Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Interview: Craig Aaron says the media's future "will be about capturing views across every device", not "TV ratings"

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in April 2017.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

Like actors on tour, issues enter and exit America’s political stage. Debate rages, then quells, and is often forgotten -- if not rewritten -- in the pages of history.
One topic that manages to remain en vogue, though, is media bias. Both sides of the aisle claim that powerful press agencies have stacked the cards against them. They say it is all but impossible for the whole story to be told because certain individuals have no interest in truth.
Where there’s smoke there must also be fire, correct?
An interesting, not to mention important, question for our day and age. The dawn of Donald Trump's presidency ignited a firestorm of scrutiny toward media figures. There has likely never been a time during which so much distrust and hostility flows at our supposed 'guardians of democracy'.
When the public no longer, on a general basis, places stock in the watchmen-and-women-on-the-wall, it does not take a clairvoyant fellow to see that dark storm clouds are on the horizon.

Troubles brewing within our national media go back long before the Donald took his famous ride down the escalator, though. Craig Aaron, as well as the group he leads, have watched with a keen eye as the dismay unfolded. 

"Craig has led Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund since 2011," his biography at FP explains. "For more than a decade, he has been a leader in major campaigns to safeguard Net Neutrality, stop media mergers and consolidation, oppose unchecked surveillance, defend public media and sustain quality journalism. He works in Washington and speaks often to the press and the public on media and technology issues. He has written for The Daily Beast, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Hill, MSNBC, Politico, The Progressive, The Seattle Times, Slate and many other outlets. Before joining Free Press, he was an investigative reporter for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch and the managing editor of In These Times magazine. He is the editor of two books, Appeal to Reason: 25 Years of In These Times and Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism."

Aaron recentl spoke with me about many issues relevant to the American media. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: For many Americans, television news serves as a major source of information. Today, cable and network stations are competing to dominate the future of televised news. Given the rise of the Internet, though, does it even matter who ultimately wins out?

Craig Aaron: Yes, it matters. But you’re right that the future is all about the Internet. And the real fight already underway isn’t about winning TV ratings but about cementing gatekeeper control over what comes next. That’s why you see all of the big cable and phone companies moving to swallow up content creators.

The future won’t be about winning your time slot; it will be about capturing views across every device. The jockeying that’s happening right now is all about trying to control the on-ramps -- whether that’s big cable companies like Comcast and Charter trying to favor their own content or powerful platforms like Facebook, Google and Apple trying to keep you inside their walled gardens.

Cotto: Cable news stations gained much traction over the last few decades. However, they are rapidly losing ground to various Internet outlets. Beyond any other reason, why is this?

Aaron: The biggest reason is a good one: People are demanding it. Almost nobody under 60 wants to watch things besides sports at a specific time. And they don’t want just one source of information. They want to watch whatever they want to watch whenever they want to watch it -- and they should be able to do it. The Internet is much better at giving us what we want -- which is mostly a great, world-changing thing. But it can also be abused -- which is why you see so many conspiracy theories and so much fake news and misinformation. But most people would rightfully trade the risk of being exposed to some misinformation to the alternative: a few dominant voices picking and choosing content for you. Better to counteract lies with more speech than start censoring.

Cotto: Whether the station in question is a network affiliate or a cable channel, most people would probably expect some sort of bias to be present. Given how polarized our society has become, an ever-larger share of the population might find this to be a good thing. Do you have a perspective on this?

Aaron: I do think objectivity is overrated. Everyone has opinions and biases -- what readers and viewers want is for news outlets to be clear about what they are and not pretend otherwise. But people also want reporters to stick to the facts, to be much more transparent about how they get their information, and to be fair. I’m less worried about biases so long as they’re disclosed than I am about the severe cutbacks in the number of reporters out there gathering the information we need to be informed participants in this democracy.