Those of you who know me already know I'm something of a geek, so it may not surprise many to know I always check out the Project for Excellence in Journalism's "State of the News Media" reports when they come out. I pay special attention to the reports on cable, network and local television news, radio and newspapers. And there is one unmistakable trend in all of them.
Fewer and fewer people are relying on the major media for news.
I knew this without reading the reports, of course. When you consider the level of ignorance that's thrown around daily, especially from people who claim to be "news junkies," it's not difficult to see there's a problem. Despite the fact that the population has grown tremendously in the last 20 years, consumption of news has shrunk significantly.
If you actually read the news on a daily basis, it's not difficult to see why this is the cases. Fox News severely edited a couple of quotes by President Obama, removing all context from them, and most journalists just let it slide. In fact, in a blog post at the Washington Post yesterday, reporter Aaron Blake actually blew the truth off as someone else's job.
I wish I was kidding. This is from that article:
Romney may be attacked in the days ahead for running an out-of-context campaign, and some objective reporters might even say it has gone too far.
But the fact is that these two comments further clarify a picture (or caricature, depending on where you stand) of Obama that’s already out there. And plenty of — nay, almost all — people who don’t dissect this stuff as much as we do are going to take the pulled quotes at face value.
Is it warm and fuzzy? No. Does it work? Yes. And that’s why they do it.
Really? Could this possibly be why people have stopped paying attention to the news? If journalists themselves refuse to report the truth because not enough people believe it's the truth, might that be the reason large news organizations like, say, The Washington Post, are bleeding and hang to lay off news gatherers?
Journalism was once considered the "fourth estate," and even a fourth branch of government, because, in a system of checks and balances, journalists are supposed to be the only check avalable on the other three branches. Journalism is supposed to be about pure truth -- as pure as truth can be, anyway -- and the conveyance of facts, so that the consumer can process it all into something meaningful to their lives.
There always has been shady journalism. In the early days of the republic, Thomas Jefferson actually paid a reporter to trot our nasty stories about Alexander Hamilton to give himself an edge while running for president. Though the stories turned out to be true, Jefferson had no idea of that when the stories were run. The thing is, such a thing should violate a basic tenet of journalism; only report that which you can prove. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it's far to common to report a story before it's ripe, or to report a story known to be false, simply because people will believe it.
Why does it seem that the entire news profession seems to be far more keen on sensational stories that people don't care about and which may or may not be true, than on simply reporting the facts? Isn't a profession supposed to grow?
There used to be a distinct separation between supermarket tabloids and newspapers. Now, in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet, true journalism seems to be drowning in tha sea of toxic sludge. There are still some practitioners of great journalism, and some sparks of brilliance, but to get to their stories about ALEC, the Koch Brothers and Bain, we have to wade through tons of half true or completely false stories and propaganda to get to them. Often, we feel like that kid in "Slumdog Millionaire."
Journalism's demise was actually brought home to me about six years ago, when newly-hired CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric conducted a tour before her first night, and asked people what they wanted to see on the news. I like Katie Couric, but that signaled a complete and utter misunderstanding of the role news is supposed to play in people's lives. The purpose of news is to tell us what we don't know that we should, and perhaps to fill in the gaps in stories we think we know. When news coverage is determined by polling and surveys, we've lost th battle.
And think about this, editors and publishers; if all you're doing is reporting on stories we already know about, doesn't that lessen our need to even watch the news in the first place? Isn't the purpose of watching the news or reading a newspaper to get information that you didn't know?
People naturally hunger for information. But they want something new. They want to hear something they haven't heard before. People don't really want to hear what they already know from the news. That's why news ratings spike during major stories and drop significantly when the story has run its course.
When the terrorist attacks happened on 9/11/2001, most of us sat glued to the news channels for days, and most of us bought newspapers the next morning. Whenever there is an important news story, people in record numbers flock to the news. Yet, every day, there are a bunch of news stories that are extremely important, that could establish a news organization's credibility, and create new viewers/readers, but they are virtually ignored. The reason people don't seem to be aware of what's happening in Congress most days is because no one's reporting on it.
Instead, the people who run major news organizations opt to ignore real news stories, becaue they're not "sexy enough." They woul rather run an untrue story that sounds good than simply tell everyone what's really going on. As a result, people stay away from the news in droves, and hear third hand that President Obama said no one built their own business, rather than hearing first, second or third hand that he didn't say that at all. The public learns every detail about Charlie Sheen, but have no idea Antonin Scalia has for years engaged in behavior that would have been considered impeachable back when we only had access to a few news sources.
A journalist's job is the education of the public. Yet, little of the 24-hour news cycle actually concerns news. Most of it isdominated by analysis and opinions, many of which are simply fact-free. Analysts and pundits are too often wrong, but their misinformation is too often allowed to stand, never corrected with actual facts. Wrong opinions have no place on a news network in the first place; at the very least, journalistic standards should require that a falsehood be corrected. And yes, there are such things as wrong opinions, if they're not based in fact.
And where did the idea come from that "being fair" meant accounting for all viewpoints, no matter how stupid and pointless some may be? Since when does an opinion that global warming "isn't happening" receive equal billing with one that says it is, when nearly all data says the planet is warming. Opinions can vary as to the cause, of course, and healthy debate is good. But there's only one set of facts, and allowing errant opinions based on facts not in existence to pass as valid analysis is the antithesis of journalism. Not calling BS on obvious BS isn't a public service, it's a public travesty.
It's also the key to unlocking the secret as to why fewer people consume traditional news outlets, and why journalism needs to be revived. Face it; we can get all errant opinions any time we want. We all have that crazy right wing uncle, and if he's not available, there are any number of online fora to choose from. People don't have to turn on the news to watch some blowhard pontificate from a position of profound ignorance. When people are looking for news, and instead find a steady stream of nonsense coming from what purports to be a "news" program or channel, they lose confidence in it, and stop watching.
The people who run most news media are collectively some of the stupidest people on the planet, the exception, ironically, is Roger Ailes. Ailes certainly constitutes a blight on the media, but he's a genius. He's cultivated an audience of people gullible enough to believe anything coming from Fox Noise, and he has a stable of personalisties willing to be the above-mentioned blowhard. His viewers repeat everything they hear, without bothering to check its veracity. ("Veracity" means truth, Fox viewers). He will always have the same size audience he has now, and he will always have the same demographic; the intellectually lazy sycophant who just wants someone "important" to repeat the same crap he thinks he already knows. I just wish he'd stop calling it Fox News, because there is little actual "news" there.
That's right. I said Fox will always have the same size audience. Yet all of the other news outlets have tried to emulate the Ailes approach and wonder why they fail miserably. For years, they tried to straddle the line between being a "legitimate" news organization, and being just like Fox. Why? Because Fox's audience was growing by leaps and bounds, and they wanted their audience to grow by leaps and bounds, too.
Fox Noise isn't "conservative;" it's right wing. There is a difference. Being right wing, they ignore facts, and say whatever they think their audience wants to hear, no matter how implausible. But when CNN or MSNBC mimics Fox Noise, it doesn’t help. Fox Noise has, at most 2-3 million viewers. Why would you try to cut into that audience, when there are 305 million others out here, waiting for a news source that doesn't suck. Provide news reporting that doesn't suck, and watch how people flock to you.
If the bosses at traditional news organizations want to increase their audience and make more money, the solution is actually quite simple; do your job. Present the news. Tell us the stories that move the country forward as a nation. That doesn't mean you can't do stories about Charlie and Lindsey and Britney (oh my!); it just means you place them in the back of the line, where they belong. When you get some really cool video of a fiery crash, save it for later, and while people are waiting to see it, tell them the truth about what's really going on in Congress. And most important of all, lose the "sound bite" mentality, and start playing/or writing the entire quote, in context. And trend toward longer stories, containing all relevant facts about a particular situation. Don't tell the viewers you don't have time; if you have time to run a dozen hours of pundits every day, you can certainly squeeze 2-3 hours of actual news in there and cover some important stories. You know, like the Congress that has voted to kill Obamacare 33 times, but won't consider jobs bills.
This is easy to do, because it's been done before, but it's not an instantaneous process. It took years to kill journalism; it will take years to revive it. But it must be revived. If it doesn't happen, the republic is in deep trouble. We already have millions of intelligent people repeating untrue garbage verbatim as if it was fact; let's turn that around.
There was a reason the Founders put protection of the press in the Bill of Rights; it's too important to take for granted. We're beginning to see what happens in a democracy without a vibrant press; we now have a government that is as corrupt as any in history, but the press corps is cowed, for some reason, under threat of a loss of "access" to the seats of power. What I'm wondering is, why isn't that a news story in itself? If the government is threatening to cut the press out of the White House, isn't that a great news story that should be reported?
It's time for the press to get off its collective duff, and go for the glory. If you want to make money with journalism, try doing some actual journalism. For a change.