Political Overemphasis and the Increasing Irrelevance of Traditional Media
The gym I frequent is small, as is its locker room. The lockers are lined along a straight, narrow hallway with televisions situated at each end. Every morning when I arrive, one television is tuned to Fox News, and the other is locked on CNN. Due to the size and configuration of the space, the cacophony can be deafening. On one side of the locker room, you have a fixation on the Trump administration and a relentless assault on its validity. Regardless of what else is going on in the world, Trump—and, more specifically, Trump outrage and bewilderment—is the lead story by default. On the opposing wall of the room, you have abject denial or total defense of whatever is occurring in the Trump administration, to the point where you are left wondering whether anything is occurring at all. The sun is shining and the birds are chirping, so why all the fuss? It is as if cable news coverage has become one of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I grew up reading—look left and the world is ending, look right and there is nothing to worry about. As my fellow gym dwellers and I often quip, the truth must be somewhere in the middle of that locker room.
Given the discord, it’s no wonder an entrepreneur named Scott Blew recently developed a pair of sunglasses, dubbed IRL Glasses, which purposefully shade television screens from a user’s field of vision. Blew was fed up with the constant media inundation we face as everyday Americans, and he decided to do something about it. When IRL Glasses are on, all light emitted from LED and LCD screens—those used on most TVs and some computers—is blocked out. I certainly understand Blew’s frustration, but the fact that there is a market (i.e., people willing to pay money) to support his gimmicky creation is what truly astonishes me. To think it took a little more than a decade for our aggravations to get to this point is equally remarkable.
All of this speaks to one of the more oxymoronic developments in the evolving world of media; in its desperate attempt to stay relevant amid the rise of the internet and mobile technology, traditional media is making itself increasingly irrelevant.
I worked in television news at the turn of the century, and it is hard to believe how much it has changed from a content perspective since that time. When I was cutting my teeth in the industry, there was heavy emphasis on fact-finding and unbiased reporting. Lawyers on staff played a prominent role in verifying sources, filtering news judgment, and ensuring networks did not cross hyperbolic lines when it came to on-air language. Each news hour was filled with a variety of stories, ranging from geopolitics to pop culture, and the hierarchy of a show’s rundown was determined by the newsworthiness of the topic. If politics were a featured topic on any given show, they rarely represented more than 10% of its air time. In fact, a directive from the top was to be sure Republicans and Democrats received equal time on air, to the point that producers would use stop watches to track the number of minutes allotted to each side. If an imbalance occurred, anchors were instructed to abruptly end interviews and to apologize to the opposing party.
The internet age was already upon us, however, and you could feel its competitive threats even then. Bandwidth projections were skyrocketing, news dissemination was rapidly evolving, and the cable networks were desperate to find ways to stem a burgeoning outflow of viewers. At first, it seemed the strategy would be to try to be all things to all people. The boundaries between general, political, financial, sports, entertainment, and travel news became very blurry. Executives referred to it as “water cooler talk”—if it was the hot topic of the moment, it would lead. When I worked at CNN in 2004, we spent countless hours covering the Scott Peterson trial, the Michael Jackson trial, and anything related to Paris Hilton.
It wasn’t until election night 2004 when I could see the writing on the wall. I arrived at work at 5 PM, excited to be part of the thrill of an election night at CNN. It was all hands on deck, and the place was abuzz with activity and excitement. It was exactly as I had imagined it would be with people running in all directions, frantically building and rebuilding show rundowns based on the latest developments. I was tasked with preparing materials and scripts for “American Morning,” CNN’s flagship early-hour program at the time, so I was slated to be in the newsroom well into the evening. Everything was business as usual until about 7 PM, when I began to notice a discernable shift in the mood of the room. I didn’t think much of it at first, but by 9 PM it felt like someone had taken the air out a balloon. Upon witnessing a tape producer crying in an edit bay, I finally asked a fellow colleague what in the world was going on, thinking something terrible must have happened. Her passionate reply: “Kerry may lose!” This, of course, was the Bush vs. Kerry presidential election, and the electoral map was beginning to turn red despite exit poll predictions to the contrary. I was flabbergasted. How could CNN purport to deliver unbiased news on election night when the majority of its newsroom was utterly despondent? This marked the end of my belief in the possibility of bipartisan journalism, and it also foreshadowed the news coverage we see today.
While it was fairly easy to detect the internet’s impact on traditional media, mobile technology and the advent of smartphones has changed the landscape in ways which were difficult to imagine at that time. The decentralization of content (and cameras, for that matter) took power away from the networks and placed it directly in the hands of viewers. In its infancy, the internet provided a tool for viewers to react to and comment on whatever they saw in the news. Now the roles are reversed, with networks commenting on and reacting to whatever is happening on the internet. Add 2.5 billion smartphones worldwide, and you can see why traditional media needed to develop a new strategy to retain viewership. This strategy, put simply, is to play to our biases, and most concertedly to our political persuasions. News executives figure it is better to have half of a pie than none of it, and our political differences provide opportunities to target and seize upon definable markets.
The net result is the fractious media landscape we see today. In any given cable news hour, politics anecdotally represent at least 50% of the air time and can spike to upwards of 95% during election season. Networks and newspapers are known as much for their political tilt as they are for their investigative journalism. If the heralded New York Times writes a story about the Trump administration, almost half of the country will disregard it as “fake news” at the slightest hint of criticism. Unsurprisingly, Americans’ belief in media integrity is waning, with more than half of respondents in a 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey saying they have lost faith in news’ truthfulness. According to Pew Research Center, 68% of Americans feel as if the media favors one side when covering political and social issues, with almost 9-out-of-10 Republicans believing news is partial. A ratings fallout is occurring as a result. CNN’s daytime viewership is down 41% from last year’s levels, continuing a slide propagated, in part, by a public feud with President Trump. It seems by attempting to retain a portion of the pie, the media industry is overestimating our interest in politics and, in particular, partisan reporting. After all, why watch when you already know what they’re going to say?
I have always been fond of financial news because of the market’s ability to assign absolutes to any given story. In effect, the market will tell you whether a news event is newsworthy in real time. When I was writing business headlines for a living, this dynamism created a greater breadth of stories from which to choose, and it also made it easier to determine where to focus. But financial news outlets are not immune from the tidal wave of political coverage gripping our airwaves. They, too, overemphasize the effects Washington has on the marketplace, and they certainly play to our emotions. On a down day in the markets, I tend to see more articles predicting impending economic doom, oftentimes at the hand of whatever is happening inside the Beltway. On up days, sanguine political viewpoints often take prime position on the financial news websites I regularly browse. It is nothing new for news agencies to sensationalize the good and the bad, but assigning political narratives to every story detracts from networks’ viability, and thus their relevance.
As a relationship manager at Balentine, I spend most of my time with clients, advising them on all matters of their financial life. I meet with our clients regularly, and I get to know them on a personal level due, in part, to the interconnected relationship between family and money. I love my job, and my background in financial news helps me explain the various inputs which shape market activity. Between the markets, financial goals, mortgages, the economy, charitable giving, and all the other financial topics you can imagine, you would think there would be plenty to talk about during my quarterly meetings with clients. But the number-one topic during most of my meetings is—you guessed it—politics. Make no mistake, politics do play a role in market activity, and they certainly affect our daily lives at the local level.
But the extent to which politics shape the direction of the stock market on any given day is drastically overstated by the media (and by our president, for that matter). If taken at face value without seeking the counsel of a fiduciary, politics-driven decision making could lead to costly mistakes.
My advice in these unparalleled media times is to read widely and to retain a healthy dose of skepticism while absorbing the news. There are plenty of credible, relevant news sources out there—the worst thing you can do is to rely upon just one or two. You have to be open to opposing viewpoints before reaching a conclusion, because the truth is likely going to be somewhere in the middle. When it comes to investing, I highlight many peoples’ top-performing investment, their 401(k), as reason to not get caught up in political drama. The winning formula behind 401(k)s can be boiled down to three simple concepts: 1) making monthly or biweekly contributions to benefit from dollar cost averaging, 2) taking more risk due to a longer perceived time horizon, and 3) not letting news events or elections derail you from your plan. If investors can apply these three principles to the rest of their financial lives, they can tune out increasingly irrelevant media and expect higher, less-stressful outcomes.