Not Your Father’s News Media

I’m a public relations (PR) guy. I’m a big fan of the sport. Now I’ve always been called a “reluctant marketer” or even an “anti-marketer” but PR has been my instrument of choice to build trust for brands throughout my career. But a funny thing has happened to the PR profession, a crisis that even the best minds in crisis PR did not see coming.

TRUST in the mainstream MEDIA (the preferred messenger of PR programs for decades) has fallen to its lowest levels in history. I have a few theories as to why.

1. Economics — Follow the money, right? Well, in the USA alone, we’ve lost more than 2/3 of the jobs of working journalists since the turn of the century. Not a Great Resignation — layoffs, firings and encouraged early retirements for some truly amazing journalists who probably were interested in telling the truth, not the narrative. And in this time our mainstream media outlets have merged and consolidated to the point that basically six major corporations (Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), AT&T (NASDAQ: T), Paramount Global (NASDAQ:PARA), Sony (NYSE:SONY), and Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) (NASDAQ:FOX)., now control 98 percent of national, regional and local TV, radio, newspapers and online news sources. So if you wanted to control a message that EVERYONE would see and possibly believe, you would just need to six choke points to do it. Not thousands, not hundreds. Only six. Scary, right? But WE did this in our excitement not to pay for news content. We have no one to blame but ourselves. But that’s what happened. 

2. Journalism is now (more than ever) in the ATTENTION business — Have you heard of “iterative journalism?” That’s when a reporter in a huge hurry rushes out a story and amends it later with a trail of edits as the story “evolves.” This is the new news media’s justification for putting out false stories. “Hey, we’ll just fix it later—and everything will work itself out”. But since many people only read headlines anyway, the truth gets wildly distorted very quickly. But who cares as long as the media outlet gets its clicks and the reporter gets their revenue share for the most outrageous stories (and yes that is a thing) that generate the most fear, anxiety, anger and sadness. Walter Williams and Frank Gannett would NOT be pleased. Gannett would REALLY be upset now that his paper USA Today serves as a fake fact checker along with the Associated Press for some Facebook and Twitter posts. I’ve personally noticed that when a nugget of truth against the news narrative slips out, they call on USA Today and AP to debunk it. This probably only requires a phone call and a big check because it’s not a one-time thing — it’s a relationship. 

3. Everything is now an ad — Those desperate economic times for media outlets have opened up the Wild West of new “integration” opportunities where I (as a PR pro and agency owner) can just open my checkbook (or PayPal account) and get my clients on any media outlet I want for the right price. I shouldn’t be able to do this, but I can and I do. I don’t even have to have a good story or any story really — just money because in PR today, everything can be bought. For example, I can pay $5K and place a feature story in more than 2,000 newspapers whenever I choose. I don’t pitch anything – I just swipe my credit card. We’ve lost something. It gets better — you know those iconic business brands you used to trust like Forbes, Fortune, Inc and Businessweek. For $5K, I get five posts per year on any topic I want as part of the expert council or whatever BS they’re using right now. I could get YOU in Forbes tomorrow for five thousand dollars. That’s pathetic and one reason I don’t do it is because it’s just slimy and wrong. 

Ok, Sorry for the dystopian look at our modern media, but I’ve noticed that many people just don’t realize how much the world has changed. During the pandemic, the media got a chance to really scare the living crap out of society and boy, did they rise to the challenge. Death toll tickers, doctors talking about worst-case scenario infection rates, politicians blathering on about what COULD happen —and for what? In the end, we had a nationwide outbreak of a virus with a 99 percent survival rate that (mathematically speaking) didn’t really kill that many people. “Oh Scott, we saw ONE MILLION people died of Covid — how can you SAY that?” 

Well, I still own a calculator, and let’s say for argument’s sake, it is actually 1 million. The USA has 340 million people living here. So (here comes the math part) — what percentage of people died over that 2-3 years time span? Well, that would be .00333333 percent of the USA’s population. Is that a lot? Better question — how many deaths do we NORMALLY see over 2-3 years in the USA? And that would be 2.85 million PER YEAR. Yet, the news story was like Godzilla was coming out of the Pacific ready to flatten LA and the rest of the USA like a pancake. —We were scared and the media took full advantage of our fear.

I always said during the pandemic that the hype outpaced the actual data from the story. —I was right. The mainstream media found a story that would interest and frighten everyone for a long period of time and they HAMMERED that story like nothing we’ve ever seen before. As I said, they are in the ATTENTION business now. You are the target. You are what THEY are selling to brands when they aren’t charging brands outright for news coverage. They want you upset, afraid, angry, sad, whatever keeps you glued. It honestly does not matter to them. 

So how do you DEFEND yourself? Your best defense against the news media is SELF-defense. When you encounter a story, QUESTION It. Says who? And “experts” can be anyone so don’t ever just fall for that. Ask yourself — why is this here?  What do these six corporations WANT me to think or feel and how does it benefit them?  It’s actually very freeing. I wasn’t scared at all during the pandemic because I watched the DATA and not the news. —And the DATA never indicated that I should be scared. I get in trouble for saying that but man, the truth shall set you FREE! 

I still love PR, but I’m sad that so many journalists have been kicked to the curb in this consolidation and I’m disappointed that the days of pitching news stories and telling the truth, building trust are probably gone for good. Arm yourself with knowledge and be ready to defend your mind against what you used to call “the news.” Take it from me, someone who manipulates the media like I’m playing a sweet solo on my favorite guitar—you can’t trust them anymore.