OPINION: Is Liberal Media Suffering from Content Cannibalization?

September 18, 2022

In my equivalent of a superhero crossover event, Jon Stewart, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Favreau (unrelatedly aptly named for the analogy) shared the pod space to talk about politics & media coverage. I recommend giving it a listen (as evidenced by the dofollow). Over the course of their discussion an SEO-adjacent opinion started forming in the head of this listener… does liberal media have a content cannibalization problem?

Pew Research Center (albeit 2014, and albeit a survey)

Having a POV or Spinning?

Famously, Stewart believes the purpose of a 24-hour news cycle is in the event of a 9/11 type disaster. You need 24 hour coverage when something of that magnitude occurs.

In the absence of a nation-wide crisis however, all news networks report on the news without unique POVs or time to create a cohesive and informed analysis. As a result, networks go for a “spin”.

In the case of the conservative networks, the spin is: the conservative view. In the absence of other conservative outlets, they don’t need to have specific POVs. Instead it feels unified because Fox is the only major outlet. If they say Trump’s their guy; the conservatives follow suit. If they say President Biden isn’t doing a good job; conservatives hop on the dog pile. In the case of liberal news networks, it’s more tough.

Liberals have multiple channels: CNN, MSNBC, CBS, NPR, NYT, ABC News, etc. If all of them championed President Biden — the way Fox champions their guy — then they’d be unable to set themselves apart. In SEO terms, they’d suffer from duplicate content, diluting ratings and traffic. So instead each offers a “POV” that reads much more like “spun content”.

As I’ve mentioned before, emotion-driven content drives traffic. What’s more, “surface-level” emotions drive traffic with 3 of the 4 feelings being fairly negative (“fear” “anger” and “sadness”) which effectively sums up every news story since 9/11.

If there’s only one conservative outlet (Fox), then they could have a whole day dedicated to “happiness” and “awe” if they so chose because there’s no competition for their audience. They’re the only conservative outlet — and I believe this is why they seemed to target The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The point is, they don’t need to concern themselves with ever having another POV.

POVs are great; authenticity is great; and in a world where people can take their time to create informed opinions from detailed analysis, true journalism and engaging content can exist. But the news is fast, so they don’t have time for that. So instead, liberal media outlets go for “anger” “sadness” or “fear”. Instead of full support of the democratic agenda, they need immediate ways to differentiate, so you get:

  • CNN: Biden’s not doing enough Y
  • NBC: Y isn’t the problem, Biden needs to do Z
  • CBS: Has Biden completely forgotten about X?

So what you’re left with is a bunch of sites that all say the same thing (positive-wise), so they mention shortcomings that read an awful lot like appetizers for what Google would consider the main course.

Take that idea and apply it to content cannibalization.

Liberal news outlets are cannibalizing each other while simultaneously feeding conservative outlets.

Stewart is the Equivalent of E-A-T and the Skyscraper Method

Jon Stewart exudes sincerity and although he may have started as a comedian, he had authoritativeness and trustworthiness down. Meanwhile, Stewart aggregated, attacked, and became the expert. I can’t speak to what was on the news beforehand, but Stewart’s run on The Daily Show certainly popularized the eagle-eyed, clip-catching news that continues today.

Prior to Stewart — at least to my knowledge — news networks existed in a vacuum where coverage was limited to their reporters, their anchors, their story writers. Stewart threw peoples’ words back at them whether they were a politician or on prime-time news. Personally, I took Stewart’s defense of “it’s a comedy show” to mean, “you don’t have to take my word for it, take yours.”

The point being, Stewart embodied E-A-T.

But, it’s not just the authenticity, but The Daily Show captured the skyscraper method. Again, instead of news networks existing in a vacuum, Stewart aggregated. For the uninitiated, the Skyscraper method is when, instead of just doing a listicle, you do the listicle to end all listicles. Rather than Top 10 Things Liberals Hate About Conservative Media, do Top 100 Things Liberals Hate About Conservative Media, aggregating all that came before it and you’ll tend to outrank the competition.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart aggregated news outlets and clips, capturing the full spectrum. it’s no surprise that many people claim they got their news from Jon Stewart, he informed the audience on all current events and topics in the span of 25 minutes. No BS, no padding time.

More to the point, while many viewers watch their respective news networks in vacuum (i.e. just Fox or just MSNBC, or just CNN), Stewart caught more of that Venn Diagram on the liberal side. This is backed by the viewership. Take 2011’s numbers where Stewart was nigh unrivaled by anything on Fox.

Student News Site: TheBlackandWhite and Vox.com from 2018

Although a niche example, take the above chart of viewership in 2018 for students of Walt Whitman High School. You don’t have to be a whizz at math to see the majority watches liberal news outlets, but in individual, raw numbers, the conservative outlet (Fox) has more views. MSNBC and CNN are cannibalizing each other because most viewers choose one or the other, meanwhile, the audience may overlap with an “entertainment” show like Jon Stewart.

Unsurprisingly, Stewart’s show was averaging ~2.3m viewers from 2007-2013.

This is just a long-winded way of saying, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart may have been the only threat to Fox News. He was authoritative, laconic, and an aggregate.

Harder to E-A-T when You’re Cannibalizing Each Other

Something Stewart says — that I think most people can agree with — is how often it feels like something is universally correct yet is met with opposition anyway. The example used is the PACT ACT.

The PACT ACT featured bipartisan support until the 11th hour and while it ultimately passed, Stewart was shocked at how quickly half the senate (and their voters) turned.

MAGA-heads and Trumppets are titans of “earned media,” i.e. media coverage you don’t have to pay for. By saying horrific and dastardly things (perhaps things that cater to anger and fear), Fox is able to generate hundreds upon thousands of backlinks in the form of media coverage. Talking about the extremists only works to conservatives’ advantage.

As backlinks are a factor in sites’ authority, being the contrarian contracts backlinks. Given that “own the libs” has become a MAGA battlecry, when egregious stunts (e.g. Desantis sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard) get picked up in a news cycle, it all links back to the one source that shamelessly supports it.

How do we build better media coverage?

Honestly, the optimist in me thinks Facebook (or Meta, or whatever Zuckerberg wants to call it) may be the answer. While it’s been the source of controversy, it’s also one of the few (only?) outlet evenly split between liberals and conservatives. If that’s the case, it’s one of the few platforms that has both sides of the aisle engaging with it.

The pod brainstorms how media should be used as a referee for politics. This idea that a social platform could serve as a mediator to challenge or support your views is novel. But rather than a carved manifesto detailing who you are based on what you’ve chosen to share, there’s a world where your bias can be challenged based on what you post.

As it is, most social platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc) are kinda like a generic “what Disney character are you quiz?” where there are loaded questions to keep you on the path you want to be perceived as. For instance, if you’re trying to have a quiz validate that you’re an Elsa, it may be abundantly obvious how you answer the following:

  • Do you like llamas?
  • Do you want to summer in Hawaii listening to Elvis?
  • Do you like cold weather and sparkly clothes?

But one of the things psychology tests will do is ask the same question multiple times within the same assessment, but also on different days to determine what’s consistent. Similarly, few Myers-Briggs test tell you which question leans you in what direction, only that a certain percentage of questions led you down a particular path.

Rather than try to be Elsa, why not explore what’s making you appear moderate, conservative or liberal. Why not challenge your views? Why not challenge your assessment?

Frankly, if I were Evan Spiegel, I’d make a social platform where what you post has a lifespan. Force people to engage as much in the moment as possible and find a way to ensure that what someone’s posting cannot be copied, screenshot, or archived in any way.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines… Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood

Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance