Do We Want to Be a Nation or Not?
by Amanda Lotz
July 6, 2021
This interview with Amanda Lotz, professor in the Digital Media Research Center at the Queensland University of Technology, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Amanda | I've been a professor of media studies since 2000. I spent 13 years at the University of Michigan before coming to Australia a few years ago. Most of my research has been exploring how digital technologies have changed the business of the television industry, but more recently I've been working on a project that has compared those transitions across multiple media industries.
frank | I’d like to start with the history of cable news and what the business model of cable news looked like before it was disrupted.
Well, I think we can point to some particular moments. Cable news really comes into its own around the Gulf War.
At that time it has a lot of expenses because it has people on the ground. What is significant about cable news at that moment? Functionally, cable becomes a way for people to know what is going on all the time. This was difficult to accomplish before the internet. Cable steps in and starts to serve that role. But, once the war ends, there is less of a need to know what is going on all the time. We gradually slide into a period of time in which the cheapest way to fill those hours is just to have people talking. It becomes a channel people have in the background. It collects decent audiences, especially throughout the day, as a result, but it isn’t mass viewing at any time, so it needs to keep its cost down while attracting attention — that is pretty much the business model. In times of major news events, the broadcast channels also devote hours to news, so even these spikes in attention are somewhat muted.
Even when new wars emerge it seems the latter business model is sustained.
Hurricanes, missing airplanes ... I find it interesting to think about why people still watch cable news. Think about the moments that are part of our cultural history – many pre-cable: the Kennedy assassination, man landing on the moon, 9/11. Think about the way you remember television’s role in those moments and the idea that people are crowded around televisions to find out what is going on. I don't think another one of those moments is going to happen again. I don’t think we have wrestled with that. The Boston Marathon bombings were the first kind of those moments I noticed where people turned to their phones instead of television news.
There are images of people sitting around their TVs in the days following the Kennedy assassination, just waiting for there to be news.
That was the nature of the technology at the time. We were all just waiting and cable thrived on those events. But, now there are these technologies that can shoot that information to us the second it happens. You don't need to sit around and wait and find out what happened because you will get a notification once something does.
In some ways, it's kind of astonishing that cable news has continued to have the presence that it's had over the last five or ten years. Smartphones have become quite ubiquitous and news organizations have figured out strategies to use them. And correspondingly, if we really look at the kind of content that has become central to cable news over the same period, we see how much it has moved away from providing information.
This explains the partisan turn: you need to stoke debate, build an outrage machine, and instigate disagreement because it makes good TV. If people can find out what is happening in other ways, then you need something else to attract their attention.
To think of those moments is also to recognize a very shared reality. Now, the alert on my phone is probably different from yours. Do you feel like that’s problematic to our understanding of ‘truth’?
I don't know that the source matters so much in those crisis moments of notification. I think what matters is the telling of the story. One of the challenges, especially for cable and television news generally, is trying to maintain their relevance in these moments. They are trying to keep delivering audience attention to commercials so they need to keep people watching.
How do you fill the air? Speculate.
It is those narratives of speculation that do differ and they do matter a lot. I was not in the country for the last election, but I was regularly watching the numbers. It was very clear from my Twitter feed that people were being told a story by newscasts they were watching, and it was a story that wasn't apparent to me just by watching the numbers.
That's an example, where, even though everybody was reporting the exact same numbers, there were really different stories being told about what it meant and what was happening: These votes aren't in, and it means this, and so on. The variations in the narratives the different channels used to fill in the blanks of the information clearly do matter.
That’s one of the rare moments when people actually are watching the TV again. Some sort of comradery is happening. Presidential elections, the Superbowl...
Right, they are less common and also unpredictable.
Those sorts of media events still exist. And indeed those are moments through which we make sense of our culture. But it hasn’t been the case that US television has offered information about the world around us not grounded in reality until recently.
In your research of the transition of news from TV to digital – have you found that it’s necessarily good or bad? Or is it just about adapting and understanding?
It depends. It depends a lot on where you are. I would describe the state of things in the United States as a moment of advanced crisis, largely because of the lack of a robust public media system. In other places, digital technologies have expanded choice and access to public service media. Notably, most people in the US report getting their news from television, but it is important to keep in mind that the journalism television offers, especially in recent decades, is quite thin. Most of the investigative reporting, the uncovering of information that affects people’s lives, has been done by newspapers – whether delivered on paper or online.
I've been doing a bit of comparative work and the economic issues are more or less the same everywhere. Advertisers used to make it possible for local newspapers to exist, and those advertisers have found a better place to get attention than newspapers. That is the core financial problem you see in most countries.
The countries that have been subsidizing their papers are doing okay. In parts of Europe local newspapers were still pretty robust and rich in information, so people kept buying them. In other places, like the US and Australia, many of those local papers had been bought up by chains and had cost-cutting to improve them as investments (stocks) during the decades before the internet. That cost-cutting had been sucking the quality of them down over the decades.
No one has figured out the economics of how to make local information work without advertisers paying for it, but a lot of that is continued effort to save newspapers instead of saving local journalism. The changed competitive environment has diminished newspapers as strong investment-grade stocks from the norms of the latter half of the 20th century. Local news can be profitable, but not like it was, and non-profit approaches are far more likely to succeed and to provide the type of journalism communities need. My critique is that we've been looking in the wrong place. How you fund it has to be the first part of the conversation.
What happened to this good, the newspaper, has very little to do with journalism, and it has everything to do with the advertisers.
We need to start looking for a solution in terms of how to fund journalism without advertisers.
When you say public media system, what does that mean specifically?
In Western Europe and much of the world, a public media system is mostly related to broadcasting – it is funded sometimes out of tax money. Sometimes public service media is also funded through advertising, but generally public service media systems’ goal is not simply to try to make as much money as possible – as the case of commercial news, but that there is some “public service ethos” — there are higher standards other than just what can make the most money that are part of determining success in that system.
Public service media is highly trusted in many countries and the most reliable source. In Australia for example, our newspapers are probably more like Fox News; many feature sensational and misleading headlines that seem to me more like an American tabloid. But, there is a publicly funded broadcaster, the ABC, that has no commercials, and that entity has continued to exist as the most trusted source of information. Its job is to make sure Australians are informed. The primary focus of commercial news – whether newspapers or television is not to inform us, but to return a profit.
That trust is important. One of the things that political scientists see as they look around at the crisis in disinformation is how it connects to partisanship in different countries and their news sources.
The real problem in the US is the lack of shared agreement that there is an entity that people can trust.
In countries with a robust public system, you don't see that as much. Certainly, everyone has their critique of the national broadcaster, but at the end of the day, there is a sense, by most of the population, that it can be trusted.
Do you think it's like a uniquely American problem because of the first amendment? Our particular hangup on “freedom”.
It's the fact that we don't fund our public media system. NPR and PBS, are funded at an equivalent of $1.40 per person in the U.S. while countries such as the UK, Norway, and Sweden spend more than $100 per person. That makes a difference. The U.S. developed a commercial media system first. Much of the world was first public service-based and then opened itself to commercials. I think that is very evident in our history.
We’ve spoken to a lot of academics who seem hesitant about government funding of local news because of the fear of government influence on the material.
That's silly. Many countries have decades of experience illustrating how you can set things up to run independently. And it's we the people who do let this hesitancy develop.
It is we the people who chose to be partisan and let our politicians question the independence of these organizations. We let them attempt to bring down these media organizations that hold power to account, It is convenient for the game that they're playing.
So I disagree with the notion that an independent public system can't exist. What NPR manages to do is pretty impressive. The audience of many of its shows is several times that of cable news, but it doesn't get amplified in the same way because it isn’t shilling provocative nonsense
The fact the U.S. public media system is underfunded is a big problem, but the way the system is set up is really interesting. The U.S. has this model based in communities. It was set up to not be centralized, but to prioritize communities. I think that is actually a really important feature of how the U.S. public media system could help solve the lack of local journalism now.
When I was in the U.S., I was based in Michigan. Michigan Radio broke a number of major stories, like the Flint water crisis, and the gymnastic sexual abuse scandal, because newspapers were either gone or they were centralized somewhere and weren't doing investigative reporting anymore. So, the public radio station broke it.
Part of the problem is that we continue to think that news has to come from a newspaper. That is not the case. There needs to be a more encompassing view of journalism – journalism is journalism whether you're listening to it, you're reading it, or you're watching it. And now we have a technology that lets you move abundantly across them.
Do you think NPR and PBS are adapting through time? I feel like there’s something stagnant about them, or nostalgic even. Maybe that’s a positive in terms of audience trust. But I wonder about something new in that space to broaden the audience even further, or towards young people?
It is difficult to turn any institution, especially when it doesn't have money. I think the question becomes, how would you pay for that? Do you launch an entirely new public-funded entity? Or do you capitalize on the thing that exists and help it diversify its brand? It comes back to money. Money and leadership. I listen to a lot of U.S. NPR, and I think you are right that I don't see a lot of outreach to youth. I think I have seen NPR try harder on diversity, certainly than what you'd see on CNN or on a broadcast network and that has been more of a focus. But among any age group US public media consumption is fairly niche, but it is also backed by passion that leads to the donations that keep it afloat. So, I think there's evidence of trying to do things in new ways, but it comes down to money and leadership.
Are there people with money or leadership skills you find to look at for a way forward? Are you hopeful at all, or does the future look bleak?
There's an argument that it has to get really bad before it can get better, unfortunately.
At some point, I think the nation has to decide whether it wants to be a nation or not.
We have had a very different 18 months here in Australia, a much greater collective response, and an acceptance of rules and policy for the good of the whole. Watching what happened last year in the U.S., you kind of have to wonder, if things fell apart that badly and there is still this scale of division, can it come back together? I don't know.
Again it comes back to money and leadership. It is hard to come together when people are afraid that they're not going to have a place to live or not going to be able to feed their kids. It's about having leaders who are inspiring images of connection and of continuity, rather than "us versus them." We have had societies for a long time, and we have some new technologies that are allowing us to divide ourselves in new ways, but we're still all pretty smart, so I haven’t given up hope.
Collapse is collapse I guess.