The Tyranny of Mainstream Media’s Optimized Audiences

Matt Taibbi teaches us about the failure of mainstream media to defend or even represent the truth. Does the truth even have a leg to stand on when social media remains its only partially reliable source?

Man holds up a sign stating The Mainstream Media Feeds you Fear and Lies, on Bourke Street at the Freedom March and Kill the Bill peaceful protest © James Cole Creative / shutterstock.com

December 07, 2022 05:45 EDT

The independent journalist Matt Taibbi, who has done some of the best investigative journalism of the past couple of decades as well as producing occasional satire and entertaining takes on the news in various media formats, participated last week in the prestigious Munk Debates in Toronto Canada. The announced theme of this debate – which we here at Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary must heartily applaud – was: “Be it resolved, don’t trust mainstream media.”

Along with author Douglas Murray, Taibbi took on two redoubtable opponents: New Yorker contributor and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. In Taibbi’s opening remarks he complains of the dominant trend in the media today, the fact that they “feed the audience news you know they will like.” The trend is well known in the world of social media. The result is spaces that have been characterized variously as “digital silos,” “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles.” Taibbi notes that the effect has begun to resemble a pandemic and has infected the popular media. “Now everyone does it,” he complains. “Whether it’s Fox, or MSNBC, or CNN, or the Washington Post, nearly all Western media outlets are in the demographic-hunting business.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


A sport with fatal consequences for its victims (and secondarily for the mental health of its practitioners) that has replaced the outdated idea of responding to the interest of the entire community

Contextual note

Any responsible citizen can understand why appealing to the interests of the public, even a restricted public, can be a good strategy and even a noble act. But things change when the effort turns to pandering or appealing to the lowest common denominator. Taibbi makes this explicit when he analyzes how this translates into editorial policy. “With editors now more concerned with retaining the audience than getting things right, the defining characteristic across the business — from right to left — is inaccuracy,” he explains. Inaccuracy itself comes in many flavors, from inadvertent misinformation to casual lying and, increasingly, to provocative, strategic prevarication.

Taibbi even invents a convenient name for the practice: “Call it the ‘audience-optimization’ model,” he tells us. He then explains that “instead of starting with a story and following the facts, you start with what pleases your audience, and work backward to the story.”  In other words, this is a recipe not for reporting but for writing fiction. The news must literally entertain, which in this case means “entertain a belief” or maintain ideas that may be true or false. In the age of social media, the prevalence of ideas that are likely to be false tends to be greater than in the past, when echo chambers that reinforced false ideas were not so easily available.

Is Thinking Now Forbidden in the Media?


The very idea of audience optimization thus conveys the idea that the story is optimized (i.e. distorted) to correlate with the predilections of the audience. In the best cases, the audience is interested in and demands truth. But the world we live in today is submitted to two sources of pressure that see the truth as secondary. The first is any structure of authority, which includes the government, an entity that reflects the various influences that make politics and the exercise of power possible, as well as the “official” or “respectable” media who monopolize for their own benefit the voice of information and, implicitly, truth. The second source of pressure is social media, designed literally to create and define optimized audiences.

The problem clearly lies with what our society accepts as authority. And it boils down to a three-way competition between government, established media and social media. Truth will always tend to be the victim lost in the maelstrom.

Oh, and, by the way, Taibbi and Murray won the debate by a whopping 39%.

Historical note

In the older traditions of storytelling, audiences were generally aware of the distinction between stories, on the one hand, meant to illustrate and teach, or simply to dramatize conflict and human psychology, and others meant to recount or report facts. Shakespeare’s audiences certainly understood that his history plays were plays rather than history.

No more than Rembrandt depicting Aristotle in the gown of a contemporary Dutch burger, did Shakespeare dress his Caesar, Antony or Cleopatra in Roman togas or Egyptian tunics when he staged his Roman plays at the Globe Theater. His actors wore the accouterments of their age. Like Rembrandt’s Aristotle, they wore costumes symbolizing their status in contemporary culture and highlighting aspects of character. This tradition of using costumes to draw attention to characters and their relationships dates at least back to the ancient Greeks, whose actors never showed their faces, constantly hidden behind masks.

These theatrical traditions were meant to create distance between representation and reality, to reinforce the distinction between what we feel and what we know. We may even suppose that the artists and storytellers of those pre-modern times understood the social and political danger of confusing what can be recounted with any kind of scientific notion of “the truth.” Perhaps the most regrettable innovation of the age of science — that began around Shakespeare’s time and became radically transformed by technology after the invention of photography in the 19th century — is the culture of illusion that we now live in. I like to call it hyperreality. Whether intentional or not, it effectively erases the visible barrier that storytellers once consciously constructed between the stories we tell ourselves and the idea we have of reality. I would go further and suggest that today’s hyperreality makes it possible by the abuse of technology to interfere with our ability not only to perceive reality but to understand what perception is and how it works.

There can be no doubt that William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism” played up sensation, willingly exaggerated dramas that need not be based on fact and demonstrated that it was possible to lead the US into a war with long-lasting global consequences. In that sense, Tiabbi is describing a phenomenon perfectly rooted in the great American journalistic tradition, a phenomenon that is once again visible today in the coverage of the war in Ukraine.

Matthew McIntosh, who calls himself a “public historian,” on a website that offers a “blend of news and ideas,” describes Hearst as someone who in the 1890s became “a war hawk” with regard to Spain’s nearby colony, Cuba. He used his newspapers to incite the US to war. “Stories of Cuban virtue and Spanish brutality soon dominated his front page,” McIntosh recounts. The US of course did go to war after which it controlled Cuba for six decades.

McIntosh also reassuringly reports that “yellow journalism faded in the twentieth century, partly due to Pulitzer’s direction to return his paper to a higher quality of objectivity in reporting.” But looking at today’s reporting in what McIntosh may characterize as the very “unyellow“ The New York Times or The Washington Post, his sentence about Hearst’s “front page” could be applied to our modern press. It only requires substituting “Ukrainian” for “Cuban” and “Russian” for “Spanish.”

Why John Feffer’s Careful Reasoning Still Looks like Propaganda


It is also worth noting that to avoid misrepresenting the truth, the yellow press in Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s day knew how to choose its verbs. In the headlines above we see the affirmation that Roosevelt was “convinced” of something that may or may not have been true and that “naval officers think” the Spanish blew up the Maine. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

This technique of orienting the thinking (i.e. perception) of readers is used today even more boldly, particularly when we hear about what military experts or intelligence sources “think” or “assess.” After all, they have the kind of technology that distinguishes between what is true and false. Even in the past few days, the story concerning Hunter Biden’s laptop that dates from the runup to the 2020 election is back in the news. No less than 51 intelligence experts claimed it was “Russian disinformation.” Some of those same intelligence sources were on television using their expertise to tell what they certainly knew was a lie.

So the comforting moral to this story is that modern electronic technology is not to blame for the sins that were visible in yellow journalism more than a century ago. It’s just that those sins are being carried out with a far more professional look. The costumes of those intelligence sources you see on TV – the John Brenners and James Clappers – look so realistic you might even believe they were real. 

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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