In today’s cluttered digital landscape of Facebook timelines, Twitter feeds, and news tickers on loop, it’s easy to discount a lot of what is being touted as “news” as little more than white noise and/or calculated falsehoods. After all, the rallying cry of “fake news” has become the de facto (and at times, ironic) way to shut down any information or persons we deem distrustful. And, regardless of our politics, it’s hard not to notice President Trump’s unabashed war on “the media” as a collective entity—most recently, he held what can only be described as a campaign-style rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, the 100th day of his presidency. It is telling that he celebrated his 100th day in office by essentially blaming journalists for undermining his great accomplishments, rather than touting what he surely knew to be his paltry offerings.
“The Washington media is part of the problem,” he said, repeating the phrase “fake news” several times in short succession to cram the concept into his listeners’ ears. “Their priorities are not my priorities, and they’re not your priorities, believe me.”
Meanwhile, 100 or so miles away from Trump and his fans, Jeff Mason, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, hit back at Trump’s remarks at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “It is our job to report on facts and to hold leaders accountable,” Mason said. “That is who we are. We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.”
In other words, the news itself is what’s making headlines these days. The very tenants of ethical—and effective—journalism are being brought into question by both those in power (Trump) and the people (skeptical readers). It feels as though there is a tug-of-war taking place between the administration and the press as each side insists on the other’s duplicity, with the public caught in the middle.
Why does this matter? Outside of those who are embedded in the journalism industry, does any of this back-and-forth have any bearing on our daily lives? Aren’t we as media consumers the ones who get to decipher for ourselves what news we do and do not consume, and more importantly, what news we do and do not believe?
Well, yes and no.
Up until just last week, I worked as a staff editor at UsMagazine.com, Us Weekly’s highly competitive, widely read website. In January, we hit an all-time high of approximately 35 million unique visitors to the site, thanks to a buzzworthy awards season and—amazingly—our coverage of Trump and his incoming administration.
Up until last week, I wrote headlines that chronicled the former Apprentice host’s every tweet, tirade, and policy flip-flop. Examples include: “Donald Trump Denies ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ Involvement, Calls Reports ‘Fake News’” (just one month later, his name quietly appeared in the credits); “Trump Misspells ‘Unprecedented’ As ‘Unpresidented,’ Internet Has a Field Day” (there is no worse place to fall down a dark rabbit hole than the tangled thicket of Trump’s Twitter); and “Donald Trump Defends Claims in ‘Time’ Interview: 5 Most Puzzling Statements” (this post required an extraordinary amount of patience due to the garbled nature of his logic and rhetoric).
But last week, a big shift happened in media that affects not just me, my colleagues, or the realm of entertainment journalism as we’ve come to know it. It will, in coming weeks and months, affect all of us as media consumers and as engaged, informed citizens of this world.
Last week, the deal between America Media Inc. and Wenner Media closed. Us Weekly was sold from the latter to the former; jobs were lost, morale was hurt, and the weekly was mourned by staffers and former staffers as “as good as done.” Those of us who were not laid off were re-offered our jobs at the magazine under AMI management. After some thought, I declined, forfeiting financial security and health insurance for a clear conscience. Why? Because AMI is also the owner of mega-tabloid The National Enquirer, and its CEO, David J. Pecker, is a close friend of Trump’s. (In March 2016, when dozens of brands and politicians were distancing themselves from the real estate mogul after a slew of his off-color remarks, Pecker’s National Enquirer was one of the few to publicly endorse him.) The $100 million deal wasn’t just the case of one company acquiring a brand from another company; in my opinion, it was also a way for sympathizers of this administration to hijack power over the social narrative.
Let me explain. I am all too aware of the fact that Us Weekly is often seen by the more “serious” news reader as fluff, a tabloid about Kardashian selfies or Taylor Swift’s latest fling or what a Real Housewives star wore to a film screening last night. In fact, perhaps these very readers don’t see a difference between an Us Weekly or a People and a National Enquirer. It is easy to lump all of these titles together by process of elimination: they are not, say, The Washington Post or The New Yorker, and so their standards and ethos must therefore be uniformly inferior.
But as someone who has worked in entertainment journalism for the last eight years, I have been given a very important, insider look at How Things Work. And coming from someone who used to be skeptical about the veracity of celebrity journalism, I can now say that my understanding and respect for the industry’s intricacies is vast. Us Weekly’s reporters held the respect of Hollywood’s biggest stars and publicists. Every 250-word post that appeared on the Us Weekly website passed under at least five sets of eyes: writer, researcher, two senior editors, and a copy editor. Complicated legal stories—the Brangelina split and subsequent child abuse claims, Kim Kardashian’s Paris robbery, any and all stories involving Scientology—were always sent through our eagle-eyed legal team. Our commitment was to deliver fun, accurate, fair takes on the biggest names in pop culture. That was it.
But over the years, Us Weekly’s coverage has extended beyond the standard bold-faced, red carpet names to include other newsmakers: viral YouTube stars, inspirational Instagram influencers, and, yes, politicians. The net that Us Weekly has cast is wide, with the category of “entertainment” expanding to now include the kinds of people we would have deemed out of our scope of coverage even just one year ago. Similarly, in the last few years, more “serious” news outlets have begun to cover some of pop culture’s bigger headlines—the social implications of Girls, Justin Bieber’s new millennial pink grillz, Amal Clooney’s baby bump—all in the interest of staying relevant in an age of SEO, clickability, and social media. I’m not saying that all news outlets have blended into a homogenous mishmash of titles, just that the overlapping sections of the Venn diagram are now a lot larger. Politics are entertaining, and entertainment is political.
This is to say that the AMI sale matters because it signifies a significant, though under-the-radar, shift in what we as news consumers will be seeing in headlines and Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines in the not-too-distant future. Journalists define the collective narrative that we live in; for better or worse, they are the ones who help determine how we understand the world. Newsworthiness—one of the core principles of journalism—has been redefined; we live in an age now wherein news outlets are chasing trends just as much as they are unearthing the news. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that just because celebrity news is not “hard news” doesn’t mean its impact is any less palpable.
Dylan Howard, the National Enquirer’s current editor-in-chief, has a term for this method of catering to its readers: “servicing” them. But as BuzzFeed Senior Culture Writer Anne Helen Petersen put it in a recent profile, this seemingly altruistic attitude is more complicated than it seems. “Good service is contingent upon a deference to the consumer; good journalism, however, hinges on a willingness to piss that consumer off, especially if it’s in service of the truth,” she writes. “Truth can require bravery; good service just requires good market research.”
It’s a delicate balance to strike, giving readers what they want while also determining what and how to highlight the important news of the day. Given Pecker’s close friendship with Trump, it isn’t too hard to see the trickle-down effect of their relationship, and how Us Weekly’s priority under AMI can quickly shift from “truth” to “service.” Editorially, Us Weekly may begin to take a gentler approach to Trump’s policies and tweets (gone will be the days of my subversive, tongue-in-cheek headlines), if that’s what the readership responds to. In February, Us Weekly published a string of Trump covers, with one in particular, the one featuring the Trump children goofing off in front of the camera, drawing negative reactions from both Us Weekly’s readership and the media world alike. The word “normalizing” was thrown about a lot in reference to those covers, and I have no doubt that an Us Weekly under AMI will only continue that trend. (Many in the industry speculated that the covers were published as a way to court Pecker as a potential buyer of Us Weekly, a claim Howard subtly side-stepped in his interview with Petersen.)
And if this is the case, then those will also be the kinds of headlines that dominate our news feeds; when any given topic or story is trending online, most media outlets have a decision to make: ride that SEO wave or risk forfeiting their readership to competing sites. In the blink-and-you-miss-it pace of the news cycle these days, outlets are increasingly willing to make that editorial call in the name of relevance and timeliness. And since many serious and less-than-serious titles are beginning to converge on the subjects they cover, there will undoubtedly become an echo chamber of headlines.
The consequences are twofold: those who read Us Weekly in earnest will take its stories as truth, which is dangerous if those in charge have agendas behind their editorial content. And those who are already skeptical of celebrity sites will downplay the seriousness—or even veracity—of the stories they do come across, perhaps especially as they pertain to the administration. The power of “soft news” is that it can reach readers in a way hard news sometimes cannot; by the same token, however, it can also dull the impact of these stories. As Caitlin Flanagan wrote in an insightful essay for The Atlantic, late night talk show hosts helped give rise to Trump by normalizing and/or mocking the then-candidate’s incompetence and short temper.
“We created our own black hole, and we collapsed into it,” she wrote. Similarly, celebrity news—in particular, continuing to treat Trump and his administration as “celebrities”—will also make their words and antics easier to dismiss as screwball behavior, rather than the very real threat they may pose. I recognize my role in normalizing Trump, and in giving him not just the stage, but a megaphone through which to shout his thoughts; this is why I am sounding this Cassandric warning.
Because in a political climate where those in power are casting doubt on “the media,” journalists have a long, unwieldy climb ahead of them. But this distrust, coupled with AMI’s acquisition of Us Weekly, signals to me something even more worrisome: the start of a very tricky intersection with the truth, wherein readers will be forced to take the brunt of the inevitable collision’s impact. Because yes, while it is up to consumers to decide what we do and do not read, and what news we do and do not believe, when the boundaries between politics and entertainment begin to blur, then we’re the ones left in a fog of confusion.