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Chickens Come Home To Roost For Legacy Media

Trump's rise and X's popularity spell dark times.

It is a terrible time to lead an American newsroom or, worse, an American news media organization. Headlines in recent weeks have highlighted how deeply some members of the Fourth Estate are suffering.

Everywhere one looks, media companies are laying off employees, offering buyout packages, and shrinking their operations to align rising costs with dwindling revenues.

The New York Times, one of the few organizations thriving commercially because of smart investments in recent years to emphasize its paywall (and biased reporting to cater to its paying subscribers), carried this story: Sports Illustrated Is Thrown Into Chaos With Mass Layoffs. "The announcement on Friday left in doubt what lies ahead for the venerable publication, with some staff members dismissed immediately."

Another Times article earlier in the week cataloged the journeys of three billionaires with little experience in corporate media who wanted to play Superman and rescue trophy properties. Marc Benioff, the co-founder of Salesforce picked up Time magazine; Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 (yes, it has been that long ago); and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong bought The Los Angeles Times. Each acquisition is in trouble as each is losing money.

The extent of corporate media's troubles is not limited to mainstream publications. In December, the 134-year-old iconic print publication, National Geographic, owned by Disney, announced that its last-ever glossy paper issue will be published in December 2024. Perhaps Disney's Chairman Bob Iger should not have gotten into a public spat with Elon Musk and withdrawn advertising on X, formerly Twitter. Had the resulting revolt, when tens of thousands of Disney customers canceled subscriptions in protest, been avoided, the cash could probably have saved National Geographic. 

Corporate media organizations have become self-styled arbiters of acceptable speech for at least ten years. Rather than follow Fox News' famous tagline promoted during the leadership of Roger Ailes - we report, you decide - every major organization has become a propaganda mouthpiece for various causes. Ironically, this shift includes Fox News.

The remarkable strength of former President Trump's ascendancy in American politics can be traced to a simple fact. While it is true that Trump embellishes, he has an uncanny ability to speak without filters, even if he comes out as offensive. However distasteful it may be, this role of telling things as they are was previously the bedrock function of corporate media outlets - think Walter Cronkite of CBS News, who was consistently rated the most trustworthy name in America. 

Even Jamie Dimon, the erstwhile Democratic Party donor and head of the venerable JP Morgan Chase banking empire, conceded as much in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. "He's kind of right about NATO. Kind of right about immigration," Dimon said in an interview with CNBC, describing Trump. "He grew the economy quite well. Tax reform worked. He was right about some of China."

The media coverage during the four years of Trump's presidency was overwhelmingly negative, sometimes as bad as 90% negative. We don't recall a single positive story in the mainstream press about Trump's stance on immigration or the southern border. Comedians and news outlets mocked his "Build the Wall" rhetoric on an endless tape. Today, Americans long for what could have been, as seven million illegal immigrants inundate the country and are choking the quality of life in our cities. 

Trump was absolutely on point with NATO. He was repeatedly ridiculed for stating that most NATO countries did not pay their fair share to keep the defense alliance going. When Trump won Iowa's 98/99 counties recently, indicating that he would be tough to beat in the 2024 general election, Europe erupted in fear. Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, told France 2 TV: "If we draw lessons from history, by which I mean to say the manner in which he [Trump] carried out the first four years of his mandate, it is clearly a threat." Translation: Europe has to finally begin paying its bills.

Americans are desperate for truthful, unbiased reporting and have concluded that legacy media outlets no longer do the job. It was a rude admission by news media titans at a WEF symposium this week. The Wall Street Journal's Editor-in-Chief, Emma Tucker, said:

I think there's a very specific challenge for the legacy brands, like the New York Times and like the Wall Street Journal...If you go back really not that long ago, as I say, we owned the news. We were the gatekeepers, and we very much owned the facts as well.... If it said it in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, then that was a fact... Nowadays, people can go to all sorts of different sources for the news, and are much more questioning what we're saying.

The leaders may well have been talking about X. According to Statista, the share of social media users who regularly get news from selected social media sites in the United States from 2020 to 2023 consistently stayed above 50% for X, formerly Twitter [although it fell slightly from the pandemic-driven years of 2020 and 2021]. The perception that Elon Musk is advancing free speech on X by eliminating legacy Twitter's abhorrent Safety and Trust teams that censored conservative voices has helped X as a platform for everyone. Facebook and Reddit shares fell during the same period, while viewers flocking to TikTok jumped. YouTube remained the same. X also has the raw power of numbers, 443 million global subscribers against the New York Times' 10 million. And unlike the Times, X is ad-supported and free.

The media is a significant factor behind the polarization in the country, and its biased coverage comes at a price: most Americans don't trust the media. The latest TIPP Poll shows that only one-third (36%) trust the media, while a staggering 59% do not. Coverage biased toward the left primarily appeals to Democrats and liberals. The media often aligns with Democrats in portraying Trump as a draconian dictator, to the extent that even sensible individuals with high gravitas like Jamie Dimon have to chastise its hyperbolic coverage. However, history shows that the media has no shame and never learns from its mistakes. There is no remorse, for example, for cheerleading the disastrous Russia hoax or for downplaying the Hunter Biden laptop coverage prior to the election, deserving the title of fake news, or being called the enemy of the people by some critiques. As the saying goes, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

The legacy media industry has a golden opportunity to reverse its declining trend by revising its policies to the golden rule it practiced for generations: "We report, you decide." It should drop pompous editorializing when reporting news and leave opinions and propaganda to others. 

But it still has a long way to go. Both CNN and MSNBC refused to carry Trump's Iowa victory remarks live, although the event was wholly newsworthy. Many viewers switched to X to view the entire speech and potential history in the making.

Lessons will continue to repeat themselves until they are learned. We are not optimistic that the media will change within our lifetime.