Monday, August 31, 2009

Why The News Is In Decline

Image credit: Pharyngula. Remainder of comic is here.

Two articles caught my eye today, both having something to do with the deplorable state of broadcast journalism. The first is Glenn Greenwald's. After noting that MSNBC is hiring Jenna Bush as a "reporter", he goes on to observe:

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it's really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from.

It's Time To Embrace American Royalty

As Glenn notes, there are plenty of experienced and professional journalists who can't find jobs nowadays, and yet MSNBC hired a woman whose only real accomplishment in life is being born to someone who occupied the White House. That so many of these folks are conservatives who rail against affirmative action and civil rights legislation is particularly ironic, but not the worst thing about this trend. The worst thing is that place where most people in America get their news from is becoming increasingly incompetent at providing it. That trend is at least partly to do with who it hires and who it doesn't.

In an interview this spring on Bill Moyers Journal, TV producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon summed up the changes that have hit the news business in the last twenty-five years when he talked about what happened to his former employer:

[W]e were doing our job. Making the world safe for democracy. And all of a sudden, terra firma shifted, new technology. Who knew that the Internet was going to overwhelm us? I would buy that if I wasn't in journalism for the years that immediately preceded the Internet because I took the third buyout from the Baltimore Sun. I was about reporter number 80 or 90 who left, in 1995. Long before the Internet had had its impact. I left at a time - those buyouts happened when the Baltimore Sun was earning 37 percent profits.

You know, we now know this because it's in bankruptcy and the books are open. 37 percent profits. All that R&D money that was supposed to go in to make newspapers more essential, more viable, more able to explain the complexities of the world. It went to shareholders in the Tribune Company. Or the L.A. Times Mirror Company before that. And ultimately, when the Internet did hit, they had an inferior product - that was not essential enough that they could charge online for it.

I mean, the guys who are running newspapers, over the last 20 or 30 years, have to be singular in the manner in which they destroyed their own industry. It - it's even more profound than Detroit making Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins and believing that no self-respecting American would buy a Japanese car in 1973. That - it's analogous up to a point, except it's not analogous in that a Nissan is a pretty good car, and a Toyota is a pretty good car. The Internet, while it's great for commentary and froth doesn't do very much first generation reporting at all. And it can't sustain that. The economic model can't sustain that kind of reporting. And to lose to that, because you didn't - they had contempt for their own product, these people.

Bill Moyers Journal: Transcript: April 24, 2009

The same short-term, greedy behavior that's ruined much of our economy was at work on the news business, too. That reference to R & D was an apt one - reporters and their support staff represented the future of those papers. You don't just go to journalism school and know what it is to be a reporter on a beat, any more than you know how to be an engineer at a car company by getting a mechanical engineering degree. There's still an apprenticeship, followed by lots more acquisition of knowledge that makes future efforts easier or better. When the newspapers and broadcasters of America shed themselves of these people, they killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. How in the world could someone not be satisfied with a 37 percent profit? Only in America.

What you have at the end of that process is celebrity news people covering things they don't understand, and the result of that is situations like the one in the cartoon that leads this article. A reporter who specializes in medical and biological subjects would know the significance of what he'd been told. Dilettantes like Jenna Bush or Jonah Goldberg wouldn't.

The other article is Steve Benen quoting former Reagan Republican Bruce Bartlett on what has happened to the news in this country:

"Finally, the decline of the mainstream media because of the Internet and other economic forces has been critical to its loss of influence and standing. It no longer has the resources to pay reporters to look into things deeply and write about issues authoritatively. Reporters even at the best newspapers often seem like glorified bloggers who get their basic facts from the Internet instead of their own research, substitute speed for thoroughness and accuracy, and have no time to become experts on the subjects they cover because they are covering the waterfront. And since television news has always depended upon newspapers as their basic sources of material, the decline of newspaper reporting led inevitably to a decline in television reporting. All this has created a death spiral for the mainstream media that, as I said, liberals still largely depend on to represent their viewpoint.["]

The Penance Has Not Been Paid, Part II

Steve Benen goes on to observe:

But much of this is very compelling, most notably the rise of Fox News with no progressive counterpart. We talked earlier today about Rick Perlstein's "tree of crazy." Far-right conservatives of recent eras have been every bit as hysterical, irresponsible, and ridiculous as the one we see today, and as Rick noted, in recent generations, they were dismissed as "extremists" outside the American mainstream, and unworthy of serious thought.

Fox News, however, changes the game. If you're crazy, Fox News will have you on as a guest to spew nonsense. If you're really crazy, Fox News will give you a show of your own to spew nonsense all the time.

The Penance Has Not Been Paid, Part II

For my part, I'm not sure that Fox News alone is responsible for this change. The other networks have gone along with this nonsense, and they have a choice not to do that. They pander as much as Fox, it's just that they're not as honest about it.

And yes, when you're less honest than Fox "News", you're not very honest.

The major news outlets, broadcast news in particular, are no longer about reporting the news. They are now about making a profit, and if that can be done by reporting, that's OK. Unfortunately, there are so many other more profitable uses for paper and broadcast channels that actually delivering news has become, at best, a byproduct. As I've observed many times before, this is a disturbing trend, with ominous implications for us as a society if it's not corrected or compensated for. As David Simon observed on Bill Moyers Journal:

BILL MOYERS: ... And as you say, you were spit out by the forces that work in the journalistic world. And now journalism is spitting out reporters like teeth.

DAVID SIMON: Left and right. You know, listen, I was not the last [to lose his newspaper job]. That's true. And it's heartbreaking. And I say this with no schadenfreude just 'cause I got a TV gig. It's heartbreaking what's happening. And I feel that the republic is actually in danger.


DAVID SIMON: There is no guard now on assessing anything qualitatively. Of pulling back the veil behind what an official will tell you is progress, or is valid, or is legitimate as policy. And - absent that, no good can come from anything. Because there is an absolute disincentive to tell the truth.

BILL MOYERS: Nobody's de-juking the stats, right?

DAVID SIMON: Exactly. And ultimately I have the utmost confidence in the ability of any ambitious soul anywhere to take what is not progress and what is not valid and to gloss it up and to say, "We're doing a great job."

Bill Moyers Journal: Transcript: April 24, 2009

Without news organizations that are willing and able to find the truth, and the means to disseminate that truth to its citizens, America will continue to experience more of what it's seen this century. In fact, some day these may look like the good old days of the 21st Century.

Afterword: If you haven't watched David Simon's interview on Bill Moyers Journal, I heartily recommend you watch it in its entirety. It's a testimony to the decline of America. Whether you think there's a chance for things to improve or you are utterly pessimistic, the truths Simon tells are essential to know.


boukman70 said...

Great piece. I wholeheartedly agree!

Cujo359 said...

I'd almost feel better if people said I was crazy for writing stuff like this. Sadly, I'm not - at least, not for writing this.