Published on December 11th, 2018 | by Zachary Shahan0
The Media’s Role … And Its Adopted Achilles’ Heel
December 11th, 2018 by Zachary Shahan
The media has a vital role to play in democracy. Actually, it has a few vital roles. One role is to widely share useful information with the engaged, voting, consumer public. Another role, which you could call a subset of that first role, is to dig beneath the stories that powerful people want to tell and put a check on that power by bringing the true, comprehensive stories to light.
When it comes to political matters especially, the press can be superb at this. The media has uncovered many abuses of power, political scandals, and undemocratic behavior, eventually leading to a better society and much healthier democracy. I’ll repeat a quote from Thomas Jefferson that I’m fond of sharing: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Jefferson and other founding fathers saw the media as a core foundation of democracy, which is in large part why the 1st amendment is what it is.
But the media can be counterproductive when it is horrible at framing, cherrypicks facts in a misleading way, is unaware of critical context, and simply focuses on negative storylines too much. If you want society to look super shitty, focus on negative topics all the time. If you want to help represent society accurately and shape it in a more positive way, don’t forget or ignore the positive storylines.
This is indeed the media’s Achilles’ heel, in my humble opinion. The media focuses so much and so narrowly on digging up dirt that powerful people don’t want discovered that it forgets to keep things in broader context and ignores too many important positive stories. Personally, I think this is a big reason why election results swing between the parties like a pendulum. No matter what, the media constantly takes down the president and party in power. As an example, while the media has clearly and usefully brought to light numerous crimes committed by Donald Trump, his family, and his associates (truly concerning stuff the public should know), it also focused heavily on potential Hillary Clinton scandals that all ended up not being scandals. It didn’t matter in the end that they weren’t scandals. What mattered to the public was that the media conveyed a multi-decade storyline of potential scandal that stuck in their/our heads as scandal. Hillary Clinton will forever be associated with scandal in much of the public’s mind, but I bet you can’t name one actual crime she committed — because investigation after investigation found her innocent.
Anyhow, let’s move away from politics and raise a cleantech topic that all of this is highly relevant to — Tesla.
I’ve lamented before that it’s a horrible shame that the media has largely missed out on communicating the tremendous Tesla success story, an American success story that busts up negative trends such as loss of manufacturing, global heating, and air pollution. The media has focused most of its Tesla time this year on smearing Tesla and Elon Musk. It’s a shame. As I noted in “Why The Tesla American Success Story Ain’t Gettin’ No Love,” the following are fascinating, uplifting, momentous stories that major media outlets have largely ignored while instead focusing on faux financial collapse, petty tweets, and whatever Tesla short sellers feed their way:
Carolyn’s media analysis of the CBS 60 Minutes interview with Elon Musk found that the interviewer was heavily negative, even drew out negative statements from Musk time and time again via her framing, and lacked important perspective on the company. As a result, yet another major media work of art put Elon Musk and Tesla in bad light to some extent. It missed the opportunity to better explain the tremendous American success story of Tesla and its unbelievable potential for growing and advancing the auto industry, the energy industry, and more.
Rather than highlight that the world seemed to have bet against Tesla but was proven too pessimistic by Elon Musk and Tesla as a whole, CBS shaved several hours of interview time down to ~14 minutes that continuously shifted the talks back to negative framing. Rephrasing an old but powerful example, it’s as if the interviewer kept asking, “When did you stop beating your company?”
Again, this type of focus works when you really need to bring something problematic to the light and you are providing a useful check on power. However, not everything is a devious story about Frank Underwood that needs sunlight. Sometimes there’s a positive story hiding in the shadows that could use sunlight as well. Sometimes the media’s job is to explain something uplifting to the public that we might have missed, like Tesla’s nearly impossible series of successes and sales records, the Democrats’ effectiveness pulling us out of a recession, the many benefits of Obamacare, and the safety advantages of a new era of electric cars.
As long as the media focuses too narrowly on problems and not enough on the big picture and complete context, it is not adequately performing its core purpose. As long as influential members of the media warp our perception of important topics by chopping up the overall story and putting their thumb on the side of negativity, those members of the media shirk their chief duty — ensuring the public is well informed.
Luckily, we do have a democratic and relatively free internet today that helps to correct for that error. Luckily, we hear at CleanTechnica have been able to build up a big site focused on the topic of cleantech and tirelessly working to put cleantech matters in relatively complete, useful context. We may not reach as many people as 60 Minutes, but we do what we can from our own little corner of the media landscape.
Naturally, if you want to support our work, you can become a financial supporter. I value the Washington Post and its tremendous political reporting, so I subscribe to the paper to help support that work. I think CleanTechnica performs a useful service for society and deserves such support as well. We can do a better job communicating essential cleantech stories to millions more people each month with enough reader support, so please consider helping to give a charging boost to our work. In any case, thank you for reading and thank you for doing what you can do.