The End Of The News As We Know It
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The Mama Grizzly Was Right
The brief return of Sarah Palin to the national spotlight recently has brought back some vivid memories. Her roll out speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention truly scared the hell out of me. I, like many others, had expected her to fall flat on her face. Instead it was me, rolling on the floor and crumpled in a ball, distraught that she actually had a shot at being the next Vice President. Of course, we all know how that turned out, and Sarah and the Palin clan have been flying their true colors ever since.
One thing about her, though, that has always stuck with me, were her attacks on the "lamestream media". I have always agreed with her on that, but for completely different reasons. The media is lame. Not because some of the few remaining true journalists took the time to point out that this new darling of the right made absolutely no sense, and was woefully unprepared to be the vice president of anything, but because so many of their colleagues actually bought into her spiel.
The media did Ms. Palin a huge favor. They got her out of having to work for a living, and they made her a millionaire in the process. Fox News made her a superstar using their tried and true m.o. of completely ignoring reality and facts and playing to the fears and ignorance of their audience.
I know, it's almost too easy to pick on Fox when beginning an argument about the decline of journalism in America, but they are the elephant in the room and by far the loudest and most influential voice. For Fox News to say that they are "fair and balanced" is kind of like Liberace claiming he's not gay.
I would have no problem with Fox if they were just straight with us about their agenda and hired a full time staff of fact checkers. But they are not and they have not. The amount of disinformation they spew and call news is appalling and dangerous to our democracy. Even after something they claim to be true is proven to be demonstrably false, they continue to push it on the lemmings who have no desire to seek out other perspectives. The fact that they take themselves so seriously and actually seem to believe that they are the truth tellers is shameful, and, from a journalistic standpoint, treasonous.
The Beginning Of The End
Unfortunately, while Fox News has been the most obvious face in the collapse of integrity in journalism, there has been a downward spiral across the board for many years. Many blame the OJ Simpson saga in the mid-1990's, or, to go back even further, to the advent of cable and CNN. The three major networks lost the living rooms of America, as the ritual of tuning in to Tom, Dan or Peter for your nightly news faded up against the new, 24 hour news cycle that had emerged. CNN introduced Headline News, which, in the beginning, was basically a nightly newscast repeated and updated every half hour. It was great for news junkies like me. You got your headlines at the top of the hour, weather at 15 after, sports at 20 after, and then 5 minutes of local news at the end.
But then OJ came along, and Headline News morphed into the unwatchable, 24/7 ambulance chasing embarrassment that it is today. As cable expanded in it its' scale and reach across America, the talent pool of television journalists became diluted, as did their standards. Coupled with a surge in media consolidation, this meant that more and more, television news was beholden to corporate interests over a duty to serve the public. Dan Rather was fired by CBS for reporting a story (which was true) about George W. Bush and his AWOL days in the national guard during the Vietnam war. This is the same CBS whose "revered" 60 Minutes program chose to run fluff pieces on opera stars and washed up movie stars while the Bush administration lied us into war in Iraq.
So, the major networks have given up, basically ignoring international news that doesn't have a sexy explosion or typhoon ravaged villages. They stick mainly to the domestic news of the moment and cover politics like they had just discovered it. They concentrate an inordinate amount of their precious 22 minutes of airtime on health related stories and footage of pandas playing in the snow. It makes me think about that movie from the 90's...Broadcast News, and how prescient they really were.
All The News That Isn't Printed
For me, the most disappointing decline has been in the newspaper industry. I grew up in Chicago in the 1970's. We had two great newspapers, The Sun Times and the Tribune. Reading a good newspaper every day is a visceral thing. You come to count on the ritual of what to read first, which section you are in the mood for, daily statistics like box scores, the television listings, your favorite local news beat reporter. I went through this routine with a pot of coffee every morning for almost 30 years. The papers changed as I got on with my life and moved along, from the Tribune to the Denver Post to the Portland Oregonian and then the Arizona Republic, and then back to the Oregonian in 2000. It is in the post 9/11 era that the alarm bells began to ring.
There is no doubt that the internet, and now, smart phones have dealt a death blow to the newspaper industry. And the aforementioned media consolidation has bastardized it, much like it has FM radio. Papers began to lose circulation as people turned to the easy and lazy fingertip access of the tiny sound bites of news they could get on their personal devices. The quality and content of print news began to decline rapidly, as once great newspapers laid off foreign correspondents and investigative reporters and began to rely heavily on news wire services and cheap, inexperienced local talent. Corporate entities moved in and bought up entire markets, folding local historic publications and replacing them with McNewspapers, replete with biased, irresponsible, and downright shoddy reporting.
Even some world standard papers have been effected. In 2002, The New York Times, arguably the most respected paper in the nation, let one of their premiere reporters, Judith Miller, run roughshod over the facts in her reporting on the run up to the war in Iraq. While she consistently repeated and re-enforced the Bush administrations' false claims of weapons of mass destruction and yellowcake uranium, the paper did nothing in the face of very credible reports to the contrary. They gave her a front page, above the fold carte-blanche run at some very dubious facts and let her get away with it. And for that, they should be very ashamed for the great damage that it has done to this countries' credibility and to the Middle East at large.
I recently read a book that is a transcript of the Watergate reporting done by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (as well as a few others) published in the Washington Post in the early 70's, progressing from the Watergate Hotel break in to the resignation of President Nixon. The quality of the pieces is astonishing compared to todays' standards. They actually had to prove to their editor that they had it right, times three, before ever going to print.
Those days are long gone, as is my morning paper. The Oregonian, like all too many metropolitan papers, has become a desperate shell of its' former self. After they got bought out and gutted of all veteran reporters and longtime employees, they cut daily delivery to three days a week and transformed the print version into a flimsy joke. They offered to continue (though very reluctantly) my delivery service for basically the same price I had been paying for seven days, and really, really wanted me to just follow them online instead. I told them, in polite terms, no thanks.
Now, though I greatly miss my morning paper, I have reluctantly moved on to other sources for my daily news. We have a couple very good weekly papers that are free, and a twice weekly paper that is kind of lame, but is free as well. The internet has some good options, but i still am waiting for the ultimate app, the "completely kill and destroy this pop-up ad and the company who created it and the evil programmer responsible for its' design" app.
Let me know when you hear about that app. I will pay for that.