Sorry, there is no juicy sex scandal that I know enough about to describe. But in these harried, information-overload times when Americans are gravitating to short, sensationalist stories, partisan rants, and celebrity gossip, I had to get your attention.
Shocking J.Lo News!
Don’t have that, either. Instead, I want to bring you up to date on the sickly state of American journalism, which appears to be in irreversible decline. Above a recent eulogy for the profession by columnist Michael Gerson, the Washington Post called it “Journalism’s slow, sad death.”
Come on, I can do better than that.
“Journalism is Toast!”
In his mournful dirge for the “Fourth Estate,” Gerson likens Washington’s journalism museum, the Newseum, to a mausoleum housing “the artifacts of a declining industry.” They include the final front pages of newspapers around the country that gave up trying to compete with showbiz mags and blogs; “citizen journalists’” raw footage from disasters and crime scenes; online videos of cute kittens and stumble-down drunks; unreal reality-TV shows; spittle-spewing talk hosts who think President Obama is a native of Kenya; and hosts of the opposite political persuasion who mock the hairspray and spray-on tans of certain Republican congressional leaders.
Gerson even dredged up a phrase that hasn’t seen sunlight since my college textbooks were published half a century ago. The “journalistic tradition of nonpartisan objectivity,” he calls it. Way back when, we debated whether journalists could stifle their inner biases and report “just the facts” of what they saw or uncovered. Nowadays, a whole lot of people who call themselves journalists don’t even try.
If you like your “news” drenched in conservatism, your view of the world from the United States would be filtered through Fox News Channel’s ranter and weeper Glenn Beck, Time magazine’s September 28 cover boy. He despises “tax and spend” Democrats, just about all forms of government, and, apparently, President Obama, whom he calls a “racist.” Or if you’re firmly camped where liberal fires burn, you can’t wait to watch MSNBC host Keith Olbermann toast his Fox competitor, Bill O’Reilly, as his “the Worst Person in the World” every couple of days.
Sometimes Washington’s all-“news” radio station — you’ll soon see why I keep putting the word “news” in quotation marks — breaks in with an urgent-sounding update from CBS — the network that once brought us such straight-arrow journalistic lions as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
When the update “sounder” played the other day, I expected to hear the latest developments from the search for a Washington state gunman who had walked into a diner and executed four local police officers who were completing paperwork over their morning coffee.
Had he been identified? Caught? Shot?
Or perhaps what we once called a “bulletin” would reveal details of President Obama’s troop buildup in Afghanistan.
Nope. CBS was almost breathlessly breaking in to tell us that golf star Tiger Woods did not meet with Florida Highway Patrol officers, despite promises to do so, two days after crashing his luxury automobile into a hydrant and a tree outside his villa.
Oh, the humanity!
Then it was back to the station’s regularly scheduled programming, including “Knuckleheads in the News” (dimwits and drunks who get into predicaments) and 18 minutes or more of commercials every hour.
You see, current wisdom — an oxymoron — holds that information consumers have the attention span of (supply your favorite cliché:) a fruit fly, a gnat, a goldfish, a squirrel, a three-year-old, Paris Hilton.
Gotcha with another celebrity mention!
So my forthcoming list of developments, quotes, and observations about what everyone seems to agree is the moribund world of journalism had better be pretty snappy. That’s a challenge, up against blogs about the mother of octuplets, the season premiere of “The Bad Girls Club” on cable, and that “Hot Celebrity Daddies” Web site.
But stick with me. Toward the end, I’ll reveal seven makeup tricks of the world’s top supermodels!
So here are palatable bites about journalism while it still has a pulse. Regrettably, they do not include secrets of Freemasonry never before revealed! I’m working on that, too.
• The Washington Post, long admired as a newspaper of national scope that carries stories from all over and staffs its own bureaus in big media centers, just announced that it is closing its last three domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. “The fact is we can effectively cover the rest of the country from Washington,” the Post quoted its executive editor, Marcus Brauchli.
Sure it can.
• Just about every day, there’s a story like the one from December 2, when the Gannett Corporation — already tightfisted — announced it was cutting 26 more newsroom jobs at its flagship USA Today newspaper and 11 at USA Weekend. The double whammy of limpid advertising revenue and reduced travel by Americans had already bumped USA Today from its top perch in U.S. newspaper circulation. (The paper counts on a ton of readers at the nation’s motels, many of which pass it out gratis each weekday.)
And a day later, the Washington Times, a feisty, conservative daily with a superb sports section, announced it would soon slash 40 percent — 40 percent — of its workforce and concentrate on politics, national news, and “new-media platforms,” including its online talk show. Acting publisher Jonathan Slavin said the Times would be switching from a paid subscription and newsstand product to a free giveaway, distributed to and near the offices of “Washington policy and opinion makers.” All this, he said, to “keep pace with the dynamic economic changes of the news business.”
Right. Dynamic. Tell that to the dozens of sports, business, circulation, and other staff members soon to join the legions of journalism’s unemployed.
• Several dailies, such as the Detroit News in Michigan and the Huntington Herald-Dispatch in West Virginia, have eliminated or drastically downsized their state capital bureaus. Even the Columbus Dispatch has slashed its statehouse coverage, and it’s published a couple of blocks away in Ohio’s capital city!
• And if you think things are dire in the newspaper world, you should hang out in the offices of American news magazines. Once fat with ads and loaded with in-depth reflections on events of the week, they are now no thicker, some weeks, than a pamphlet and have taken to chasing the same infotainment gossip as do the grocery-store tabloids. U.S. News & World Report doesn’t even offer print editions any more, save for monthly rankings of colleges, cars and the like. Newsweek dumped general coverage in favor, mostly, of think pieces by elite commentators.
As for the granddaddy of news mags, it was a 60-page-or-so Time issue a couple of weeks ago to which I was referring with the pamphlet analogy.
Here’s one reason it got that way: when last reported, ad revenue at Time Inc.’s publishing division, which prints stalwarts such as People and Sports Illustrated as well as Time, was down 30 percent compared with the same period last year.
• Talk about dinosaurs! Consider local radio news. Two decades ago, I directed a 24-person radio operation here in Washington — and it wasn’t even an all-news station. Today, in the era of gluttonous ownership conglomeration — one company, Clear Channel, Inc., alone owns 900 U.S. stations, including seven in Washington — today’s typical radio “newsroom,” if you can call it that, often consists of two people at a central “news service,” feeding three or more stations. Or a “morning zoo” co-host, yukking it up about the First Lady’s slacks or some burglar stuck in a chimney.
• Until recently when stories about painful newsroom cutbacks came along, though, there was always a comforting balm: papers and stations could still count on coverage from the Associated Press, the cooperative news agency that kept trained reporters on staff or on call in every decent-sized town. Then, a month or so ago, came word that the AP was cutting 10 percent — 300 journalists — from its workforce.
It, too, had little choice. The Associated Press makes its money from fees collected from client newspapers and stations, which are fast losing the ability to pay them.
• Ad revenue for network and local television is also slowly slip-sliding away — much of it to cable, whose top three “news” channels are enjoying lusty profits and viewership gains. No wonder. As Michael Gerson points out, cable “news” outlets “have forsaken objectivity entirely and produce little actual news, since makeup for [talk-show] guests is cheaper than reporting.”
He also reiterates something that I’ve pounded here many times:
As people’s lives get more frantic and the media pie fragments into thousands of narrow slices, news consumers turn to stations, networks, papers, and Web sites that comport with their political preferences. Some folks are “customizing” Web pages, making sure that everything that hits their eyeballs matches their favorite subjects and political preferences.
That’s like working in an ice-cream shop, where you can pile cones high with your favorite flavors and eat to your stomach’s content. It’s yummy, if not so nutritious.
But ice-cream scoopers soon crave some substance: a crunchy carrot, maybe, or chicken soup. Unfortunately, Americans who read and listen only to what they agree with show no signs of tiring of this fare. As Louis Menand wrote in the November 2 New Yorker magazine’s “Talk of the Town,” “The market for news is narrowing down to those who need an ideological fix” in a media spectrum in which “bias is increasingly taken for granted.”
I, on the other hand, have always delighted in picking up the paper and reading the unexpected — carefully vetted and artfully written stories about all sorts of things I didn’t even know were happening — rather than searching out, over and over again, viewpoints that I already share.
And I’m hardly the first to worry that selective media surfing has fed the nation’s growing incivility. As legal scholar Cass Sunstein writes in his newest book on information in a democracy, the Internet “is serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with greater ease and frequency with one another.” Americans are increasingly getting their information, Sunstein notes, “in a customized form, by subscribing to e-mails and RSS feeds on their favorite topics and skipping subjects they find less congenial.”
RSS stands for “really simple syndication,” which in and of itself has a worrisome ring to it.
Michael Jackson! Rihanna! Johnny Depp!
Just perking you up.
• Newspapers were late to the Web party, assigning many talented writers and creative graphic designers to mount online pages so that the papers could “rebrand” themselves in the online world. But when they tried to charge readers for this content, few people paid. All the while, to publishers’ everlasting alarm, advertisers and subscribers deserted newsprint editions in droves.
• Read this, too, traditional journalists, and weep: The person who, three years running, has ranked as young people’s No. 1 source for news is Jon Stewart. He is a comedian with not a whit of journalistic training. Stewart has been a French horn player, a busboy, a bartender, a puppeteer, and a stand-up comic. While his show, on cable’s Comedy Channel, features on-site reports from news hot spots, both the backdrops and the “reporters” are phony, part of the shtick, a few meters away on the same set.
Makes me wonder, to present a parallel, what I’d be doing today if I had learned about the events of my youth from the TV marionette Howdy Doody.
From this point forward, I am indebted to the legwork of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Each March, it publishes an exhaustive “State of the News Media.” This year’s was gloomy enough. Media moguls must be quaking at what lies ahead in next year’s report.
Just some of the grief for the news biz:
• Publishers whose print products are hemorrhaging readers and ad dollars have yet to figure out an online business model that works. Their print-trained reporting and production staffs aren’t hip to embedding attractive video components into their Web sites, which their sales forces don’t know how to sell anyway.
• Already nervous about their own fate — with good reason — journalists are troubled by the careless reporting and loosening of standards in the world of “new media.” Seasoned print and broadcast editors were once proud “gatekeepers” of timely information. While this turned some of them haughty and indifferent to stories of interest to young people and ethnic communities, it comforted readers, viewers, and listeners that somebody, somewhere was asking questions and checking facts.
Now, as one content manager told the Pew Project, news consumers must judge the veracity of reports for themselves, allowing for “all sorts of unfiltered, untrained, and unethical yahoos to donate public comments.”
That is a bit harsh, but, as the Pew Project concluded, “power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions. By “individual journalists,” it refers to not just free-lance writers and expert commentators, but also a stampede of bloggers, photographers, neighbors with cameras and palmcorders — competing for face time with singing hopefuls, reality-show aspirants, and owners of performing pets hoping their acts “go viral” on TV or social media Web sites.
They aren’t all “yahoos,” but neither are most of them trained to impartially collect and present the day’s news.
• Journalistic outlets aren’t swarming over big news events or producing in-depth analyses the way they once did. This is not just a factor of dwindling money and scarce bodies. There’s simply a shortage of time in city rooms where scribes have been given the added task of writing blogs and appearing on television, and in TV newsrooms where reporters have been ordered to carry their own cameras and sound equipment to save the stations bucks.
So what’s to rescue real journalism? You’re asking me, in the midst of a global recession when thousands of publishers and editors can’t stanch the bleeding?
They are still talking about creating new revenue streams by charging for their exclusive Web content. The world’s most famous publisher — and Forbes magazine’s 37th-richest American, Rupert Murdoch — whose News Corp. owns the Wall Street Journal financial paper and the New York Post tabloid, recently called the online search engine Google a “parasite” committing “kleptomania” for giving readers free access to News Corp. papers’ online content.
Google replied that it would come up with a way to tighten its “checkout” feature to allow publishers to charge a few pennies to a few dollars for stories. And on December 2, Google announced that it would cap the number of free news articles accessible to any reader in one day at five.
Another salvation scenario envisions a takeover of traditional news outlets by nonprofit corporations. Various new partnership arrangements, such as the sharing of news footage by local TV competitors, and the alliance of some networks with search engines like Yahoo, are also in place. But even a nonprofit needs advertising revenue to keep the presses rolling, switch on cameras and mikes, and pay the men and women who gather and report the news. Who says a nonprofit or a newly formed partnership will be any better at finding revenue sources than today’s media barons?
I hope there will always be a place for thoroughly reported news and thoughtful analysis, untainted by political cant. But after listening to the “Mike and Mike” radio show on the ESPN sports network this morning, I’m thinking the struggle against the forces of spin, gossip, and cheesy pictures may already be lost.
Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic were discussing the explosion of voyeuristic fascination with Tiger Woods’s early-morning accident, which leering scandal sheets insisted was precipitated by emotional fallout from Woods’s admitted marital “transgressions.”
Greenberg recalled a similar, hang-on-every-word buzz over another megastar, O. J. Simpson, during the long trial in 1995 in which he was charged with killing his wife and her friend. The frenzy would be compounded when a Los Angeles jury acquitted the actor and former pro-football hero. Some people inundated talk shows with complaints that “everything is O.J. this, O.J. that.” What about serious matters such as the war in Bosnia?
“I guarantee you,” Greenberg asserted, that “if there were only two media outlets back then, one covering nothing but O.J. and the other nothing but Bosnia, 99 per cent of the audience would have tuned to the O.J. station. The bottom line is that journalism is a business” that gives people what they want rather than what they need to know.
And so it is to this day — only more so, given the welter of “old” and “new” media outlets alike that are spewing chit-chat, hearsay, and tittle-tattle.
So tell me: Do I need to dig up salacious details about the love child of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for you to read my next post?
[Editor’s Note: Don’t answer that!
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)
Fourth Estate. The press. Britons of the 17th century referred to three “estates of the realm”: Lords Spirtual, Lords Temporal, and the Commons. Pointing to the press gallery in the House of Commons, the effusive Whig orator Edmund Burke is said to have remarked, “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than them all.”
Kleptomania. From the Greek, meaning an impulse to steal. The word is often applied to shoplifters who seem driven to lift items, even without an economic motive.
Oxymoron. Contradictory terms side by side. “Deafening silence,” for instance, makes no sense. How can silence be deafening?
Shtick. A comic performance or routine; sometimes called a “bit.”
Straight-arrow. Straightforward and honest; morally upright — traits of a “straight shooter.”
Tightfisted. Frugal or cheap — holding fast to a dollar.
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