How journalism devolved into a game of trashing easy targets with minimum effort and maximum noise.
It won’t matter who wins the election or where the Dow goes next, because for the foreseeable future, capitalism will find itself in Salem Village circa 1692. In the wake of the collapse of the U.S. financial system, there will be no downside to suing, investigating, indicting, ridiculing, fining, hauling before Congress, or tossing flaming bags of dog poop at corporate America.
The PR staple of “educating reporters” will be revisited when corporate chiefs acknowledge that in times of public outrage, the much-maligned “mainstream media” don’t want information, they want to serve up the pre-cast narrative of the Three Vs: Villains (that would be you, corporate chiefs); Victims (the public that lost their homes and retirement funds); and Vindicators (state attorneys general, federal prosecutors, angry network TV interviewers).
In the age of the Quick Little Kill, the Bugle’s readers aren’t looking for a nuanced analysis; they are pre-selecting in anticipation of the red meat they’ve come to expect.
Investigative journalism, which requires intensive research (without immediate payoff) and some semblance of nuance, is on life-support. Nowadays, “reporting” is about the Quick Little Kill—taking down an un-cuddly target with minimal effort and maximum noise. Think last week’s (justified) news reports about AIG executives’ $400,000 post-bailout spa retreat.
If conventional media have taught us anything lately, it is that even the pretense of objectivity is dead and the capacity to conduct meaningful investigations (um, such as the end of American capitalism) beyond the Quick Little Kill is fatally compromised.
At a recent lunch with a prominent editor at one of the country’s most respected newspapers—we’ll call it The Daily Bugle—he commiserated that the average visit to the paper’s website lasted less than a minute. In other words, rather than leisurely reviewing the news, online readers, armed with a specific interest and bias, scan the Bugle’s home page, click on a precise entry, skim it, then bolt.
While business leaders under siege still yearn for exculpation in the pages of the prestigious Bugle, angling for a “hit” there won’t yield the dividends they desire. In the age of the Quick Little Kill, the Bugle’s readers aren’t looking for a nuanced analysis; they are pre-selecting in anticipation of the red meat they’ve come to expect from the Bugle.
Trust-Us-We-Care-style corporate advertising won’t be the antidote to the Quick Little Kill because it will only inflame a furious—and broke—public, which doesn’t want good capitalist manners, they want their money back.
When it comes to online damage control, there are both challenges and opportunities. Despite hucksterish “online reputation management” programs, reputations are much easier to destroy online than they are to repair. Think back a few weeks to the plummeting stock prices of Apple after the false Steve Jobs heart attack rumor and UAL when an out-of-date earnings report was somehow re-released. Sorry ‘bout that. Heh.
The internet is a lethal tool for the Quick Little Kill because of anonymity and the unfettered access afforded to motivated parties, the lack of gatekeepers and First Amendment legal protections, and the conviction that any attack on a capital enterprise is noble and any defense is corrupt.
While I reject the canard that “a crisis is an opportunity” (I doubt the accused witches in Salem were experiencing spiritual growth as they were pressed to death with huge slabs of granite) there are venues within which to hit back. Counterintuitively, many such efforts will be anchored in a concept that is universally sneered at for its futility: Preaching to the choir.
Martha Stewart rallied supporters during her legal troubles with a steady stream of online communications providing updates on everything from her status in prison to how her products were weathering the affair. Did it persuade me to cheer for her early release? No, but I wasn’t her audience.
Drug companies under fire are using corporate websites to speak to patient communities that want information directly relevant to their conditions versus the Quick Little Kills they’d read about in the Bugle. Does the world come to love the pharmaceutical behemoth? Nope, but that wasn’t on the table anyway.
I have counseled companies facing public anxiety over product contamination to post video footage of their manufacturing process online so consumers can see for themselves how safety controls are handled.
There are no ironclad rules to counter the Quick Little Kill, but I would advise dispensing with utopian fantasies about proselytizing to one’s natural enemies or an amorphous public that isn’t listening. The name of the game is damage control, not damage disappearance. And while communications venues, especially online, are expanding exponentially, those who may matter most encompass a much smaller universe.