Thanks to Facebook’s policy of allowing entities my friends have “liked” to post articles to my news feed, I saw this story in the Daily Kos, headlined “Teen Kills 4; Judge LITERALLY Lets Him Off Because He Is Rich!” First of all, you will know your objective news sources by their uses of exclamation points and capital letters in headlines. Second, you’ll be glad to hear that a Texas judge did not literally let off 16 year-old drunk driver Ethan Couch, because he was not literally on a hook. Certainly, Couch being sentenced to probation after he killed four pedestrians while driving with a blood alcohol content of .24 is infuriating, especially in context of the defense’s claim that he had lived a life of such privilege as to not understand the consequences of his actions. But there is a difference between the local CBS report and the one in the Daily Kos, and that difference seems to be between news and something else.
I am not America’s foremost legal scholar, but it does seem odd that a judge would accept extraordinary privilege as a defense in a vehicular manslaughter case. Couch is a minor, though, and to the extent that he is not responsible for his own personality, he seems to be the victim of something. His attorney argued that Couch is “the product of ‘profoundly dysfunctional parents’ who set no boundaries and failed to supervise their son,” which is the kind of thing that you get when you hire a very, very expensive lawyer.
Any discomfort Couch’s parents might have experienced at being characterized this way in court was probably assuaged by the knowledge that they weren’t going to prison, either. It certainly feels like some kind of failure of justice, and I doubt that a Mexican kid with a public defender would have gotten the same result, but it’s a mischaracterization to say that the judge “LITERALLY Let Him Off Because He Is Rich!” Specifically, the judge let him off because he was psychologically stunted by bad parenting.
For the target audience of the Daily Kos, though, that’s not as enticing a story as the apparent news that a judge in Texas let a kid get away with killing four people because his parents have money. To characterize this story as an editorial decision is somewhat unfair, but only a little.
Unless “SemDem” is the ill-advised pseudonym of a professional journalist, this story appears to come from the Daily Kos’s “Diary” feature, which publishes user blogs under the site’s imprimatur. Staff writers at the Daily Kos don’t quite write like that, but the distinction between “diaries” and actual Kos content is in many ways without difference.
I don’t visit the Daily Kos website. This story appeared in my feed via the Daily Kos’s Facebook page, which is presumably not administered by the Kos community. Even if it was only by letting a robot post whatever item had gotten the most hits, the Daily Kos made an editorial decision to present this story to the public.
Importantly, that public was narrowly selected. Facebook lets liked websites add content to friends’ feeds because Facebook friends tend to like similar things. This is especially true when it comes to politics. Even though Jezebel and PoliticsUSA make me irrationally angry, Facebook is betting safely when it assumes that because my friend Chadams liked them, I will too.
This algorithm is important, because it means the Daily Kos is taking a calculated risk when it runs the headline “Teen Kills 4; Judge LITERALLY Lets Him Off Because He Is Rich!” Its readers probably already accept the idea that the rich get special treatment in contemporary society, and they are willing to click to see this idea reinforced. Probably, their friends are, too.
So at long last we approach an answer to the question implied before the jump: if the Daily Kos isn’t news, in the sense that it is not selling the clearest possible accounting of events, what is it? I submit that it is something that didn’t exist in pre-internet media. It is evidence.
The Daily Kos and sites like it—from the Blaze and Huffington Post up to and maybe including Fox News—package events as confirming data for pre-selected worldviews. Biased reporting certainly existed before the internet, but explicitly biased evidence-gathering was not a profitable business model in the age of mass media.
The CBS evening news couldn’t make more money by expressly catering to liberal narratives because it appealed to a national audience, and the whole nation didn’t agree on that. The thing the whole nation agreed on, at least ostensibly, was that they wanted the unvarnished truth, and so broadcast news carefully cultivated objectivity. To the extent that they served national or community-wide audiences, newspapers did the same thing.
The advent of the internet means that a site like the Daily Kos can appeal to a nationwide audience and still select for committed liberals. Its readership is not localized geographically so much as demographically. And since its demographic is selected by political views, the Daily Kos can reliably please its audience by reinforcing those views. Making them dumber is just a lucky side-effect.