It’s been a “crazypants bullshit” time for pretty much everyone since the Donald first bumbled into the White House in Jan ’17.
Even if you go out of your way to ignore the news media, you must at least have an inkling of the baffling amount of controversy that’s been seeping out on a weekly basis. Enter The Fourth Estate. The doco series follows the staff of the New York Times, the world’s most prestigious newspaper that, whilst has its critics (one in particular), you’d be hard-pressed to argue is anything but a cornerstone of objective journalism, in an increasingly un-objective time. Watching the madness of the last year unfold from the perspective of the journalists who live and breathe it is part recap, part entertainment, but mainly educational, it giving a fascinating insight into the goings on of people who are completely dedicated to upholding their—if-done-right—righteous profession. If you think you work hard then you’re in for a sobering experience. Oh, and the best news? It’s free to stream right now on SBS ON Demand. Here’s some takeaways.
For better and worse, journalism’s changed for good.
The journalistic profession and all the practices and customs that go with it was established around the printing of morning and evening papers. How the profession has adapted to that model being digitally turned on its head, is a test that’s resulted in more casualties than victors. The website traffic space race is thankfully slowing (although try telling that to The Daily Mail), but what’s left in its stead is skeleton staff newsrooms and more emphasis on being first, than being right. But not at the New York Times. They’re hell bent on being first and right, making them vulnerable.
One of the most significant ways that the digital age has changed the news is that output has dramatically increased—the NYT still produces a daily newspaper, as well as being expected to lead the instantaneous news cycle. More staff are required to keep up with the output, and the money to pay their wages has to be freed up somewhere, and the editor’s floor is where. There’s been mass layoffs of editors, sub-editors, fact checkers etc. the world over. Ever wondered why there’s mistakes galore in the breaking news stories of supposedly prestigious publications? The subs all got fired, that’s why. At the NYT they aren’t too happy about it. The scene where executive editor Dean Baquet—who worked his way up from the mail room after leaving school at 19—has to watch fellow long-serving editors walk out past his desk, striking against the cuts made to editorial staff, is one of The Fourth Estate’s most powerful.
Donald Trump has done exactly what he said he was going to do.
We all know that the Don’s thrown the rulebook out the window and proceeded to stumble around bumping into things since, but seeing the reaction of those expected to make sense of it all is equal parts hilarious and terrifying. Like when, unannounced, he bans the New York Times, BBC and CNN correspondents from attending the White House press briefings where they’ve been in the front for decades. The confused looks and questions of “Can he do that?” from some of the most competent people imaginable is worth the price of admission alone.
Despite both being newspapers, the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph have nothing in common.
They may all be printed on similar stock but that’s where the similarities end. Knowing who owns the source of your news is paramount, but most people couldn’t really give a hoot. The New York Times is a publically listed company, meaning that it answers to shareholders who hold its integrity at its core. The Terrorgraph is owned by News Corp Australia, aka Rupert Murdoch, who also owns countless other papers, websites, TV, cell phone and film networks around the world—which is a complete conflict of interest before a word is even typed—and functions as one cog in a giant self-serving money-making PR exercise. Objective? Not bloody likely. The greatest journalist of all time, George Orwell, famously said that “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” Which in 2018 means: find out where your news really comes from and why!
Zuckerberg’s really got a lot to answer for.
Advertising revenue is how the media survives. The deal used to be that companies gave their financial backing to publications whose values aligned with theirs, in the form of printed ads for whatever they’re flogging. A fairly simple equation, with the publication with the biggest circulation demanding the highest fee from advertisers. Enter the internet, cell phones, and most importantly, Facebook and its “targeting” (see: selling your data to the highest bidder). Now companies are more interested in subliminally brainwashing the people at the end of algorithms until they buy what they’re told and then are kind enough to write a review for the product. Meaning? That although they’ve completely adapted to the digital revolution and lead modern journalism, and, more people than ever are reading it, the New York Times is missing out on the advertising dollars it needs to run to Facebook and Google. And there’s not a whole lot they can do about it.
Whoever you are, you don’t know the half of it…
The most striking thing about The Fourth Estate is that in pursuit of the truth things have never been more convoluted. Sure you can Google anything and get a semi-accurate account of the who, what, when, but the overload of media, propaganda, sources and opinions is completely overwhelming. In The Fourth Estate (bearing in mind that it’s somewhat of a self-gratifying exercise by the Times), you get to see just how seriously the staff of the New York Times take getting something wrong. That, if anything, should be the most reassuring take away.