Changing the Media

Yesterday I did an “Ask Me Anything” with the site Wiselike and got a lot of interesting questions. One of them, on problems with the US media, was widely circulated yesterday but requires a log-in today, so I’m reposting it here:

If you could change how media is done in the States, what would you change?

Hi Sarah thanks for doing this AMA and I noticed that you write about media. I wanted to know what you thought about how media coverage is done because whatever media is covering- those are the issues people care about.

Oh man. Thanks for the question. This answer may go on for awhile. To start:

1) Publish less and pay writers more. We are drowning in a sea of crap. That is nothing new. The media was a sea of crap in the 1990s, but what is unique about our era is that it is aggregrated, plagiarized, repackaged crap churned out by underpaid writers riding the hamster wheel to hell. Listicles are not good journalism. Dropping random tweets into an article is not good journalism. My tweets sometimes end up in articles and I’m like “Why is anything I had to say on this relevant?” I had a tweet that was like “David Bowie died, how sad, here’s his last video” put in a Newsweek article. Newsweek, which was a major publication twenty years ago. I am not a music critic, I had nothing of value to say, yet there I was. Why? If Twitter dies, it would probably be good for journalism, because reporters would have to talk to human beings again.

The Bowie thing is a mundane example. It’s more dangerous to see this level of laziness – which I suspect is not true laziness or lack of ability, but panic rooted in the desire to hit a quota of articles and get paid – applied to serious political topics. There is little originality, just seeing what’s popular and blindly emulating it – sometimes even taking a few paragraphs someone else wrote and then adding a line or two and your own byline. There are huge factual errors that ruin people’s lives – misidentifying terrorist suspects, for example — and they get reprinted by click-chasers who don’t fact-check. This is the idiot side of the attention economy. The most meaningless currency in journalism is RTs. The second most meaningless currency is currency, because journalists are not getting it. Few outlets are investing hard cash in good writers to do good work that may take a long time to complete.

This does not mean that good work is not being published. A lot of great work still gets out there. But I know so many writers who are either suffering or who have had to leave, because they cannot economically survive in this industry. I’ve turned down probably 20 media jobs in the last three years because I simply couldn’t afford to take them. Media is becoming an industry of elites who pay tens of thousands for journalism school, get paid nothing as unpaid interns, and churn out thinkpieces that perish in a day or lazy listicles that linger too long. If they got more money, and wrote less, they’d likely do a better job. If the journalism school requirement was dropped, and internships paid well, outlets would get more diverse and potentially more talented writers.

And we might not have Donald Trump.

2) Diversify staff – not just at the reporter level, but at the highest levels. Non-white journalists are still excluded from mainstream media, especially in leadership positions. Women are still disproportionately excluded from op-eds, financial reporting, or foreign affairs coverage. There have been many times where I am the only woman on an op-ed page, or covering a particular topic. And it’s not because there aren’t good female writers out there. It’s because serious topics are still thought of as “male”.

The biggest problem in terms of media diversity, however, is race – or more precisely, anti-blackness, particularly as issues of anti-black discrimination become more widely covered. For example, one major outlet contacted me to get the “inside view” and provide my personal perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement. I was like, they couldn’t find a black reporter to do this? When there are tons of underemployed black writers who would have something personal and insightful to say?

In case you didn’t know, Kendzior is Polish for “Find a black reporter to share the black experience, you racist.”

So I turned that down.

This attitude sometimes carries over into the reporting itself. I’ve done feature stories where I’ve interviewed a lot of black folks and found that the white editor wants to delete all the direct quotes from black citizens. They cannot stand hearing anything not filtered through a white voice. I had to kill my own story once – “The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back” — and lose a lot of money self-publishing it because I wouldn’t play along.

The attitude also carries over into who gets interviewed on TV. When the Mizzou protests happened, MSNBC tried to get me to go on Chris Hayes to talk about it because black protesters refused to talk to the media. I was like “You know why no one wants to talk to you? Because you think it’s fine to let a white woman who has never been to Mizzou speak for them.” So I turned that down too.

I don’t care who I alienate, I will not participate.

3) Finally (for now) — we need to focus on content, not brands. I have seen so many places go out of business since I entered journalism 15 years ago. I was happiest writing for Al Jazeera English under its original editor, who founded the op-ed section, brought in a truly diverse array of writers from all over the world, and encouraged us to express our ideas even if they were on topics that didn’t seem to have mass appeal. (The articles often had mass appeal anyway, which shows how good writing travels even if the topic is not in vogue.)

A lot has been written about the demise of Al Jazeera America, and I feel badly for all the reporters, editors and producers who lost their jobs. I hope they all find work soon. But AJAM also hurt AJE. It sent Al Jazeera into internal disarray over its “brand”, which they obsessed about instead of relying on the strength of their content. After my editor left in frustration, I had four editors in an eight-month period. I didn’t witness what went on behind the scenes, but others from AJE have written about the turmoil, which was rooted in needless concerns over “brand”.

AJE’s video content, which had been so vital during the Arab uprisings, was blocked from the US web so that AJAM would seem more palatable to US audiences – even though that content was what drew Americans to Al Jazeera in the first place. Conservativism and fear harmed both sites, and ultimately killed AJAM. The lesson is that if you concentrate on doing good and honest work, and not appeasing imagined audiences or consultants, you can build a loyal readership. Sometimes outlets fail because they have too much confidence in themselves – they get sloppy. AJ failed because it didn’t have enough confidence to be what it was and capitalize on what it already had. And that’s a shame.

I could go on all day, but that’s enough for now.

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