That cable news companies are ratings-driven isn’t news to anyone. But an MSNBC producer resigning on principle and publishing a letter decrying the “cancer” of cable outlets?

Now there’s a topic meriting attention.

Producer Ariana Pekary posted a farewell on her personal blog in August after seven years with the network. Her letter is a passionate indictment of her profession’s editorial process, though she’s respectful of her colleagues.

“Just about anything would improve the current [editorial] process, which can be pretty rudimentary (think basing today’s content on whatever rated well yesterday, or look to see what’s trending online today),” she wrote.

While Pekary speaks only of cable outlets, other mediums are not immune from this quest for ratings. As newspapers and magazines move online, many if not most organizations are now paying careful attention to “clicks” on content and using such information to drive editorial decisions. This practice stems from a desperate need for advertising dollars as well as the desire to be impactful, as even the fairest, most-balanced coverage will make little difference if no one sees, reads, views or hears it.

Publishing such a statement is courageous. MSNBC and other outlets should consider Pekary’s criticisms.

Look no further than recent COVID-19 coverage to see the truth of her statements. In early August many major media outlets focused more heavily on covering the bickering between President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Dr. Deborah Birx than on covering coronavirus data trends. The smallest disagreements or perceived disharmony between Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House coronavirus adviser, dominates news cycles for days.

These are important issues, but the politics of such situations regularly overshadow the actual news of the day.

Other media professionals like New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss and New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan have also departed their positions in recent weeks, either out of principle or a mutual parting of the ways. Pekary’s politics may be different than Weiss’ or Sullivan’s, but her complaint that the contemporary media machine is not serving the public — worse, that it’s actively stoking division — casts her departure in a similar light.

“This cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis,” Ms. Pekary wrote, later adding: “As new details have become available about antibodies, a vaccine, or how COVID actually spreads, producers still want to focus on the politics. Important facts or studies get buried.

Americans deserve more. Burying analysis under more provocative or sensationalized content isn’t healthy for discourse or democracy. Like Pekary, we should demand better of the fourth estate.

— Tribune News Service

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