Do You Want to Change the News Media?

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For a while, I blamed my growing uneasiness with the news media on the first stages of old age. Sensibilities, of course, vary from one generation to the next. Before jumping to conclusions, I figured I would give it some time.

Time is up. I am convinced there’s something tragic happening in the news media. It goes beyond legitimate differences of taste and form. At an unprecedented rate, hard news, good news, and non-sexualized news are disappearing. In their place has arrived a tantalizing concoction of celebrity gossip, fear-mongering, partisan drama, and lowbrow feature stories. Scandal and intrigue are the glue which holds together this eclectic mix of entertainment, while a sprinkling of Associated Press wire reports serves the all important purpose of keeping up a façade of news reporting.

A long time ago, I decided not to waste my energy or other people’s time on complaining. It’s too easy, and rarely does any good. Besides, contemporary culture — including the direction of media outlets — is not imposed upon us by random forces; it is primarily the product of human choices, including our own.

Instead of complaining, I’ll try to explain what is behind this rapid transformation, and what we can do if we want to change its course.

Be realistic ….

The majority of news sources are commercial enterprises. Communicating what is happening in the world is not their first objective. It is to make money — the more the better. When boards of directors meet, they review financial statements and make decisions according to past and projected profit margins.

Secondary objectives, like the company’s unique vision and mission, may enter the editorial equation, but rarely run the show. Even further down the line of company goals are ethical integrity, journalistic pride, and social responsibility. After all, a business with high ideals and no profit will soon be out of business. Some executives look at these non-monetary objectives as unfortunate necessities, a way to keep the company in compliance with industry expectations.

Here’s what’s new …

There is nothing new about this profit — centered hierarchy of media interests. What is new, however, is the moral corrosion of industry expectations, and the speed at which this decay is taking place. Because industry expectations play such a key role in decision-making, it’s worth our consideration.

Industry expectations can be summed up like this: avoid being tacky and don’t break hard-fast journalistic rules.

Tackiness tarnishes the overall image of a company. Breaking rules, on the other hand, can get a company in legal trouble. If Walter Cronkite had witnessed Katie Couric’s debut as anchor of the CBS evening news (maybe he did), I am confident he would have been traumatized to see precious news time wasted on “exclusive” photographs of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ newborn baby. In 1962, when he succeeded Douglas Edwards as CBS’ sole anchorman, this editorial decision would have been nixed as egregiously tacky. In our day, it was just tacky. Soon, if industry expectations don’t change, I fear it may become commonplace.

Hard-fast journalist rules, the second element of industry expectations, are changing as well. Most evident, in my opinion, is the weakening of journalistic independence. Some blame cable news as the sole offender. While cable news opinion shows have certainly affected what is deemed acceptable in the industry (even on non-opinion shows), this deterioration began long before cable news came on the scene. The three big news networks, aware they were the only show in town, began to present the news with a shameless ideological twist. By doing so, they were breaking a hard-fast journalistic rule. While they paid dearly by losing moderate and conservative consumers to alternative news sources, the biggest lost was the warping of industry expectations.

What to do …

I mentioned contemporary culture, including the news media, is the product of human choices. Media executives and journalists bear part of the responsibility for media decay. Many of them have allowed the evolving nature of industry expectations to warp their conscience about what is acceptable and good.

Equally responsible, however, are media consumers like you and me. Every time we turn the channel or “click” on a particular article or picture we are voting for industry standards. Were you disturbed by the release of the full video of Saddam Hussein’s execution? But did you vote for it with a click? Do you wonder why the Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell feud is getting so much play? But did you vote for it with a click or by staying tuned to this or that channel?

The Television Critics Association sponsors a semi-annual press tour. Here media executives and personalities interact with critics about their company. It is a time to show-off what they have done and to promote what’s in the works. Last Tuesday at this event Larry King responded to a question about balancing commercial interests with journalistic integrity.

“Yes, it’s a delicate balance,” he said. “It’s a dilemma for anyone in the business: what are people interested in, as opposed to what’s truly important. The terrible situation n the Sudan is more important than the Laci Peterson murder. But what people are interested in is what we’ll cover.”

What a sad state of affairs!

We can either wait for brilliant media executives to figure out how to maintain high standards without going out of business, or we can help them in this endeavor by "voting" for what is true, good, and beautiful. That’s not easy to do. It requires controlling our baser instincts which spur us toward gossip, sensationalism, and smut. But such virtue, surprisingly, has a way of making us very happy people.

What do you say?

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. Your responses to Monday’s column were very helpful and I hope to incorporate many of your suggestions in 2007. Thank you!

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