The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

It’s Wednesday, June 7th, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Three Ages of Modern Media: Looking at the Shape of Our Media Challenge

Something big is happening in big media, and one of the big things happening in big media is that big media is not as big as it used to be. Huge story here, and Christians need to watch huge changes on the media landscape because this has a great deal to do with the direction of our culture, how to understand the culture, how to know what people are talking about in this culture.

News is more than a commodity. It is more than entertainment. It is more than programming. It is a part of the national discourse. And how issues are framed in the media, and that means also in news reports, it has a great deal to do with how these issues are understood by Americans. Or regardless of the country you live in, the media has a similar influence just about everywhere.

But here in the United States, huge headlines of late, for instance, yesterday’s edition of the New York Times included the headline, “Hundreds of Gannett Journalists Walk Out.” The very same day, the Wall Street Journal, a front page business headline, “CNN’s CEO Apologizes to Staff in Wake of Article.” Everywhere you look, there are huge stories about media, the future of media. What does all of this mean? Well, let’s just step back for a moment and kind of remind ourselves of what we’re talking about.

What we’re talking about is the fact that human beings are communicating beings. We communicate and we are also social beings who want to know what’s going on in the world around us. Now, for much of human history that was simply mouth-to-mouth or you might say stone tablet to stone tablet. It is only in fairly modern times that something like the modern media could have emerged. You’re looking at basically three huge developments here. Just keep these in mind in historical sequence.

Number one, the rise of print media itself. That took the printing press. And so you’re basically looking at a development in the early modern age. By the time you get to the end of the 16th century, most people in Europe have at least seen a printed page, but the printed page was not just an innovation, it was an enormous game changer.

In that first phase of early print media, the other big change in the game was the fall in the price, because at least in the beginning, paper was so incredibly expensive. Ink was incredibly expensive. The printing presses were rare. Time and use on the printing presses were precious, and thus every printed page was a very expensive page. Still, it was less than when pages had to be produced by monks in a monastery with a pen and on skin, but still the price had to fall, but that’s an historical fact. The price did fall. By the time you get to the middle of the modern age, the average person can at least afford something in print.

The next big jump in the media came with urbanization and the industrial revolution, and that meant mass publishing. And mass publishing pretty quickly became mass publishing. You’re talking about massive numbers of people who could print on a 24-hour cycle, newspapers. Now, newspapers or gazettes, similar forms of news fora.

They had appeared at previous times, but the appearance of the newspaper as we know it in terms of fairly inexpensive paper, folded, available, often on the streets, available on newsstands, available just about anywhere people were, especially trafficking in train stations, later in airports. The newspaper became the ubiquitous representation of the media. The news newspaper is so much a fixture of our times that even in the age after most people are reading them in print, we still talk about newspapers in the language of print.

But the other thing to think about in the age of print, in the age of these dominant newspapers is the influence they had and also the fact that some of the wealthiest people, even in very big cities were the people who owned the newspapers. News was a big business. It was a commodity. It involved a great deal of money, increasingly driven by advertising by the way.

So you had the consumer culture that grew up along with the print culture of the news media, and there was a lot of money to be had. There was a lot of power to be had because the printing presses and the mechanism to produce a major city newspaper, well, that required a lot of investment. It required a lot of labor, a lot of employees, and thus it was a big enterprise. There was high risk and high reward. The point is there weren’t that many of them.

Now, as time moved on, you went from cities like London that at one point had something like 20 daily newspapers and even now has more than half a dozen available every day on the streets. In most big cities of the United States, you had something like two or three major papers.

And by the way, there were other papers, but they weren’t classified as major papers because in big cities such as New York or Chicago, you might actually have foreign language papers that were published, even some of them daily, simply because there were so many people immigrating from Germany and from Italy, from Russia and Slavic nations that there was a sizeable enough population in some of these cities that they had their own media. But it was the big English-speaking establishment, newspapers that were the big media titans of the age.

Even then, by the way, you had a certain kind of breakdown, so in a city like London, you would have the tabloid newspapers. That’s what the people who worked in the factories often read. That was delivered to people who might be reading the paper as they went to work in the morning or were making their commute on the subway, on the trains at night. The tabloid press as it was known was well frankly known for tabloid sensationalism and that sensationalism continues. Just look at some of the tabloids that are published today.

Just consider in a city like New York, the difference between the New York Post and the New York Times. The New York Post by the way, is considerably more conservative than the New York Times, but it also has screaming headlines that would never appear in the New York Times. So in a city like New York, you have a lot of newspapers, you still have a lot of daily newspapers. You have the Wall Street Journal, which is published in New York, although with a national circulation. And then you have the New York Times, which is the epitome of the print media elite in the United States. You have the New York Post, other media as well.

But in that second stage, remember the first stage was the early age of print. The second stage is the big expansive age of print, but that comes also with broadcast media and that means first of all, radio and then eventually television, and we’re going to get to television in just a moment.

The third big movement, so number one, the printing press, early print, number two, print at its maximum and then joined by radio and television, and then third, of course, the digital revolution. And the thing is that the digital revolution basically threatens to wipe away everything that existed from the first two ages of print or the first two ages of modern media. And for that matter, many people 20 years ago thought that would include books too. I’m glad to say as a book lover, a biblia file, that has not turned out to be the case. The arrival of digital books has not put much of a dent in the sale of print books. I see that as a hopeful sign for the continuation at least of some form of civilization.

But in this third vast stage of media and news, everyone can publish a website. Everyone can publish some kind of news source. You don’t know if you’re looking at some of the articles published and even gaining traction today, if that was written by a journalist with 40 years of experience or a 14-year old who’s particularly precocious. You don’t know. In the digital age, you might never find out.

Digital media has changed everything, and for one thing, it has changed the threshold level for someone to get into publishing. Again, now, everyone could basically be a publisher, at least online, and by everyone we mean almost everyone. And when you think about radio, you think about television, you think about the legacy print media, all of them have had to find some way to exist online, but that existence has changed all the rules.

For one thing, as you look at the golden age of media, especially in that middle age, think of the great legacy newspapers, it took an enormous staff to produce that newspaper and there were news standards, journalistic standards that were exceedingly clear. Journalism had become a modern profession, much like medicine and law and architecture and other things. It was a code of ethics. There were clear rules and boundaries. There were different roles to be played. There were the reporters on the beat. There were then the editors who made assignments. There were editors and copy editors who looked at the product. There was eventually a publisher who owned or at least controlled the owner’s interest in this particular media outlet and would have a final say about what was published or not published.

The point is an awful lot of eyes saw the piece before it ran, and it was a collaborative effort. You did have famous reporters, famous columnists, even famous photographers, but there were editors who were doing an awful lot of the work, making the decisions not only about which articles would run, but also about how they would run.

For instance, every once in a while you will hear me refer to an article that was above the fold, and that’s just a reminder that in the age of print media and the golden age of newspapers, being above the fold was much better than having an article beneath the fold. Because after all, people looked at the first thing they saw, which meant on the front page above the fold, that was the most precious real estate in news media of all.

One of the old questions that was often bandied about by journalists is what would it take to get on the front page above the fold? And the answer was usually, you probably don’t want to find out. But something else has happened in this third age that upends everything. It’s not just the technology that allows anyone to be a publisher and thus cuts out just about all the filters that used to exist.

That also points to a democratization, a leveling of all this, which means that the elites that used to control the legacy media have at least less influence than they used to. And that’s true whether they’re controlling television networks or radio networks or for that matter, newspapers or networks of newspapers. The reality is that they have lost an awful lot of their gatekeeper capacity and that has been a net loss for the left.

Back in the golden age, you did have Republican dominated papers and Democratic dominated papers, more liberal and more conservative papers, but the same process that brought about liberalization and so much of the rest of the culture affected the journalism schools, the larger print and media culture, and most of those legacy newspapers are decidedly on the left. Not all, and some of them still follow at least some level of journalistic rules, but the fact is most of them are now, at least editorially, pretty much decidedly on the left.

The arrival of these new forms of media is a leveling that allows other people to get into the game, which is why you have things like the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal or National Review online or any number of other media, including I would say The Briefing, that all of a sudden are now offerings before the public. There are alternative voices.

But that also means a shift in something else. I mentioned that the big money is a reason why those big newspaper publishing families had houses on Lake Michigan and they had houses in the beautiful neighborhoods of the Westchester County area outside New York City. They had mansions in Boston and massive apartments in Manhattan. That’s because there was huge money in the legacy media, most of it driven by advertising.

But as the news has alternative means of getting out, advertisers have alternative means of advertising now, sometimes much more personalized. It no longer pays necessarily to have these massive national ads or city newspaper ads and say that you can target your advertising. Even as there has been a diversification of the news media, there’s also been, of course, a diversification of advertising. Net, there’s a lot more advertising bombarding us now than was true before, but it’s coming in so many forms right now that Americans are even losing track of what exactly is coming to them in terms of advertising.

So where are we going with this today? I just want to help Christians to understand that the media environment is extremely important for us all. And understanding huge changes in that environment, they are a part of an intelligent Christian thinking intelligently about the world around us.

And so those headlines I mentioned, “Gannett Journalists Walk Out,” well, Gannett is a big company. It’s been transformed in recent years. It’s merged, it’s kept the name Gannett. It’s now the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, but Gannett, which owns and publishes USA Today and has been gobbling up local newspapers is now primarily in the news. And by the way, newspapers try to keep from being in the news, but Gannett’s very much in the news because indeed hundreds of journalists have walked out.

Now, no one knows that this kind of job action is even going to be consequential because increasingly workers in these fields have very little influence because the technologies and the economies of scale are just changing everything including the net number of their jobs.

By the way, another footnote, the screenwriters strike right now is largely an attempt by that union and its writers, very influential course in Hollywood and entertainment, to try to get the best contract deal it can get before everyone figures out how much of their job can be done by artificial intelligence. The journalists are in a very similar position.

Now, the article about Gannett appears in the New York Times in the business section, and I cite it just for the irony of saying, here’s a newspaper article about a newspaper chain that’s in big trouble in the news business, and it’s another newspaper that’s giving us the report. There are ironies here, but Katie Robertson reports, “Hundreds of journalists for Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, walked off the job, accusing the company’s chief executive of decimating its local newsrooms.”

Now for Gannett, local newsrooms, that includes the Courier Journal right here in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s now a shadow of its former self. The company, Gannett, now owns USA Today and more than 200 daily newspapers in 43 states, according to this count, “though it has closed dozens of publications since the deal back in 2019 that created the company in its modern form.”

Now, consider this, the NewsGuild on strike said that the Austin American-Statesman’s newsroom had 41 employees this year. According to the Times, that’s down from 110 in 2018. So five years ago, 110 employees in the newsroom. Now 41. “In that same period, the Arizona Republic’s newsroom in Phoenix had trunk to 89 workers from 140, while the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been cut to 82 from 104. Gannet itself, or at least the larger company owns not only USA Today, but 200 daily newspapers in 43 states.” Let’s just do the math. Many of those are not going to exist for much longer, and that’s just a fact. It’s lamentable.

I am right now looking at piles and piles of newspaper articles I have carefully collated and marked. I speak most of the time right off of the newsprint because it matters to me. I am a creature of print, and by the way, on something like The Briefing, one of the great assets of print is it doesn’t change after it’s printed. If I say this newspaper article in the New York Times says this and it says so in print, it may change online, but they can’t change the print.

Part II

Digital Media and the Brave New World of News Media: Technology is Reshaping the Media Landscape

So we’re going to have to leave the consideration of the print media and this story in order to move on to the impact on television, where the big story is the fact that the head of CNN basically had to have a town hall meeting with his own staff to apologize for becoming the center of a news story, a news story that wasn’t flattering at all, but actually points to problems, not just with the leader of CNN in terms of that current position, but the future of CNN and even the former cable news networks as we look at the future.

Chris Licht is the chief executive of CNN. He’s been in that role now for basically just a matter of months, but it’s important to note that an article appeared in The Atlantic that was very critical of him and there was controversy, and thus he held this meeting with employees to try to say, “I’m sorry I became the story.” But actually the big story is that no one knows exactly what the future of CNN is.

And in case you’re over at Fox News, Fox News is still dominant in that more eyeballs are directed to Fox News on a daily basis than to the other major cable news networks, but the reality is fewer eyeballs are going to Fox. When you look at the rise of alternative streaming media and for that matter, different cable networks and cable itself becomes something of an anachronism because in most cases there’s not an actual cable, but at least we still use the word cable because we think we know what we’re talking about.

When Ted Turner came up with the idea of CNN, it was an idea of getting a hold of this cable wave going into America’s homes, and there were rules that the federal government and others were looking at to require cable carriers to devote a certain amount of time to this and that. A 24-hour news network seemed to make sense. It would require an incredible expenditure. Ted Turner and his company, Turner Entertainment, came up with that expenditure and CNN dominated for a very long time, until it didn’t.

The fact is that no matter who the leader of CNN is, the Cable News Network is never going to regain the stature it had in the United States precisely because the entire media environment has blown up. Along came Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, and even as Fox News was available on far fewer cable networks in the beginning, it got a disproportionate amount of attention, and before long, Fox was the rising star.

There’s something else going on here. Take CNN and Fox and then remember the old legacy networks: CBS, ABC, and NBC, particularly CBS and NBC. They’d set the stage for so long and yet NBC trying to get into the cable business decided to come out with MSNBC. It was intended to be a 24/7 cable representation and extension of the iconic NBC brand, but very quickly those networks took on a political dimension and they sorted out because they had to differentiate. That’s the sociological term. It’s often used by economists too. You have to differentiate what makes CNN different than MSNBC, different than Fox News.

Eventually it came down to politics, to political perspective. Fox on the conservative side, which actually fits at least much of the family that dominated it. And then you have CNN trying to say there’s a middle here, but sometimes decidedly leaning left. Every time CNN now tries to correct to go back to the center, they get slammed by the left for supposedly moving right. MSNBC very quickly decided that its place in the ecosphere was on the left. Here’s the big problem for MSNBC. There aren’t that many people on the left who actually watch a more leftwardly directed cable network.

By the way, the ecosystem here is also completely imbalanced in another way. AM radio increasingly conservative. One name largely responsible for that, the late Rush Limbaugh. Rush Limbaugh was responsible more than anyone else for transforming AM radio into an enormous machine of cultural transformation. It was a massive pushback against the legacy media and Rush Limbaugh with both skill and an outsized personality and very clear political convictions, was able to start not only a restart of AM radio and the talk show format, but he was also able to make a material change in the future the conservative movement in the United States,

One of the points to be made about radio, by the way, whether it’s actually broadcast or some form of streaming or digital transmission, it is that the left keeps trying talk shows, but talk shows don’t work on the left. They work on the cultural right. They work among conservatives who like to talk a great deal about the issues and who see the talk show format on radio, and I hosted one of those programs daily for about 10 years. They see it as an opportunity to push back on the prevailing cultural tide and direction.

So bringing that all to a conclusion in terms of our understanding of the media these days, here’s what we understand. The old rules are off and a greater ideological commitment and branding is going to be found just about everywhere you look in the media, especially in emerging and fast-growing media, those are not going to be bland by definition. They’re not going to be neutral, they’re not going to be moderate.

But it also means that Christians have the responsibility to understand that the role that was once played by editors and publishers is now largely gone, and it’s now up to the consumers of media to be attentive to the credibility, the truthfulness, and the authority with which a news report is written or broadcast or just projected. You need to know, is this true or is it false? How do I know? How do I evaluate?

And it also disappoints to the fact that the polarization in the culture inevitably points to a polarization in the media as well. These days, you can’t have one without the other.

Part III

‘Customer Ratings Have Become Meaningless’: A Culture Where ‘Average’ Is Rated As ‘Superb’ Just Might Have a Problem

But finally remember that even as some look back to what they think was a golden age of broadcast media in which effectiveness was measured by ratings, the ratings meaning how many people were watching these particular networks at these particular times, which programs had the highest ratings? Ratings translated into advertising dollars, but right now ratings in the larger sense amount to just about nothing. That’s the point of a major article that appeared in the New York Times yesterday. It’s about the fact that “customer ratings have become meaningless because everyone is perfect.”

You may remember Lake Wobegon where supposedly all the children were above average. Well, these days we are told that Uber is threatening to take action against drivers who have a rating at 4.65 or less. At 4.8 out of a five-point scale, many are asked what the problem is, and it turns out that riders, the users of Uber, they are offering more than anything else five star ratings because as one person in the article said, “Isn’t five like normal? Well, no, five is supposed to be outstanding. The world is off its kilter if five stars out of five means normal.”

But there’s another fascinating aspect of this when it turns out that the closer a personal interaction was or is, the higher the rating becomes, even when that interaction goes badly. Now, why would that be true?

Well, number one, there’s something in human nature that makes it more difficult to say something negative about someone you’ve made eye contact with, much less had a conversation with, not to mention, been riding in a car with. The reality is that proximity makes us at least think we’re supposed to think better about people, and there’s probably something very positive in that. There’s also something confusing in that, which is that when you look at making this kind of rating, are you rating the service or are you rating the person?

It turns out that some are arguing there’s even a gender divide in this respect with men more likely to say, “I’m rating the service,” and women at least by some accounts more likely to say, “I’m rating the person.” In both cases, the temptation is to rate overly high, which means in other words, that just about everyone is above average, which means that’s mathematically impossible, which means we are in a genuine mess. The ratings as the Wall Street Journal says, are increasingly meaningless.

Furthermore, there are bad motives that come into play here as well. When you look at online reviews, many of them are sabotaged by people who are particularly mad and even come up with mass efforts to try to say, offer a one star rather than a five star. And just when you think the situation can’t become more problematic morally, two new developments have taken place.

Number one, you are now asked to rate persons, sometimes by the way, to tip them as well while they are watching you come up with the calculation. That’s an observation problem. That’s a moral quandary. That’s a distortion field. I think we all know it. And now it’s well documented, as this article in the Wall Street Journal points out, when the person being rated is watching you doing the rating, you tend to rate more highly. You send the Uber driver to Lake Wobegon.

And the other problem is increasingly in so many of these particular aspects of the economy, you’re each rating the other. Not only is the rider rating the driver, but the driver is rating the rider. Oh, yeah, that’s going to turn out well, that’s going to be abundantly honest. The rider’s afraid that if he or she gives a low rating to the driver, the driver will do the same in return and you’re going to be standing in the rain on the curb and all Uber drivers are going to be driving past you.

The article on some of the driving services turns out to be filled with all kinds of information. Frankly, I almost wish I had known, which is the fact that the drivers are rating the riders. And even as there’s an inflation in the stars for the drivers, there is a concern about the stars for the riders. One particular driver said that she is concerned if she looks on a rider rates only 4.79 out of five. Now remember, that’s 4.79 out of five. And this driver says, I have to worry. “Do I have to fear for my life with this person?”

I’ll simply close by saying it’s a good thing that these numbers aren’t advertised somewhere like, oh, I don’t know, on our forehead. Imagine having to go on an airplane and sit down next to persons, and you might be sitting next to a 4.79. Even more frightening, sitting next to that person is a 3.92. Meanwhile, across the aisle is a 5.0. If you only knew, you’d move. It also says something about human nature that increasingly everyone knows these ratings are useless, and yet we still use them, and today I’m even talking about them.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).