Yesterday, Senator Elizabeth Warren declined to appear on a town hall for Fox News, and in her explanation for why, she pointed out three salient observations about our media landscape that are key to understanding what we are trying to do at Ad Fontes Media.
Even if you do not politically align with Senator Warren, and even if you don’t mind Fox News so much, you likely recognize that at least certain shows on Fox (though not all) veer into (or live in!) very low-quality/highly-biased territory.
First, she called Fox News a “hate-for-profit racket,” meaning that with some of their programming, they stoke divisions, increase polarization, and yes, drive hatred for “the other side” because that content is engaging, draws a lot of eyeballs, and consequently attracts lots of ad dollars.
Those of you who have followed my blog posts may know that I lean left politically, so I’ll pause here to address the fact that my own topic focus here can be fairly construed as left-biased. I am validating something Elizabeth Warren said, after all.
Conservatives, though you may be dismayed by this, I assure you that what I write next will cause dismay among liberals. Hate-for-profit content exists on the left side of the spectrum too. Liberals will not deny that it does, but may accuse me of “both-sides-ism,” which is the looked-down-upon-by-liberals practice of pointing out that both parties do something, which is itself seen as unfair if one side quantitatively does something more often.
“Who does it more” is a valid question, but it is not one I will address in this post. Whether one side does something more is something that can be measured, and we will measure it as part of our future analyses of the media landscape. If one side does something bad 30,000 times a week and the other does it 10,000 per week, we can still agree that all 40,000 instances are bad.
So although Senator Warren applies the term hate-for-profit racket here to Fox News, consider all the bottom-and-side-dwellers of the Media Bias Chart “hate-for-profit racketeers” as we discuss her further observations.
The second salient observation she made about this particular hate-for-profit racketeer is that they “balance bigotry, racism, and outright lies with enough legit journalism to claim to advertisers that it’s a reputable news outlet.” This is key to the existence of pretty much all the bottom-and-side-dwellers on the chart. Notice that the chart doesn’t really cover much “fake news,” with the exception of the very, very bottom sources.
In order to gain substantial followings and sell ads, sources have to put out information that is at least plausible, and which is most of the time not fake. It’s just bad in other ways, like being misleading, sensationalistic, propagandistic, incomplete, and/or highly biased. Whenever people defend InfoWars or Patribotics to me, they say “actually, he/she does have good information a lot of the time.” This is what makes these junk sources so appealing and dangerous, and what allows them to stay in business as a “hate-for-profit racket.”
A third observation she made was that legit news coverage (a town hall featuring her, in this case) would allow their ad sales team “a way to tell sponsors it’s safe to buy ads on Fox—no harm to their brand or reputation (spoiler: It’s not).”
Brand safety—the potential for boycotts or brand damage due to association—around news content and news-like content is a growing concern for advertisers, as I think it should be. Brands are the funders and supporters of both good journalism and junk news, including the highly polarizing sources that have proliferated and polluted our news ecosystem in the past 10-20 years.
Highly polarizing news content is highly engaging, and for many years, engagement—clicks, views, and ratings—has been the only thing publishers and advertisers have been measuring. Now that it’s obvious we have serious problems with our news, consumers and brands alike are starting to pay attention to the roles they play in propping up the junk news industry.
Part of our mission at Ad Fontes Media is to make the news media better. One way we can do that is by showing consumers the connection between hate-for-profit publishers and advertisers (the publishers provide the hate, advertisers reward with profit).
Another way we can do this is to show brands the differences between types of news content. We are not measuring clicks and views. Our analyst team is looking at the content itself, and because of that, we can tell companies exactly how reliable and biased a news source is. Companies that care about their impact in society (and there are many that really, really do) can and should start to make better, more informed decisions about the content they support.