JOURNALISM IS CRIPPLED BY
BOTH ECONOMICS & IDEOLOGY
I recently reread one of my posts from back in March of 2014, and it struck me as relevant to the news coverage we’ve been getting over the past few months — most especially in the last week as we’ve watched our media mavens discredit themselves once again. Here’s a somewhat edited version of my original post. See if you agree with its observations …
It should come as no surprise that the class I remember most fondly from my days as a Journalism major at Temple University would be Editorial Writing. But then, as I have confessed…
“I’ve always been opinionated and long-winded. Which pretty much proves I was born to blog.”
My least favorite class was Editing. It was taught by an old guy who had been a slot man for many years on a local paper, and who insisted we learn the names of every county seat in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Explanation: A slot man was the guy who sat in the center — or slot — of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, directing the flow of stories to the editors seated around him.)
Spelling counted in Editing class. In fact, the course was all about accuracy and detail — which felt extremely tedious and restrictive to us students, raised as we were on equal portions of Edward R. Murrow and Clark Kent. Our idea of journalism was digging for dirt, uncovering corruption, defeating bad guys, bringing truth to the people.
He used to tell us that former students who’d gone into the profession would come back years later to say how valuable his course had been to them. Which is the kind of thing guaranteed to set college kids’ eyes rolling. At least it set our eyes rolling, inclined as we were to late-1960s questioning of authority, and alert to the slightest whiff of adult pride.
But damned if he wasn’t right. A couple years later, working as a reporter on my hometown paper, I learned the importance of accuracy when our slot man would shout out at me from across the newsroom, “There are two Rs in occurred!”
The computer age has pretty much destroyed spelling (if Spell-check don’t catch it, it ain’t likely t’git caught).
Journalism hasn’t fared much better under the onslaught of digital news. Notice how your local paper has shrunk — if indeed it still exists — in page size, thickness, frequency of circulation. Few are the traditional publishers that have figured out how to make a buck on the Web. Cities all over the country have lost dailies of prestige and long standing. Even small-town sheets are struggling, which I find rather surprising. Where else can you get the latest local news? It isn’t likely that Associated Press is scooping the Frog Hollow Bugle & Intelligencer.
But then…if you can follow the Kardashians on TMZ, who cares about the 4-H bake sale?
Truth is, reader interest in print publications has plunged — not to mention literacy. TV news has fared somewhat better, though the major networks also have had to do a lot of trimming.
There are those who view the slide of mainstream media as poetic justice. They point to partisanship and liberal bias — and, truth to tell, it’s hard to deny that journalists tend to view the world from a lefterly point of view.
Every talented kid graduating from J-school since Watergate has dreamt of being Woodward or Bernstein, exposing the depredations of some evil Republican President. Rarely a Democrat, of course ….
The temptation to join in cheering the decline of journalism is strong. I feel it often. I’m a blogger, and as more people grasp the extent to which mainstream media have become corrupted by the incestuous journalistic/political liaison, the more they turn to alternative (mostly online) outlets.
The problem is that the alternatives are as dependent as everybody else for basic information on those very mainstream news purveyors that are so deeply steeped in bias. I certainly am. One of the things I try to do with this blog is to direct readers to more immediate sources of data on the subjects I discuss. I’d say at least half of the links I provide at the ends of my posts are to mainstream media (maybe over half).
So while the alternatives might add perspective by providing a wider range of commentary on current issues — often excellent, insightful commentary — and some of the more sophisticated bloggers have developed their own networks of contacts, the staff and technology resources of major news organizations remain essential. The American people would find themselves severely disadvantaged if the whole structure of mass communication built up over the past century were to crumble.
Mainstreamers are well aware of the economic aspect of the problem. Staff reduction is epidemic, with ever-increasing reliance on freelancers (even bloggers). And while newsroom salaries have traditionally been below those of ad-sales staff, reporters at less than celebrity level are eating a lot of Ramen.
After receiving a body blow from technology, news organizations are increasingly dependent on the digital genie. Notice how many TV news remotes are done on Skype these days? Visual quality may be poor, but the price is right. There are even computer programs to speed the writing of news, automating those format elements common to most stories (just drop in the specific facts).
What’s the risk in all this? Dean Baquet, managing editor of The New York Times (and a Pulitzer Prize winner) told a student writers conference…
“My only fear is that the craft of witnessing and reporting on the truth will die.”
A worthy fear ….
I recently read the autobiography of the late anchorman, Walter Cronkite, A Reporter’s Life. Written in 1996, Conkrite’s closing chapter makes a broad sweep of American journalism and some of the trends — even then well underway — that are affecting the relationship between news outlets and their audiences.
No right-winger (rather, a liberal of the old school), Cronkite observed that…
“The secret of our past success as a nation may be traced to the fact that we have been a free people, free to discuss ideas and alternatives, free to teach and learn, free to report and to hear….”
Naturally, broadcast journalism was Cronkite’s primary focus, and he was surprisingly candid in acknowledging the reportorial shallowness of the CBS Evening News, the pioneering TV news program over which he presided for nearly two decades. But he also saw what was happening to newspapers, already in decline by the mid-’90s (he lived to witness the end of so many by the time of his death in 2009)…
“The public seems to sense all this, but does it really understand? The preservation of our liberties depends on an enlightened citizenry …. The nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who prey upon the semi-informed.”
Journalism, as a profession, must address the factors bringing about its own destruction. It’s making some progress in the economic area.
But the ideology side?
Not so much.
When I was a reporter, a common dream among my colleagues was to come bursting into the newsroom shouting, “Hold the presses!”
None of us ever got onto a story that was hot enough to let us live out that fantasy.
These days, it would hardly be necessary. Too many of those presses are already on hold.