Sunday, April 03, 2005

The "News" Media

Buzzflash has an interesting interview with Bonnie M. Anderson. She's the author of Newsflash: Journalism, Infotainment and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News, and a twenty-seven-year veteran of the print and broadcast news business. If, like me, you wonder just why and how the news media has gotten so awful, you should check this out. (Be sure to check out Part 2 also.)

Combined with Laurie Garrett's resignation memo to her Newsday colleagues on Poynter (it's two entries about halfway down the page, dated 2/28/2005 - sorry, can't link directly to specific entries), Anderson's book and interview paint a bleak picture of a business that puts the bottom line ahead of everything else, especially the public's right to know. As Garrett puts it...

All across America news organizations have been devoured by massive corporations, and allegiance to stockholders, the drive for higher share prices, and push for larger dividend returns trumps everything that the grunts in the newsrooms consider their missions. Long gone are the days of fast-talking, whiskey-swilling Murray Kempton peers eloquently filling columns with daily dish on government scandals, mobsters and police corruption. The sort of in-your-face challenge that the Fourth Estate once posed for politicians has been replaced by mud-slinging, lies and, where it ought not be, timidity. When I started out in journalism the newsrooms were still full of old guys with blue collar backgrounds who got genuinely indignant when the Governor lied or somebody turned off the heat on a poor person's apartment in mid-January. They cussed and yelled their ways through the day, took an occasional sly snort from a bottle in the bottom drawer of their desk and bit into news stories like packs of wild dogs, never letting go until they'd found and told the truth. If they hadn't been reporters most of those guys would have been cops or firefighters. It was just that way.

Now the blue collar has been fully replaced by white ones in America's newsrooms, everybody has college degrees. The "His Girl Friday" romance of the newshound is gone. All too many journalists seem to mistake scandal mongering for tenacious investigation, and far too many aspire to make themselves the story. When I think back to the old fellows who were retiring when I first arrived at Newsday – guys (almost all of them were guys) who had cop brothers and fathers working union jobs – I suspect most of them would be disgusted by what passes today for journalism. Theirs was not a perfect world --- too white, too male, seen through a haze of cigarette smoke and Scotch – but it was an honest one rooted in mid-20th Century American working class values.

Honesty and tenacity (and for that matter, the working class) seem to have taken backseats to the sort of "snappy news", sensationalism, scandal-for-the-sake of scandal crap that sells. This is not a uniquely Tribune or even newspaper industry problem: this is true from the Atlanta mixing rooms of CNN to Sulzberger's offices in Times Square. Profits: that's what it's all about now. But you just can't realize annual profit returns of more than 30 percent by methodically laying out the truth in a dignified, accessible manner. And it's damned tough to find that truth every day with a mere skeleton crew of reporters and editors...

I have found America a place of great and confused fearfulness, in which cynically placed bits of misinformation (e.g. Cheney's, "If John Kerry had been President during the Cold War we would have had thermonuclear war.") fall on ears that absorb all, without filtration or fact-checking. Leading journalists have tried to defend their mission, pointing to the paucity of accurate, edited coverage found in blogs, internet sites, Fox-TV and talk radio. They argue that good old-fashioned newspaper editing is the key to providing America with credible information, forming the basis for wise voting and enlightened governance. But their claims have been undermined by Jayson Blair's blatant fabrications, Judy Miller's bogus weapons of mass destruction coverage, the media's inaccurate and inappropriate convictions of Wen Ho Lee, Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill, CBS' failure to smell a con job regarding Bush's Texas Air Guard career and, sadly, so on. What does it mean when even journalists consider comedian John [sic] -- "This is a fake news show, People!" -- Stewart one of the most reliable sources of "news"?

In the Buzzflash interview, Anderson, when asked about her father who was executed in Cuba as an American spy, lays out what it's all about...

When I was five years old, my Dad was tortured--had the blood removed from his body prior to being put up against a wall--they wanted to use his blood for transfusions for some of the revolutionaries. I didn’t understand the impact of that, but I knew something was very, very wrong. As I grew up, I realized that, had there been a free press in Cuba at the time, there’s no way Fidel Castro and his regime could have gotten away with murdering, not just my Dad, but 20,000 others, and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people because of their belief in democracy. I realized the importance of a free press.

With my book, I’m trying to remind people in this country that it can happen anywhere. We should value a free press. Support the media. Support investigations, whether they are uncovering something that is for or against the government you may like. It doesn’t matter. The point is that we need to nourish the free press. We need to nourish exchange of information and support the people who are doing it. We need to demand higher standards. We need to remember that news is not just a business. I’m not saying you can’t make money from it, but there is a higher calling here.

No other business has protection from the Bill of Rights--no other business. The media does. But along with those special protections comes a responsibility. The responsibility is to inform the public as best we can. And as U.S. citizens, it’s our responsibility to protect our First Amendment, and protect the rights we have, and not give them up because there is the threat of terrorism. Don’t give up your rights to privacy and your rights to a free press and your rights to speak freely. If we do that, we’re going to be marching down a very dangerous road. And unless you’ve been somewhere and unless you’ve lived someplace where you have lost all freedom of speech, where you have no ability to speak or publish freely, it’s hard to understand. I just don’t want people to learn the hard way, as I did.


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