By Bob Dorn
Like the news industry on which it depends, Google News is a big, sprawling mess. There’s little consistency in what it chooses to emphasize hour by hour, day by day, week to week. But, lurking not far beneath Google’s aggravating, aggregated news site is the larger industry’s basic conservatism.
This year Google News intensely chased, first, the Romney/GOP nomination, and secondly the Romney vs. Obama mini‐series as slavishly as the news industry itself did ‐‐ not saying much given the fact that Google News doesn’t originate stories; it reprints them. The media’s obsessive preoccupation with Romney began to sag by mid‐summer along with his polls. But then the August 11th nomination of Paul Ryan by the Romney gave the national press corps something to believe in again, sending them hyperventilating down to Florida to cover Ryan‐‐ “the next president of the United States,” in the Romney world – where the new guy appeared with his mother at campaign stops ‐‐ a kind of Immaculate Perception that gripped the media as if something had happened.
Then the Missouri man, Todd Akin, took the top spot away from the Romney/Ryan and Obama.
After the Ryan nomination I wondered if a week of watching Google News more closely might establish who gets to say what. If you haven’t followed the site, here’s a description you’ll need. Atop Google’s News page you’ll see the lead story covered by one featured news source with several other sources’ stories on the same event attached below. Following the lead stories are four or five others, presumably descending in importance, the majority originating in the U.S. From thereon, the columns are separated into sub categories of World, Business, Technology, Sports, Health, Environment, Entertainment, Science, and another U.S. section, all of which you can click for the full story.
On the right side of the site, top of the page, are categories of links. The first, titled Recent, is always just three stories that are often enough already running on the more important left side column. Below the Recent are three stories (why just three?) considered to be News Near You, in other words local. Then you’ll see Spotlight stories, and then Popular stories. In the middle of these is the Editor’s Picks section, every bit as important as the left side. These are an endlessly repeating cycle of stories from appearing in 10 to eleven major and minor online news sources, four or five stories per rotating source. I’m told the picks are made not by Google’s editors but by editors at each of the featured news sources in the Editor’s Picks section.
There’s a kind of giddiness to the site missing from the 3 dimensional old fashioned newspaper. If somebody at Google spots a story that might need coverage – say, Justin Bieber’s new haircut, or Assad’s foreign minister abandoning him ‐‐ the site will refresh and you’ll find yourself looking at another lead story at the top, or somewhere just below that. Sometimes you’ll find that the links in the Spotlight or Recent categories are already running on the fuller and more illustrated left side. Like I said, the site sprawls and wiggles.
The day before I started monitoring I personalized my Editor’s Picks section by telling Google I wanted “often” to see the following sources: The New York Times, MSNBC, Reuters, the New York Daily News, Mother Jones, Global Post and the Daily Beast, and, just for laughs, Ken’s 5TV,” a basically liberal lineup. For the category, “sometimes,” I chose: the Christian Science Monitor, SLATE, Barron’s, Smart Money and Education Week. I excluded with a “never” a couple of infotech sites and the obviously reactionary or weird – The Weekly Standard, Fox News and US News and World Report.
During the week I got drenched in unwanted business news. Fox Business popped up six times during the seven days, far more frequently than my preferred Mother Jones’ two appearances and just one day fewer than The New York Times’. Barron’s and something called Smart Money appeared six and four times, respectively. The tech world showed up with Tech News World (three times), Network World (just once), and Info Week (three times). Two of my preferred liberal or moderate outlets appeared just once.
Now, fairness requires me to say tells me I spent only an average of two hours a day monitoring Google News. For all I know Google might have run Mother Jones and Ken’s 5TV and The Daily Beast when I wasn’t looking. Still, why were Daily Caller and Forward and Real Clear Politics showing up on the Editor’s Picks when I’d hit on The Guardian many times and declared my preference for Global Post and they didn’t? People will talk about how Google employs algorithms to move into view the stories you’ll want to read. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it because there was no indication Google had a sophisticated system that could match the news to my tastes. They’re not even as good at diagnosing my mental illness as Amazon or Netflix are.
Over on the Local section (“News Near You”), the reliance on former Fox affiliate SD6 (seven appearances) produces a mix a little too heavy on violent crime. The most frequently aggregated local news source is Escondido‐based North County Times, with 10 stories pretty far from San Diego’s center. The Reader had the third most spots with five, but the work of heavy punchers Don Brauder and Matt Potter escaped notice. NBC/39 was recognized for four stories. For some reason, the U‐T made but one appearance, as did News 8 and KGTV 10. The OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press? Never.
I’m old school, so I think people need to stay in touch with all points of view. But…why are so many of the nation’s very best newspapers seldom allowed into the coverage on the left side of the page, and why do they never appear in the Editor’s Picks section? That small prestigious group of the excluded is made up of organizations such as The Los Angeles Times, winner of 41 Pulitzer prizes (only the NYT and WashPost have won more), The Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe, which since 1941 has won 20 Pulitzers. Esquire and Vanity Fair, two magazines that have produced devilishly daring investigations, and The New Yorker and Harper’s and The Nation don’t appear in Google News. The Atlantic, during the week appeared just once during my monitoring of the site.
So, yes, Google News is conservative news.
Decades ago the former Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian, who later went on to become dean of UC Berkeley’s journalism school, wrote a book titled The Media Monopoly in which he established the pregnant fact that more than 90% of media ownerships were corporate and that the same percentage of individual executives who answered Bagdikian’s question of their party allegiance said they were Republicans. Partisans will argue you can be a Republican AND liberal, or that just because someone is a member of the party and the owner of a network doesn’t mean he can’t be impartial. Tell that to Rupert Murdoch, not so famous for being “fair and balanced.” Winger complaints that the media are liberal have far less truthiness than does the famous sentence of A.J. Liebling: “Freedom of the Press belongs to the man who owns one.”
At Google the middle ground is being pursued with what amounts to revolutionary fervor. Facts these days beg and go hungry.