Brilliant and succinct analysis of the erosion of expertise in the media from Todd Gitlin, in an article he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Check it out:
But when news media go looking for experts, they don’t examine their records. Baseball announcers would be fired for not knowing the RBI records of designated hitters. But editors don’t think it’s their business to vet their experts. They’re not enamored of expertise, they’re enamored of the aura of expertise. They embrace their experts all the way over the cliff.
With a news cycle running at full steam 24 hours a day and a push on the web to create and distribute content rather than substance, the walls come down. Or rather, the foundations crumble. We need viewers, we need visitors, we need clicks and likes have replaced we need to be the best in the business, the most knowledgeable, the most trustworthy. That’s what content and content farms are there to do: The objective isn’t to answer questions, educate or even drive purchasing behaviors. It is simply to attract eyeballs. As many as possible, as often as possible. More eyeballs = more advertising revenue, and more advertising revenue is the end-game. If one channel isn’t enough, create a new one. Each new channel is like an empty bucket that needs to filled with… content. When SEO-friendly filler won’t do, sensational headlines and constant “news alerts” will pull eyeballs.
Opinions are now simply a product, which means that opinions have become mere content: Here is opinion A. Here is opinion B. Let’s throw a few soundbites back and forth at each other and move on to the next thing. Sell someone as an expert (or accept their claim regardless of whether or not they actually are) in order to fill a segment, and you have instant expert content. Now you have your 3 minute interview, your 3-paragraph blog post, your bite-sized YouTube video. More content means more views. More views means more advertising revenue, more chances to push more content and thus yet more advertising, more opportunities to sell webinars and white papers and $250 monthly subscriptions to the newsletter. Not enough experts to fill up 24/7/365 worth of news and content across 300+ channels? No worries: Just make some up. Anyone with an opinion that can be conveniently packaged as option A or option B will qualify as an expert for the purposes of a segment, of a presentation, of a consulting gig. And it isn’t like you will run out of people begging for their 15 minutes of fame anytime soon. The “personal brands.” The gurus. The overnight experts. They’re lining up around the block. You know why? Because they’re in demand and they know it.
Here is Mr. Gitlin again:
Some years ago, I wrote about the example of Edward Yardeni, formerly the chief economist of Deutsche Bank, who anticipated a world depression as the likely outcome of Y2K, yet remains on many a go-to list for economic commentary. That he was badly mistaken did not impair his place on the media quotemeister list. Just this month, for example, he shows up not only in the FT but also Bloomberg, USA Today, and a San Francisco Chronicle blog—though one is thankful that he appears mainly to state the obvious.
Any of the following statements sound familiar?
Quora is going to redefine the social web.
Google Buzz is a game-changer.
Google Wave is here to stay.
Google+ will kill Facebook.
We’re one of the world’s first full service social media agency.
We’ll handle all of your social media feeds.
The value of a Facebook fan is $1.93
Social Media ROI = (brand equity x engagement) ÷ online mentions.
Content is king.
Blog post after blog post, presentation after presentation, prediction after prediction, are you really seeing valid expertise and insight, or simply an endless stream of content?
If you think that make-believe “experts” will eventually go away all on their own, keep dreaming. Why would they? We have created a market for them, built demand for their BS, given them an ever-growing platform, and held them accountable for absolutely nothing. How many social media-themed conferences are there now, each with dozens of tracks and breakout sessions? Among them, how many have really turned out to be either thinly disguised sales pitches or vague rehashes of basic concepts you already knew 3 years ago?
How many “experts” are still publishing books, selling bogus ROI calculators and make-believe “case studies,” how many are being increasingly quoted by self-professed “news” sites – where they guest-blog for free without much of an editorial review process? Is that really the business ecosystem you want to be building and supporting? Smoke and mirrors and BS by the pound, when real ideas and legitimate expertise are so sorely needed all around us? Really? In the crux of a recession, when companies need real help, when people need real solutions, when entire economies are in serious need of real direction, we want to gravitate towards the lowest common denominator? This is what we want to reward?
The dog that gets the strongest is the one you feed. One will protect and strengthen you. The other one will lead you astray and eat you in your sleep. Make sure you’re feeding the right one.
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Image: The Emperor’s New Sales ©2011 Olivier Blanchard
Quoted: Expertise, Dogma and the Journalism of Crackpot Ideas, by Todd Gitlin [published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31, 2011]