Big if True: The Next Big Thing is Speculative Journalism

This is the post-Four Seasons landscaping media ecology. Ugly, fact-free press conferences held under absurd conditions are ostensibly to be taken as something other than what they are. Reductio ad absurdum is an important mathematical idea — if one reduces an equation to say 2+2=5 or that 2+2 does not equal 4, you know it is wrong. Without a mooring in the not-absurd journalism goes entirely off the rails, becoming bad drama or a full-scale farce.

Finally, I have a real apple computer, not one of those macintoshes.

Of course not all news folks are pretending that the material circulated under such conditions is real or even particularly interesting. What is clear is that organizations that have lest invested in reportage are more vulnerable to devolving into absurd speculation, organizations dependent on opinion journalism have it harder.

How did we get opinion journalism?

Contrary to contemporary notions of the early 19th century as a free speech paradise, it was not. Defamation suits were common, the press was almost entirely partisan, and the postal service was made to censor abolitionist writings. Journalism, and journalism schools, were a reaction against this reality, seeking to create media concerned first and foremost with the truth. This kind of journalism may have even suppressed voter turnout with sharp, non-partisan coverage of elected officials. It helped objective journalism that the fifth party system, the political science term for broad party alignments, was based on a consensus behind the welfare state and extremely high social trust. It is really easy to be an objective journalist when folks have a general agreement about what true is and when the government requires that reporting try to be fair and that all those personally attacked are given an opportunity to respond.

Journalism then began to break down as social trust decayed and the sixth party system began. I trace the origin of the sixth, to Humphrey’s Into the Bright Sunshine, the speech that began the end of the Solid South and the democratic party as it had been known for decades. By the late 1964, this formed the basis of the southern and western strategy where southern racism and western libertarianism could be fused, transmuted again by the so-called culture wars which then depolarized the pacific coast and increasingly larger swaths of the west. It helped that much of California libertarian politics were tied to the John Birch Society, which is foundationally, a conspiracy theory. The decline of social stability/trust, pivots the plains to the right, and thus the last thirty years of the sixth party system come into clear view.

So, what does that have to do with journalism? The views above are wildly diverging, it makes sense that if you find war desirable or think people deserve starvation, or crave monarchy, then you need a press that will give column inches for the liberal perversity thesis: the idea that attempting to stop bad things causes them. Combined with the reality that there is a real block of voters that want to destroy society there should be a clear demand for factual coverage in this space, as well as a refusal to embrace shared reality.

No more fairness doctrine means you didn’t really need to try anymore on broadcast and boosting the creation of talk radio. Cable news was not particularly desirable, Fox literally had to pay cable systems to carry it.

Why did Opinion Journalism Succeed?

Two reasons:

A. In a factored space demand could be cultivated for a news product that served a very narrow band of interests. This product then changed to become a melodrama, in this world of journalism stories ebb and flow, they reach conclusions on Friday, with heroes and villains to beat the band. Elizabeth Anker has argued persuasively that the narrative structure at the heart of American political discourse is melodrama (there is definitely left melodrama). A purely conservative news network is one thing, an opinion version is something else, it shifts from being responsive to a set of historical and physical processes to a world of contingent narrative processes. Instead we replace reportage with transmedia franchises. Bill O’Reilly at his peak as a multi-platform narrative experience, with a daily drama show, a para-social radio hour, and deep experiences in his books. Additive comprehension and intertextuality on Fox are fit for a serial drama, not a news channel.

B. It is really cheap and easy, compared with real reportage. Why bother with bureaus or investigations? One Bill O’Reilly is cheap compared with a force of reporters and plane tickets and insurance bills. As long as other networks continue providing basic reportage, you can make big money by simply reacting to it.

Why is it opinion journalism fading?

Dallas peaked sometime between JR being shot and before the dream season. Also, I am sorry I just spoiled Dallas for you. For those of you not familiar, Dallas was a prime time soap opera, it was huge, but even Larry Hagman gets old. The personalities are getting older, dying, or are simply incompatible with the time period. Replacements who came up in this ecosystem lack the gravitas of their predecessors, they were never real journalists.

Just as the narrative reflexivity of a soap becomes more intense over the decades, so must the melodrama of the news. This is why you start with a regular surgery on your hospital show and end up with routine plane and helicopter crashes. Socially this is true as well, while there is some additional left polarization, the general trend is asymmetric right polarization. It makes perfect sense that they would track along with their audience, feeing it what it wants. Zeynep Tufekci has compellingly argued that YouTube is the great radicalizer as it doesn’t merely follow its audience, but that televisuality in this time period leads the audience to new, more radical affective positions. Carefully cultivated transmedia brands may not be up for the transition from tea party to lizard people. New entries in the category will be increasingly more extreme, however diminishing returns remain likely, the intermedia agenda setting gravitas of Fox with former journalists gone to opinion won’t be replicated on Newsmax.

The Rise of Speculation

The end game for Newsmax or OANN is opinion journalism, it is lucrative and compelling when well done. What they cannot replicate from the Fox experience is the continued feedstock of real news. First, because those stocks require an actual news apparatus which is expensive to start. Second, as Stephen Colbert noted, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” It is entirely possible, if not likely, that you simply can’t go find facts for far-fetched theories or conspiracies.

You need to make a new feedstock for the opinion journalism apparatus, this could involve access plays and exclusives. At the extreme, it could involve true fabrication. Shortly before that point, you reach a more dignified mode of production — speculation. This is the world of “big if true.” The foundation of speculative journalism is the suspension of disbelief in the story or more fundamentally the belief in what has been asserted. Moving forward the speculation then requires a standard opinion journalism reaction, which itself drives a series of reactions, and more speculation. After some time, the underlying elision of the speculation and fact is taken for granted.

This is the opposite of explanatory and data journalism. Products like poll aggregation, explanation, and investigative work suppose that additional facts need to be collected and presented to understand a story. These facts tend to follow the paths of though in the existing academic literature, if the assumptions of peer review and academic reflexivity bother you, data journalism likely does as well. The deep melodrama of conspiracy theory would suggest that all possible truths are contingent on the belief of the listener, not even their eyes and ears can dissuade them.

There is a certain measure of interpretation in data and explanatory journalism, after all it is not a recapitulation of the just the facts, but more. It is useful to consider Rosen’s four scoops: aside from the trader’s scoop, all of scoops are intrinsically tied to an interpretive judgement. For those of you playing along at home, enterprise, ego, and thought scoops all depend on the interpretations of the journalist. Identification comes through inserting one’s imagination into the role of the person effected, rather than with the presenter, as such the interpretation is different. And, of course, interpretation is inevitable. There are so many thousand possible news stories that could be written on any given day, you will never not be making an interpretive choice. Local news tends to be reactionary via the choice of interpretative frame.

Further, there are many valuable forms of interpretation in journalism including data aggregation (you mostly know this as the weather report), columns, criticism, investigative journalism, and even editorial pages. The highest form of interpretation would be the creation of data resources for further journalism (a great example was the Sunlight foundation), the lowest form is pure, daily, reactionary opinion journalism.

Where do we go from here?

Here comes the fork in the road: to this point I have discussed the operations of a partisan cable news channel, banal and straight-forward. There is another set of folks traveling down this road who also need some attention, former high-profile folks who straddled the line between opinion and hard news who for any number of reasons are turning to sub-stack. Clearly, some folks have no inputs, and like the low-end cable channel need to replace someone else’s reportage with their own conjecture as a feedstock. But there could be another reason for speculation that is less straight-forward.

In speculative design there is an intersection between the probable and the good. Ultimately, designers should align themselves with what should be, not necessarily with what is likely based on today’s calculation. Speculative design, at its best, is an attempt to organize and deeply conceptual resources that could be used to realign the probable and the possible. In this sense, there could be a productive and proactive speculative journalism, but as you quickly discover in design, folks are not presenting their work in the place of basic civil engineering.

Speculative journalism could just as well be a reactionary social project aligning the vision of that which was interesting reportage twenty years ago with what the world must be now. George Will is fine, but he doesn’t pretend to be anything except what he is, a right-wing columnist. For the scoop breaker falling into speculation, they likely see themselves as reporters still, and not what they are — reactionary columnists.

Could we see a left speculative journalism? This is possible, but less likely. While some ostensibly left actors are headed to sub-stack where they will never see an editor again, the majority of large journalism organizations will continue to rely on a workflow based on reportage. Speculative left actors will remain on the fringes as the macro-media organizations won’t be signal boosting them.

Pedagogically we should continue to track against negative forms of media literacy that simply teach distrust. Dousing speculative journalism with the acid of distrust won’t do much alone, the deeper key is to teach folks what real reportage is and providing lots of it.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store