These are depressing days in news, and those still in the profession don’t talk nearly enough about how that affects Americans and their way of life.
Maybe it’s because we’re sensitive to being seen as defending dinosaurs, or too timid after endless ideological attacks on “the mainstream media.”
Newspapers in big cities such as Denver and Seattle have folded. Experienced journalists are being forced out of the business, often leaving to write speeches or press releases for politicians or corporations. State capital press corps have been decimated.
If not there already, we could soon be living in a world where government and politicians spend more on public relations and propaganda than an independent media spend to watch them.
Whether you’re a fan of the news media or not, this is anathema to honest self-government.
Imagine Richard Nixon with a 10-million member e-mail army behind him, with legions of bloggers attacking his political foes, with a much larger phalanx of taxpayer-paid public relations people defending him, and with no independent investigative reporters raising questions others dare not ask.
If Nixon had survived the “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate, how long would his enemies list have grown, and how emboldened would he have become in spying on political rivals?
At a time when government is growing at an unprecedented pace, veteran Associated Press reporter Bob Lewis says it best: “There has never been a greater need for honest, truthful reporting than now. Sadly, there has never been less support for it than there is now. Invest in freedom. Buy a newspaper.”
In this season of scapegoating, Americans more than ever need watchdogs whose mission transcends self-interest. But it’s open season on the one industry that has tried to fill that role.
When comedian and cable political-show host Jon Stewart beat up on cable business-show host Jim Cramer recently, some cheered it as a righteous upbraiding of the news media for sleeping – or cheerleading – while Wall Street ran off with the nation’s piggybank.
There are fundamental problems with this claim.
First, as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen pointed out, the dons of Wall Street were assuring shareholders and business journalists, including Cramer, of the genius behind the complicated financial “products” that later unraveled at investment houses and insurance giant AIG.
As Cohen noted, Wall Street big shots were putting their own money into their own businesses. No red flags there.
Former President George W. Bush assured Americans that the fundamentals of the economy were strong, even as crisis loomed. Those with government regulatory subpoena and enforcement powers were slow to act or did not act at all. Members of Congress proclaimed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in good shape while the home-loan giants were apparently rotting from within.
Someone needs to be blamed, and what better target than the cartoonish Cramer? Ironically, cable news, where Cramer works, is the news medium that has weathered the financial crisis the best.
Why? Because people watch it, shouting and all. Perhaps because of the shouting.
But the picture is bleak for independent news gathering at a lower decibel. People are migrating to the Internet, where news and advertising have diverged, and where consumers have come to expect news for free.
Coupled with a crippling recession, these trends have cut advertising revenues by nearly a quarter in two years, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Massive layoffs have followed, while independent media race to invent a new business model.
“The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem,” the Project for Excellence in Journalism said in its annual report released recently. “It is a revenue problem – the decoupling … of advertising from news.”
Americans, the group concluded, “hunt and gather what they want when they want it, use search to comb among destinations and share what they find through a growing network of social media.”
The question is not whether platforms for public debate will be available.
Indeed, information overload is a bigger challenge to consumers today. In a world where niche news providers are growing at an explosive rate, consumers are forced to triage their choices. Under such conditions, it’s tempting to create a comfort zone of self-affirming opinion in which compromise and common ground are vilified as weakness.
The media universe may become warring information camps funded by rigidly ideological tribes or multimillionaires who see the public interest as an obstacle to personal success. If that happens, Americans will have a lot more to worry about than a few loud mouths in prime time.
Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get more behind-the-scenes reports, context and analysis about politicians and the political process in Raasch’s Furthermore blog. Look for it here.