[A MEDIUM ONE] BATTLING CANCER JOURNALISM



“[Modern journalists are] a bunch of people who attract an audience because they are crazy. I have my favorite crazies and you have your favorite crazies, and we get together and all become crazier as we hire people to tell us what we want to hear…Having these journalists come in and tell the nuts on each side only what they want to hear and slant all the facts so they hear a lot of stuff that isn't so, this is not good for our republic.”


Charlie Munger, Daily Journal Shareholder Meeting, February 16, 2022[i]


Today’s news business is booming with the help of algorithms, a hyper-politicized society, and our thirst to hear that the world is exactly how each of us thinks it should be. In 2020 Fox News had almost double the number of primetime viewers it had in 2013. Over the same period CNN’s viewers more than tripled, and MSNBC’s viewers nearly tripled.[ii]


Yellow Journalism 2.0?


The current movement in the news business harkens back to another time when engagement and profits soared. Some may remember Yellow Journalism from high school history. The term referred to a cutting-edge style of journalism created in 1890. Yellow journals infused stories with sensational, ominous, melodramatic, and sometimes manufactured details. These newspapers wanted two things: to sell more papers and to whoop up American support for a questionable war with Spain. They achieved both.[iii]


Modern news practices may look like a reboot of Yellow Journalism, but the methods and effects of today’s media are considerably darker. The new order deserves a name that captures how toxic and nefarious it is: Cancer Journalism.


Yellow Journalism used sensational news to turn Americans against a foreign enemy. Cancer Journalism uses slanted news to turn Americans against each other. Though Cancer Journalism has the all-American goal to make money, its effects are the poisoning of our personal relationships and entire political system.


“We Have Cancer”


Turn on your favorite news channel or scroll through your feed and you will see one of two sensational storylines. In one, liberals are on a crusade to destroy the country and they must be stopped by all available means. The second storyline is the same, but with conservatives as the villains.


I think of these competing stories like two doctors, each telling their patients that America has cancer. We are hooked and must know…Where is the cancer? Where did it come from? How far has it spread?


We stare desperately at TVs and phones. Every event of the day in every corner of the country could reveal a telling symptom of the cancer. A mayoral election in Indiana, a fire in California, a school librarian that resigned in Texas. Every story holds a crumb we must gather to piece together this crushing diagnosis.


We have all consumed toxic news and been infected by it. In the last five years I’ve lost all contact with friends that I knew for decades. We always knew we disagreed on politics, but none of us cared until around 2018. Reading articles about ruthless conservatives made me truly believe that there are two sides, so morally distant that I could not bring myself to reach across, even if it was just to talk about their kids. I don’t know if they feel the same way I do, but my phone isn’t ringing either.


BREAKING HEADLINE: THE NEWS TALKS LIKE AMERICA HAS LITERALLY NEVER BEEN SO DIVIDED, AND IT IS ACTUALLY KIND OF RIDICULOUS!!!


One step in battling Cancer Journalism is to dispel its most profitable storylines.


Since the 2020 election, the news media has tripled-down on the narrative that America is riddled with social, political and racial divisions. Regardless of which side dishes it out, the big message is the same: we have never been this close to meltdown before.


Let’s play a game. Here is a quote about a past presidential election, with the year of the election deleted. Fill in the blank.

Fought in a climate of partisan violence and racial unrest, the _____ race drew the highest voter turnout in US history, and was ultimately resolved in a scramble for electoral votes. By the time it was over, five months after election day, some citizens were grumbling “if anybody says election to me, I want to fight,” while others feared that “we can never expect such a thing as an honest election again.” Even after it was settled (some say stolen), the disaster of ____ cast a long shadow over popular faith in American democracy.
Everyone knew that ____ would be a rough race. Nationwide, partisan loyalties were tightening, as Republicans and Democrats battled over Black voting rights…Each party held massive midnight rallies, and some leaders on both sides urged voters to come to the polls armed.[iv]

The quote is about the election of 1876, just one example of a time when America experienced painful division. We can presume that those divisions dissipated in part because headlines about the election became stale, forcing the newspapers to publish different stories.


Further Down the Field


When asked what to do about our journalism crisis, Charlie Munger said, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” Without admiration he called the modern news business an example of the creative destruction of capitalism. Modern news outlets are here to stay.


News companies will keep selling the same stories about divided Americans for as long we reward them with our eyeballs and thumbs. Surviving this crisis will require us to control our own habits so that Cancer Journalism becomes marginally less profitable, enough to at least signal the algorithms to push less toxic stories.


Don’t Consume It Just Because It’s There


In sixth grade I left home to attend military school. The cafeteria had a selection of desserts at lunch and dinner, and chocolate milk served cold as glacier water. I went from elbowing my four siblings for food to a daily feast. In nine months, I packed 25 pounds onto a 4’6” frame. It simply never occurred to me that I didn’t have to eat the food just because it was in front of me.


Americans’ news habits are similarly immature and unhealthy. Easy access to a long buffet of appealing news stories does not mean we have to consume them. The only way to control the news media’s effects on us as individuals and as a society, is for us to wean ourselves away from the catchiest headlines.


When you see a story that absolutely affirms the way you want to feel, be aware that the headline got to you for a reason, it is probably not 100% true, it will soothe you for one minute, and it will leave you hungry for more.


What Should We Do Next?


Try taking a one-day break from looking at the news, whether on TV or your phone. Check in to see how you feel the next day. I’m willing to bet that you will feel good, and you will be no worse off for missing one day of information.


What would the news algorithms do if we all went a whole day without clicking on a single political article?


Acknowledgments

I wrote this essay as part of an amazing writing course, Write of Passage. Thank you so much to Mike Woitach, Anthony Polanco and Promeet Mansata for helping me craft this into a final product. You guys are awesome!


REFERENCES: [i] To listen to this exact quote, visit this page (https://youtu.be/8RxLj9OVqLo?t=5437). [ii] All figures are from the Pew Research Center. Number estimates for 2013 are my best estimate from eyeballing the chart at this page (https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2014/03/26/state-of-the-news-media-2014-key-indicators-in-media-and-news/). The 2020 numbers came from this page (https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/fact-sheet/cable-news/). [iii] For reference, visit this page (https://www.pbs.org/crucible/journalism.html). [iv] John Grinspan, “The Messy Election of 1876.” Perspectives on History, October 2020. For reference, visit this page (https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/october-2020/if-anybody-says-election-to-me-i-want-to-fight-the-messy-election-of-1876).