ethical and professional codes of news organizations.

The same set of professional standards that was meant to secure credibility and independence from ad money turned journalism into a public service. “The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society,” claimed the American Press Association’s statement. “Commitment to citizens also means journalism should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society. Ignoring certain citizens has the effect of disenfranchising them.”

The only entity to which journalism was called to be biased against, even meticulously so, was power. This was a part of the credibility code, too. Endowed with these principles, initially rooted in ad funding, journalism evolved in the twentieth century as the “watchdog of democracy,” positioning itself above partisan party struggle.

Finally, the media’s dependence on advertising determined their attitude toward their readers. If the audience was supposed to be affluent, mature, and capable, so, too, were journalists expected to avoid judgment when reporting—they were to present the naked facts and the positions of both political sides to the public to judge. Hypocrisy and professional arrogance, of course, had always had a place in the profession: journalists have long seen themselves as a kind of priestly class. Nevertheless, leaving judgment to readers (or at least pretending to do so) was one of the fundamental virtues of ad-funded journalism. And since publications wanted to broaden their audience, not narrow it, they served reader preferences by downplaying, rather than emphasizing, potentially divisive issues.

“The viral editor agitated progressive youth to the point of indignation. Protests, and even revolutions, broke out.”

All of this cooled the political activity of the public. In his 1999 book Rich Media, Poor Democracy, media historian Robert McChesney described the low degree of participation in elections as “democracy without citizens.” If the medium is the message, then the message of the ad-funded news media was “buy!”—not “vote!” or “protest!” This might have seemed to be bad for democracy, but polarization in society was at a low point, while the influence and prosperity of the mass media were at an all-time high. The political tranquility of the public was a side effect—detrimental or benevolent, depending on one’s perspective.

The Internet broke this idyll. It turned out that the ad-based model relied not on the content attracting an affluent audience but on the monopoly over ad delivery that the Internet simply destroyed. The ad-based media business achieved power and prosperity over the course of 100 years; it collapsed in just ten.

The collapse started with the classifieds. At their peak in 2000, classified ads brought in $19.6 billion, about one-third of newspapers’ revenue. As Craigslist, eBay, and others killed this market, classifieds revenue plummeted to $2.2 billion in 2018. Corporate advertising was next. Suddenly, firms found that they could reach their desired audience online directly and precisely with full control over content, context, and targeting.

Google and Facebook delivered the fatal blow. It became obvious to advertisers that old media had offered them a costly and inefficient method of carpet-bombing their targeted audiences. By contrast, Google and Facebook knew the preferences of billions of individuals and provided personally customized delivery of ads to each of them. In 2013, Google alone made $51 billion in ad revenue. That year, American newspapers’ ad revenue was $23 billion, and the global newspaper industry collected $89 billion in ad revenue. The Google-Facebook duopoly surpassed 60 percent of the share in the U.S. digital ad market in 2018. It became increasingly clear that old media had little chance of competing with digital platforms.

Ad revenue in the U.S. press hit rock-bottom in 2013, falling below the level of 1950, when the industry started measuring the print ad market. In 2016, the Newspaper Association of America stopped reporting newspapers’ annual ad revenue: this source of revenue had basically ceased to exist. Residual advertising in print media, both offline and online, lost its industrial scale and any commercial meaning. Today, advertising contracts in the media often resemble charity from ideologically aligned businesses.

Advertising revenue fell below the level of reader revenue at the same time across the world. In 2014, ad revenue in the global newspaper industry ($86.5 billion) trailed reader revenue ($92.4 billion) for the first time in the history of industrial measurement. Even the strongest American newspapers could not hold advertisers: the New York Times began getting more revenue from readers than from ads in 2012.

Observing these changes, McChesney wrote in a foreword to the 2015 reissue of Rich Media, Poor Democracy that “the marriage of capitalism and journalism is over.” Divorced by capitalism, journalism now sought new partners. Some publications invested their hopes in ancillary businesses—from organizing conferences to selling wine—but these markets were already saturated. Others courted philanthropic billionaires or public funding, but the handful of high-profile survival stories could not arrest the dynamic of decline. The news media returned to their natural and only remaining source of revenue—selling content—at a time when subsisting on print subscriptions and newsstand copies was no longer viable. Losing ad business and having no support from the printed word, news organizations turned to their last hope: digital subscriptions.

Chart by Alberto Mena

Who was the digital audience by the early 2010s? Social media had already spread around the world, beginning with young, urban, educated, and usually progressive people. Both Twitter and Facebook were created by youth, for youth. Social-media users strove to find, produce, and share facts, evidence, opinions, and expertise—anything that could trigger interest from others. Discourse on social media involves a dispersed mechanism of mutual informing that does the job of what I call the “viral editor”: selecting, refining, and delivering socially relevant content, optimized for virality.

“As the scare replaced news as a commodity, the media switched from news supply to news validation.”

This tendency created an alternative news environment. And led by the pioneers of digital activism, young progressives shaped an alternative agenda. Before long, they revealed how significantly their agenda differed from that of the old mainstream media.

The transition of news coverage and public discussions from legacy media to social media invited politicization. The old news media, which tended to serve established institutions, began competing with the multidirectional, versatile, and oscillating forces born in the live interactions of peers and structured by the viral editor. A power structure based on hierarchical distributions of material resources—the “pyramid”—began competing with one formed by the coagulating contributions of information resources: the “cloud.”

These forms of social organization are incompatible. And the greater the differences between the agendas shaped by social media and by the mainstream media, the more intense the clash becomes. Between 2009 and 2014, the alternative agendas induced on social media became so powerful that they produced a “crisis of authority,” in the words of Martin Gurri, who described this as the “revolt of the public.” The viral editor agitated the digitized, urban, educated, and progressive youth to the point of political indignation. Protests, and even revolutions, broke out across the globe, including the Arab Spring (2009–11), Occupy Wall Street (2011), the “social justice” protests in Israel (2011), the Indignados protest in Spain (2011), the student protests in Greece (2010–11), the anti-Putin protests in Moscow (2011–12), the Taksim Square Protest in Turkey (2013), and many others.

Each of these events had its own set of causes, of course, but all had several features in common. First was the demographics of the participants—they tended to be, again, those digitized, urban, educated, and progressive youth. Second, the protests generally opposed the establishment, regardless of ideology, from Hosni Mubarak’s and Vladimir Putin’s regimes to the U.S. economic and political system during Barack Obama’s presidency. Social media elevated the role of progressive discourse producers: academic, bohemian, and social-justice activists. The main social feature of the new medium—the intensity of self-expression in the pursuit of response—tended to convert private talks into public activism and thus empowered activism as a mind-set, not just an activity. In the 2010s, activism gained momentum in digital media and thus proliferated far beyond its traditional circles.

Such were the conditions in which legacy media began looking for business opportunities in a new digital environment. To sell digital subscriptions, they needed to find ways to attract the digital audience.

This is not to say that journalists were complete strangers to the digital public. On the contrary: nowadays, journalists usually come from the ranks of urban, educated, and progressive elites; they are often young; and some were themselves social-media pioneers. Journalists, therefore, were naturally predisposed to align with the dominant ethos of early social media—in part, because they “have always been more liberal than their fellow countrymen,” as Batya Ungar-Sargon pointed out in her 2021 book Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy. “But in the past,” she maintained, “this liberalism was checked by their publishers, who were often the owners of large corporations, or Republicans, or both. They wanted their newspapers and their news stations to appeal to the vast American middle, which meant that journalists were not at liberty to indulge their own political preferences in their reporting.”

Chart by Alberto Mena

Indeed, the ad-based business model had kept the natural liberal predisposition of journalists in check. The balance between the liberalism of the newsrooms and the business necessity to appeal to the “vast middle” for better advertising maintained both the market value and cultural power of journalism. Despite its inherent liberalism, journalism still needed to address affluent consumers, encouraging journalists to follow the professional standards of objectivity and unbiased investigative rigor. The highest examples of that work—such as the Watergate investigation, the Pentagon Papers, and the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church—bolstered the professional reputation of the news media.

Yet the essential ingredient of that recipe—the advertising-dictated necessity to appeal to the median American—had disappeared by the early 2010s. The inherent liberal predisposition of the newsrooms was suddenly unchecked by any financial imperative. The cultural proximity between journalists and the progressive users of early social networks, the news-gathering power of social media, and the need for media organizations to secure digital subscriptions led to an ideological convergence between large media organizations and digital progressives. Quantitative studies cited by Ungar-Sargon indicate that the use of terminology associated with woke politics, such as “racism,” “people of color,” “slavery,” “white supremacy,” and “oppression,” has skyrocketed in the American mainstream media precisely since 2011.

The principles of news coverage also changed significantly. Coverage was determined by focusing on pressing social issues highlighted by the progressive Twitterati. The need to go digital made the media consider Twitter as their referential source for discourse formation. This radical shift affected the entire news ecosystem—including television and radio, which dutifully followed the changing discourse model of the print press, acquiring their own digital addictions and dependence on the social-media crowd.

Still, this ideological transformation did not bring the media any financial gains—at least, not until Donald Trump arrived on the scene.

The metamorphosis of the media did not happen during Trump’s presidency. Instead, Trump’s ascension was in part a result of the media’s transformation from being ad-funded to chasing digital subscriptions.

As social media began permeating society, the user demographic grew older, more rural, less educated, and more conservative. Comparative data on social-media proliferation suggest a hypothesis that the online activity of a certain demographic group can lead to the political activation of this group if the group exceeds an “awareness threshold”—defined as the point at which about 60 percent of the group uses social media. The urban, college-educated, and aged 18–49 cohorts crossed this threshold in 2011. Social-media use for older, less urban, and generally more conservative demographics had reached about 60 percent by 2016.

In the early 2010s, digital progressives still identified with a new, decentralized power structure that fought the establishment. But as the mainstream media gravitated toward social media and propelled them into a dominant discourse-formation role, digital progressives became the establishment. In a matter of several years, digital progressivism resettled from the “cloud” to the “pyramid,” from a posture of rebellion against centralized power structures to one of alliance with them.

Meantime, social media kept growing. By 2016, digital conservatives represented the new “cloud.” As their younger predecessors had done years earlier, they became a socially significant force. Soon enough, they discovered that the agenda that the mainstream media imposed clashed with their views—and their sense of losing ground and losing country grew sharp. The power of social media lies not so much in exposing mainstream bias but in revealing that so many other people see these biases, too. As Marx said, an idea becomes a material force as soon as it grips the masses; by providing access to information and self-expression, social media enabled the materialization of indignation.

What happened next is history. Donald Trump sensed the demand, gained extraordinary media attention for free, made himself a channel for conservative indignation, and brought about the release of the already built-up resentment of the conservative “cloud.” His rise used the same mechanism that underlay the early Twitter revolutions. In terms of media ecology, Trump’s ascension completed the Occupy Wall Street movement, but on a different demographic basis.

The ad-revenue model funded a cornucopia of print choices for consumers. (H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/CLASSICSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES)

Between 2010 and 2016, digital subscriptions remained insignificant from a business perspective. The news media wooed the digital progressives, but it was not until the conservative demographic—and Trump—arrived as forces on social media that the news media started raking in digital subscriptions. Until then, the mainstream media did not have any commodity to offer their newly chosen referential group. Trump helped fix that. He became that missing commodity immediately after his shocking victory. The mainstream media understood the signal, upgraded Trump from amusement to existential danger, and started selling the Trump scare as a new commodity.

The media quickly learned to solicit subscriptions as support for a noble effort—the protection of democracy from “dying in darkness,” as the Washington Post put it. A new business model emerged, soliciting subscriptions as donations to a cause. Donations required triggers that the love-hate alliance of Trump and the media readily supplied. The crucial part of the new business model was not just Trump himself but the significant number of his supporters. The most terrifying thing was that fully half the electorate supported such a “monster” (in the view of the other half).

By no means were the media interested in mitigating this divide. They needed to maintain frustration and instigate polarization to keep donors scared, outraged, and engaged. The news media reminded readers how outrageous the outrageous events were, and their focus turned toward such events. As the scare came to replace news as a commodity, the mainstream media switched from news supply to news validation.

Both ends of the political spectrum were involved. Right-wing outlets also tried to sell scare instead of news—the scare of losing ground and country. The new business model made the media the agents of polarization. They organically joined to the mechanisms of polarization that had formed in the larger media environment—on the Internet and social media. Some mainstream media grew their digital subscriptions severalfold during Trump’s tenure.

What comes next for the media industry? The validation of disturbing news within certain value systems has finally become a viable business model. But this business model has stratified the press, bringing meaningful results only to large, nationally concerned media outlets. News validation creates a swarming effect: people want to have disturbing news validated by an authoritative notary with a greater followership. Audiences want to pay only for flagship media, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. If other, smaller media outlets don’t join the chorus, they risk digital backlash; if they do join it, they struggle to differentiate themselves and lack authority to be a recognized news validator, anyway. Most subscription money flows to a few behemoths. The new subscription model has led not only to media polarization but also to media concentration.

The biggest loss, however, is the mutation of journalism into post-journalism. The death of those newspapers that shut down before this mutation was at least honorable. Journalism wanted its picture to fit the world. Post-journalism wants the world to fit its picture, which is a definition of propaganda. Post-journalism has turned the media into the crowdfunded Ministries of Truth. The worst part for journalists is that only a few enterprises can succeed in this new business model. The worst part for society is that all legacy media need to pursue digital subscriptions or viewership as their last hope for survival, and thus must join the race of post-journalism.

A temptation always exists to blame media bias on a closely held conspiracy, but the real drivers lie deeper. Creed and greed might fill the medium with the messages, but it is the medium itself that defines polarization—its true message. If ad-driven media manufactured consent, reader-driven media manufacture anger. If ad-driven media served consumerism, reader-driven media serve polarization. There can be no “solution” for a shift of such magnitude. “How do we fix polarization?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “How are we going to live with it?”

Top Photo: Journalism wanted its picture to fit the world. Post-journalism wants the world to fit its picture. (TONY CENICOLA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)



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