“I just want some news.”
A few years ago, I was sitting in a diner, tapping away on my laptop, slurping down coffee and eating pancakes, trying to block out the conversations around me.
The chatter from the table right behind me rose up. I listened as they chewed over the first few outrages of the Trump administration and debated the credibility of the Russia probe.
“I just want some news,” said a woman at the table.
I felt myself nodding in agreement, conjuring up an image of Peter Jennings anchoring the 6 o’clock news circa 1983.
That kind of news product still exists – barely. In reality, it’s been on life support for the best part of two decades in no small part because of the accelerated growth of the Internet — and the incalculable spread of information across the entire globe.
So why does it feel like our news diet is so anemic? Or, perhaps more accurately, junk-filled?
And why do respectable and reliable public interest organizations that measure such things put out report after report showing that public trust in the news media continues to nosedive?
There’s plenty of blame to go around – the Internet and its multiple disruptions, the rise of opinion journalism, the Twittersphere, and political polarization coupled with a sped up news cycle and the death of legacy media’s ad-based business model.
But I’ll start with the elephant in the room: the presidency of Donald Trump.
“Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”
Staff writer at The Atlantic
The title of James Fallows September 15th article in The Atlantic could not have been more stark:
In it, Fallows, who warned of growing bad habits among news professionals in his 1996 book ”Breaking The News,” outlines how White House journalists have lost the plot since confronting the norm-busting president, who has repeatedly deemed the press “the enemy of the people.”
In short, Fallows makes a compelling case that reporters keep naively responding to a president who, to put it mildly, isn’t playing by the same rules. And, writes Fallows, they’ve yet to pivot, instead leaning on the traditional fact-check,“both-sides-ism,” and horse race coverage in a futile effort to hold Trump accountable.
New York University journalism professor and writer Jay Rosen echoes this critique, arguing in his PressThink blog that White House reporters have repeatedly and mistakenly applied legacy notions of covering a president who has long since thrown the rule book out.
“My number one lesson after five years of Trump and the press: Common practices in journalism rest on assumptions about how candidates and office holders will behave. If those assumptions are incorrect, the practices break. This happened to fact checking.”
Rosen goes so far as to urge White House reporters out of the briefing room, arguing they merely serve as a vessel for the president’s distortions of reality.
“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.”
Former New York Times op-ed Editor
The culture wars had long since broken out on the pages of The New York Times when conservative journalist Bari Weiss announced she was leaving the paper of record on Twitter just a few months ago. Her letter of resignation read like a college journalism professor’s admonition to a wayward student.
In short, Weiss called out the paper of record for failing to make up for its own self-inflicted wounds of 2016: that is, failing to see the rise of President Donald Trump and the longstanding grievances of his supporters. She claimed to have been bullied by her post modernist far left former colleagues for “wrongthink,” and decried editorial decision-making driven by satisfying the narratives of the what she described as the “narrowest of audiences” and governed by the politics of the Twitterati.
Her resignation came on the heels of the abrupt departure of her former boss James Bennett, who was forced out after publishing a controversial op-ed by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, making the case for a military response to widespread civil unrest following the release of gruesome video of the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
On the same day Weiss announced her departure from the New York Times came another: this time from pioneering blogger and conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, who said on Twitter that he would be leaving New York Magazine.
He explained his departure in his final column for the magazine on July 17.
“What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”
Sullivan told readers he would resurrect the blog that put him on the digital publishing map The Dish (this version would be a weekly, not a daily) by migrating to Substack, where he would join other non-mainstream journalists, such as Matt Taibbi, to write without limits.
All three resignations were high-profile, controversial, and highlight two increasingly worrying trends from elite news outlets: an overtly politically-driven approach to editorial decision-making, and the harsh realities of digital disruption.
“These technologies that all of us are using: iPhone, Google, Instagram, Twitter, go down the list….In terms of human history and certainly communications, these are all baby products and we’re treating them like babies. We’re still very adolescent in usage of these really cool technologies that if used right, can be very transformative in a positive way. If abused, they can really grind up and grind down our country.”
Axios & Politico founder & CEO
In 2006, Twitter was launched to be followed just a year later by the unveiling of the first ever smartphone. Longtime print journalist and later CEO and founder of Politico and Axios Jim VandeHei believes the disruption of digital technology can only be described as a profound transformation, one that the news media are presently confounded by. A notable concern of his is the loss of a once “shared understanding of the news” that leads to our collective self-sorting and siloing into news bubbles.
Combine that with the scale of social media platforms like Facebook and what you have is the loss of traditional informational gatekeepers and news literacy – the ability to determine which sources of news and information are credible and which aren’t.
“My biggest takeaway of the last four years is probably realizing the extent to which big chunks of America are living in a different universe of news/facts with basically no shared reality,” was how Charlie Warzel, who writes about the information wars for the New York Times, put it in a Tweet in late August.
In this hyper-sped up information environment, political polarization rushes in, especially with a highly unusual commander in chief who skillfully uses it to send a torrent of messaging and policy changes on Twitter.
No matter their protestations to the contrary, journalists being human beings first have undoubtedly changed the way they perform their craft. And some days it can seem as though they have collectively gone mad. Just spend a few hours watching CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
But before we fall into total despair, history tells us we’ve been here before.
“Imagine that we are suddenly at a moment when everybody can read and everybody can write and suddenly, the people who used to control all the sources of information no longer have access to it. And good things are multiplying and information is traveling more quickly, but so is disinformation and so is political scandal and things are moving very quickly and they’re leading even very quickly to wars and conflict of kind we couldn’t imagine before.
And no I’m not talking about the present moment. I’m not talking about the invention of social media and the internet.
I’m talking about the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which was a previous moment in history when there was an information revolution that very quickly became a religious, culture and political revolution.”
Journalist & historian
We survived the fallout of the printing press. I’ll place my bet on the news media, warts and all, surviving the Internet.
The Cost of “Thoughts”
Jack Del Rio made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter.
The first recorded use of the expression, “A penny for your thoughts,” was made by Sir Thomas Moore precisely 500 years ago (1522). But, no doubt, a penny went much further in the 16th century.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows that inflation continues to increase above expectations. The current annual rate of 8.6% is the highest since 1981. The cost of thoughts, or at least saying them aloud, well, saying certain things in a public forum, has gone up far more than the CPI.
Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders (formerly known as the “Washington Football Team,” and before that, the Washington Redskins), made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter. Specifically, his Tweets compared (what he called) “the summer of riots” to January 6th at the U.S. Capitol. As the late, great Alex Trebek would say, Del Rio’s comments were “in the form of a question.”
Faced with media scrutiny about his Tweets, rather than back down, Del Rio referred to January 6th as a “dust-up at the Capitol.”
Can I tell you a trade secret of press flacks? They all have a small can of lighter fluid and a pack of matches within reach behind a piece of glass with the words “break only in the case of emergency” scrawled on it. Certain phrases or words will cause a press person, at great personal danger and sacrifice, to break the glass, douse themselves with the accelerant, and strike a match before flinging their immolating body in front of the podium. Okay, not literally, but I guarantee the Commanders’ public relations director would think this alternative less painful than hearing those words come out of Del Rio’s mouth in front of the press gaggle.
The controversy that followed was swift and certain: as was the reaction from Commanders Head Coach Ron Rivera. He promptly assessed a $100,000 fine on Del Rio for his comments.
Two points here: First, this is not a sports story. Talk Radio observers should be far more concerned with the consequences of this story than NFL or sports fans. Second, it doesn’t matter what you think happened on January 6th. You should still find the fine issued by Rivera chilling, whether you call it an insurrection or a dust-up.
I used to believe that comedian Bill Maher and I were about as far apart on the political spectrum as any two Americans could be. Maher and I, however, hold similar views on freedom of expression.
On his HBO show, “Real Time,” Maher defended Del Rio by saying: “In America, you have the right to be wrong. They fined him; the team fined him $100,000 for this opinion. Fining people for an opinion. I am not down with that.”
Because this is where we meet, I’d like to buy Bill Maher a drink and have a laugh over all the times he’s been wrong, or we can share that drink and a smile for understanding that freedom of expression IS the foundation of democracy – no matter who’s right or wrong. Freedom of expression is an issue where liberals and conservatives must find common ground.
The football team currently known as the Washington Commanders may need another name change. Perhaps the “Comrades” would reflect the team’s philosophy better? Levying such a hefty punishment for stating a political (and non-football) point of view because it is out of step with what is apparently official policy seems more reminiscent of the Politburo’s posture than a free society.
Del Rio’s words are understandably offensive to many. At the very least, they were ham-handed for someone who has been in the public spotlight for so long. But a $100,000 fine? Stifling political opinion is far more dangerous than anything Del Rio said.
Taking the Del Rio incident into context with the “Cancel Culture” of the past few years, Talk Radio hosts should look over their shoulders. Del Rio is also an excellent reminder to think twice before posting a politically unpopular opinion on social media.
Inflation has eaten away at the value of a penny and increased the cost of making politically incorrect statements, including on the air in recent years. What inhibits individuals from expressing their thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and emotions is a threat to Talk Radio and democracy.
Joe Pags’ Dream to Work In Media Started Early
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
If you’ve ever been required to interview someone for a segment or article, you know pretty quickly when it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Joe Pags was answering my initial questions as freely as Ebeneezer Scrooge hands out Krugerrands. Teeth have been pulled from the human head with greater ease. It just wasn’t happening.
After a few minutes, I think I grew on him.
I discovered we actually had a few things in common; both of us lived in Lake Worth, Florida, we knew a lot of the same places and faces, and we both understood that summer heat in Florida is like purgatory.
However, Pags and I will both have a fond devotion to The Noid. We will always share the memories of being a manager at Domino’s Pizza.
“I worked at Domino’s when pizzas were delivered to your door within 30-minutes, or it was free,” Pags said. “After a while they went to 30 minutes or three dollars off the price. Too many people were getting into accidents trying to beat the clock.”
What Pags did not mention was that even when you legitimately made it in less than 30 minutes, you had people questioning your delivery time. I guess that’s human nature.
Soon, pizzas were just for eating, not working; Pags started his radio career in 1989 in Palm Beach County, Florida.
After that, it was a stint as a television anchor from 1994-2005 in Saginaw, Michigan, and then Albany, New York. From there he was called back to radio and landed at the Clear Channel Talk Flagship, WOAI, in 2005. The Joe Pags Show has been a fan favorite since its debut in 2005.
For Pags, the media dream started early on.
“I grew up listening to talk radio at a very young age and was determined to make my living doing it one day,” Pags says. “I actually have a tape somewhere on which I erased the DJ’s voice and recorded mine over the songs.”
Pags is probably thrilled that the tape will never be released.
Years later, he found he could pay the bills doing something he loved. “I’m lucky enough to work with great people on both local, and national radio and television,” Pags explained.
“I also remember Steve Cain, Rick, and Suds on that station,” Pags said. “It was a lot of talk radio, but it was fun. It was entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was doing the politics stuff back then.”
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
“When my voice changed at 13, I developed more of a bass tone; I knew I was on my way. I had a New York accent and had to shake that.”
Before he embarked on a career in radio, his music career was going well. Pags played French horn and saxophone; apparently, he was pretty good.
He played gigs at the prestigious Breakers Hotel, among many others. “I used to play at the Backstage lounge adjacent to the old Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter,” Pags said.
No word on whether Reynolds ever caught Pags live or not.
As a kid, he played baseball. Pags said he was pretty good. What took center stage for Pags was music. It was the French horn and saxophone that captured his heart.
“I played professionally on the Empress Dinner Cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway,” Pags said. “I also did gigs at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. We made some good money.”
Before Domino’s and radio and music, it all started with a strong desire to succeed. That often comes from your family’s belief in you. Sometimes it’s not there.
“I knew that if I worked hard enough, if I showed the love for the work I was doing, then I’d succeed,” Pags said.
His family lived in Lake Worth, Florida, from 1973-74, and Pags returned every so often. “I got back to Florida recently when I went to Mara Lago and watched 2,000 Mules.”
San Antonio has been home for the past 17 years for Pags and his family. “I’ve been here at WOAI. I’ve got my own studio in a great area.” His daughter Sam is his executive producer. I asked Pags if there was any nepotism when it came to hiring Sam.
“Darn right, there is nepotism,” he said. “This is Joe Pags media. I get to hire whoever I want,” he quipped. “Sam has always had a love of broadcasting. When I became syndicated in this business, I told her I trusted her more than anyone else I knew and asked her to produce my show.”
The other day I spoke with Will Cain for a piece. He told me if I visited Austin, I should also see Texas. So I asked Pags what Cain was trying to say. “He means Austin is a city like Portland; only it’s in Texas. There’s a lot of homelessness in Austin. A lot of crime. The University of Texas in Austin goes far to the Left.”
Where does Pags’ tough demeanor come from?
“My father was 100 percent Italian. We had some good pasta dishes around our house with my grandparents around,” Pags explained. “We didn’t have a good bakery in Lake Worth, so I remember my mother and aunts bringing great bread recipes over from the homeland.”
Pags has always been interested in what takes place on the periphery, not just the core of matters. He’s done a lot of things throughout his life. That experience has helped shape his radio show. Pags said his show tends to be white-collar, but he grew up blue-collar all the way.
“I liked the Superman movies. I enjoyed Rocky,” Pags explained. “As a car-buff, I loved the Burt Reynolds films with Smokey and the Bandit. Stuff like that.”
Lake Worth, like a lot of other Floridia areas, has been known to be a little rough and tumble. Just watch Cops for a week if you don’t believe me.
Pags said other than a little shoving match at the bus stop, he didn’t encounter much rough stuff. “I was a musician, I wasn’t in that mix. Perhaps a scuffle in little league.”
When he was a teenager, he thought music would be it. “I’d played with some big-hitters at the time, like The Coasters,” Pags said.
“Music career opportunities really didn’t come along as I’d hoped. In some ways, people in the industry were full of it. I still did some freelance work on the saxophone.”
Pags said he was always willing to work for what he got. “I poured coffee and ran errands for $4 an hour,” Pags said. “I had my car repossessed, and got evicted from my apartment. I still kept at it. I never was deterred from what I wanted. I knew what I wanted, but never really expected things to happen the way they did.”
Pags said if some youngster asked how to be what Pags is today, his answer was succinct. “Pour coffee, run errands, whatever you have to do.”
I asked Pags what he does in his downtime? Let’s just say he’s not running to tee-off at 7:00 am with the guys at the club on his day off.
“I’m a domestic sports car guy,” he says with pride. “I’ve got three Corvettes, a Camaro Super Sport. My Camaro was a 1967, red with white stripes. I sold that car so we could afford to adopt our daughter. I got the better end of that deal.”
He doesn’t do any weekend racing on local tracks like other aging Indy wannabes. “I like to look at those cars in the garage,” Pags said. “My dad was a big car guy. My dad is probably why I’ve succeeded in my life and career. Not for the reasons you’d think.”
Pags’ relationship with his father had the typical ups and downs. Same as it is for most men.
“My father didn’t think I’d amount to anything and had no problem relating that to me,” Pags said. “Conversely, my Mom was always extremely supportive of my interests and goals. I knew if you were good at what you did, people would take notice.”
Pags said his father excelled at being a naysayer. A glass is a half-empty kind of guy.
“He was so negative. He thought I’d never succeed at anything,” Pags explained. “I was out of the house at 17, and I was determined to become something. To prove him wrong.”
Before his father passed away, Pags believes his father became aware of a lot of things.
“A light went on in his head, and he was just so surprised I could make a living doing what I did,” Pags explains. “When I became a big enough success, he recognized my drive and determination. I’m still not sure if he was hard on me because he thought it would help me in the end. Whatever his reasoning was, it gave me the drive and determination to see things through.”
Pags’ father became so proud of his son that he’d tell friends Joe was going to be on Fox News and how they should tune in.
“It was my mother, with her ultimate support, that really made me want to succeed. For her,” Pags explained.
“I learned that if someone disparages you or makes you feel small, you have choices. You can go into a shell and take it. Believe what people say. Or you can go out and knock down some doors. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. Soon I will be syndicated on 200 stations. All that came from believing in myself. I’ll prove it to iHeart. To other broadcasters.”
Pags said at some point; you’ve got to find some kind of edge.
“I knew I wasn’t going to agree with things my father believed and said, just to shut him up. I had to stand up for my own beliefs.”
I can relate to a guy like Pags. He’s got a tough exterior, not easy to crack. But like me, I know in the center is a soft, creamy nougat.
Where Is the Good Stuff?
By the “good stuff, I’m not even referring necessarily to the happy or “feel good” tales of human kindness, child wonderment, or cute puppies.
A couple of stories about bears actually brought me to this declamation of sorts.
What you’ll see (or read, actually) is nothing new and certainly not any type of original complaint or assessment, but as I spend my days digging, crafting, and stacking stories on double homicides, house fires, high gas prices, and low voter turnout, it’s becoming that much more difficult to balance out a newscast with the good stuff.
By the “good stuff, I’m not even referring necessarily to the happy or “feel good” tales of human kindness, child wonderment, or cute puppies. I’m really just talking about the low end of the meter things; an innocuous bill passing, a road-widening project, or maybe even an upgrade in consumer technology somewhere.
We all realize if a show rattles off an unending laundry list of death, destruction, corruption, and high pollen counts, the only winners are therapists, pharmacies, and liquor stores. But it’s no longer as easy as it once was; I mean, I may be overstating for dramatic effect, but at the end of the day, it really does seem like not only are there fewer accounts to raise the serotonin levels, but those we do find cannot sufficiently dilute those newscasts from their continual tales of woe.
To expand my point, I return to the bears.
Over the years, I have come to count on bears, and for a good reason. Most bear content consists of the giant creatures, often with their youngsters in tow, doing things we find cute, intriguing, thought-provoking, and/or hilarious.
If you have never seen a giant black bear rumbling around inside an SUV they’ve just illegally entered or busting into someone’s kitchen and raiding the pantry or the garbage shed, can you even say you have truly lived?
Well, the short answer is you probably can, but I’m the one on the keyboard at the moment, so roll with it for now.
True, those stories often come at the expense of some weary camper, homeowner, or utility worker, but for the audience, it’s generally rejuvenating, even medicinal. A simple Google or social media search will lead you to an overflow of the best of bears in news content. Therefore, as you will see…they trend.
But here’s what has happened of late to turn those stories in a downward direction. Here, in this part of New England, our news stories about bears recently have revolved around them being killed. They destroy some crops or a garden and move on towards somebody’s house, and they get shot. They break into a shed and don’t run off; they get shot. They are euthanized; their cubs get tranquilized for relocation and then don’t wake up. It’s certainly a shift.
Suddenly, we are back to where we started with our content. What was once a sure thing is now added to the dark category of story selection. Still, it is often viable content because it’s a pro and con topic; it has angles and follow-up potential.
Now know this; I am not proposing a referendum involving bears, but rather just offering a long-winded metaphor of sorts.
We do not know when the time-tested default stories are going to turn on us. I do think it will usually happen when our backs are turned. That probably means the digging we do has gone even more profound than before. We cannot always count for all those elements in a story to be out in the open.
Like most of us, I read or at least do a hard scan of a lot of reports, releases, summaries, and everyone else’s take on what’s happening. Fortunately, I can sometimes find fundamental components dropped down further than they ought to be or not allotted enough attention due to time or space constraints.
In police work, these obscure details would often lead to another suspect, another criminal charge, or even an exoneration or a new investigation.
I find little difference in this present position:
A hi-rise building fire is brought under control when the alarm’s sprinkler system douses much of the flames just as fire crews arrive. Now, that’s great, but there’s a bit more upon looking a little deeper.
The sprinklers knocked out the elevators, and firefighters carried a disabled burn victim down 14 flights of stairs.
Part of their job?
Sure, but worth peeling the layers off that onion.
Drivers going the wrong way is another big thing around here. On the interstates, the highways, the local roadways, it’s happening a lot and often, as you might guess, with tragic results. So a driver is taken into custody after going the opposite way on not one but two different thoroughfares within like fifteen minutes.
Good story, good arrest, good write-up.
How did they catch the wrong-way driver?
The trooper turned directly into the driver’s path and took the crash impact to stop him.
Where did we that aspect of the incident?
Paragraph four or three-quarters through the stand-up.
Now, of course, all coverage and treatment of stories is subjective, and the intent here is merely for me to find a way to say I’m not seeing enough or finding enough “good stuff” to balance out my newscast, so I am going to loot and gut everything I can when necessary.
And that’s just on the local side. Do not get me started on the national beat.
I hope it’s not that people are starting to slip on their quota of good deeds, but it has forced me to think and work just a little harder.
It’s disappointing when I cannot even count on the bears anymore.