July 26, 2009

Journalism's Long Slouch Down

Much has been said over Walter Cronkite's passing. But few have hit the nail on the head as well as Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, and now Frank Rich.

It's depressing and embarrasses us all that mainstream media in mourning Cronkite could not even emulate his integrity in the slightest by mentioning that the reason he was most respected was for having the guts, every now and then, to tell the people the truth they needed to hear even against the government's wishes. In so doing, he managed to rescue the nation from collective and willful blindness. Even the Lehrer News Hour failed to say this, taking the safer path of framing its coverage around Cronkite's near-monopoly, which is only part of the story. He also had a courage no one seems to have at his level anymore. Indeed, he came to deplore what he saw as a failure of his generation, which included Edward R. Murrow, to transmit its journalistic values to the next.

Honest reporting is not primarily what the big news networks seem to do anymore--despite the fact that they hold most of the immense resources required to carry-out penetrating investigative journalism on national and international scales. Essentially, this is because they trade friendly coverage or "spin" for access.

For example, TPM's Zachary Roth shows just how low the media stooped in begging Gov. Sanford to grant them interviews. David Gregory of NBC's Meet the Press even promised that his show would allow Sanford "to frame the conversation as you really want to...and then move on." Even if this was mere posturing to get him on the show, it's unseemly behavior that creates inappropriate expectations. Roth sadly concludes:

"When you read the emails by Gregory, King, Stephanopoulos and others, you start to understand why most major network interviews with politicians tend to be a lot less hard hitting than they need to be to really hold their subjects accountable. The politicians themselves have the power to make or break the networks, by granting or withholding access. That ends up meaning that, consciously or not, the networks soften their approaches--both in their pitches, and in their actual interviews--in exchange for that access.

That's how the world works, and it's hard to know what to do about it."

The problem here may be that network news is simply run as business. And this strategy seems frankly best for business--at least for now. The question to me is whether it is possible in this highly competitive information age, for a mainstream news network to build a reputation on good old fashioned integrity and muckraking.

Judging by the slogans espousing objectivity we hear more and more (take Campbell Brown's "no bias, no bull") and consumer polls, this kind of thing would seem to be in demand--but perhaps most viewers only think they want objectivity while actually prefering subjectivity and bias that suits their preconceptions. Even so, I would hope enough reasonable and responsible viewers are out there for at least one network to truly distinguish itself in this way instead of peddling empty promises as Fox, the cable news leader does perhaps most preposterously of all, with its claim of being "fair and balanced" and so-called "no spin zone."

If enough people are not truly willing (or able) to seek hard-hitting news that reports and analyses (and at times opines) inconvenient and unwelcome truths, then the news market fails. At that point, which may already be upon us, we may need to protect and/or regulate it.

Thankfully, the national news industry still retains some of its traditional mission via the family-controlled public trusts of the New York Times and the Washington Post (though the Post's reputation was recently somewhat blemished on this score) and the non-profit and government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But these last remaining strongholds of investigative journalism may prove to be precious few in an increasingly bewidlering world of infotainment and advertorial distraction. If so, the danger is that the American people may fail to act, from sheer ignorance of--and disinterest in--all the news they'll never get.


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