Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dirge for the Mainstream Media

I got to thinking after writing a long comment on Skyewriter's blog that maybe this was a topic I should tackle.  After all, I have a degree in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.  Surely this makes me more than a little qualified.  Except the closest I got to the newspaper biz was when I tossed the Statesman for a few months.  Still, I will give you my take.

My degree was in Journalism with a minor in History and a teaching certificate to boot.  So, I tend to look at things with a historical perspective.  For instance, knowing that the broadsides popular in the 1700s were the equivalent of today's blogs helps us put our current time in perspective.  The broadsides allowed commoners to keep up to date on news, sell items and even included literature and songs. Though eventually replaced by newspapers as printing costs and taxation were reduced or ended, the broadsides were quite popular in their time.  Some even had a political leaning.

American journalism, like much in our history, can trace its roots back not only to these broadsides but the political literature of the day.  Benjamin Franklin really wrote a series of letters under the pseudonym Mrs Silence Dogood.  Maybe there was no hidden clue like in National Treasure but they were intended to create discussion. 

The news became big business in America around 1890 and the advent of yellow journalism where facts became subservient to sales reached its peak in 1898 with the battles between Hearst and Pulitzer for readership in New York City.  Citizen Kane is a thinly veiled critique of William Randolph Hearst and some of its events parallel Hearst's life, especially in regards to his newspaper business.  Sensationalized news was the hallmark of yellow journalism. 

The news media in America, especially print, has always seen itself as a vital part of our democracy.  In many ways, this is completely accurate. Without a free press, there are no checks by the people on the government.  Of course, the American press has been known to cooperate with the government. From a local paper helping the police by witholding key facts in a criminal investigation to allowing government managment of the news during wartime.  Still, all in all, the US has a free press.  We are free to criticize our political leaders and with that brings a certain level of responsibility.

We've exchanged responsible journalism for celebrity sound bites.  In many ways I think the world of investigative journalism and the main stream media were doomed with the advent of television.  As a nation, we get more of our news from TV than from either print or radio.  TV news is packaged and visual and generally less substantive than print.  Its the nature of the beast.  But when we get the majority of our news from TV this means we get a more superficial take on reality.    Certainly, there are exceptions to this.  There are journalists working today who investigate and report in-depth news.  But they are a dying breed.  They've been replaced by pundits.

Once upon a time, when I was studying Journalism in the 80s, we were taught that the press should be objective.  Reporters gathered the facts and presented them without bias or slant.  When's the last time you found this to be true? Today, we take it for granted that our print outlets are going to endorse local, state and federal candidates for office.  Once a newspaper took that step, it was easy to rationalize the elimination of coverage favorable to the opposing candidate.  I was always taught that it was my newspaper's job to present all the candidates and let me inform myself so that I could make my own choice.  Now, our news is slanted.  We hear it all the time.  Conventional wisdom says the MSM, with the exception of Fox News, is liberal.  Reality is a little more complicated.  A single network can have anchors, reporters and producers from both sides.  The same is true for print.

So we are left with the question, should the Main Stream Media live or die?  I think it needs to evolve.  More and more people are looking to the Internet for their news.  Currently, its a free for all.  Anyone with an email account can set up shop on Blogger or Word Press or any other blogging format.  Want to write your own code and set up your own website?  Go right ahead.  Want to interact with your media sources?  Behold, instant letters to the editor in the form of comments on news sites.  What does this mean?  Well, it means that it takes more effort to find unbiased news.  Or, if that's not your game, you can find instant gratification and validation for your beliefs, no matter their relation to reality.

Once upon a time, folks read the news.  They took the time to read a newspaper cover to cover to learn what was going on in their town, their country and around the world.  Then television came along and we got lazy.  Why read and research when you can watch and absorb the news?  After all a picture is worth a thousand words, right?  Except that a picture only tells part of the story.  The part that's right in front of you but not how the parties in the little drama came to be where they are.  What happened to them to create the person they are in that moment captured forever on videotape for your viewing pleasure.  That part of the story is the more interesting part and the part often left behind.

The Internet can be used to restore that story.  It can be the print media of the future combined with the immediacy of television news.  There is so much potential in the blogosphere its hard to fathom.  There's also much to be cautious about.  The fringe will have a voice just as loud as the mainstream.  Louder in many ways since the moderate majority is the true silent majority in America.  Until and unless they find their voice, those on the fringe will be loud.

I believe that there is a place for all on the Internet.  And anything that forces Americans to learn about their fellow citizens, their history and their government is a good thing.  It's what the media is all about.

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