Just What Ails Journalism?

By Scott London
Santa Barbara News-Press, April 22, 1995

American journalism is at a crossroads. Recent books, articles, and reports on the subject bear titles like "The Waning Power of the Press," "No Content," "Why the News Makes Us Dumb," and "Reinventing the Press Corps." James Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, concludes his latest book Read All About It with a chapter called "The Death of Journalism." In his book Media Circus, Washington Post's media critic Howard Kurtz speaks of a pervasive "smell of death" in the newspaper industry. Rolling Stone's Jon Katz describes "Old News" as "pooped, confused and broke." And there is even talk now of term limits for Washington reporters.

Like lawyers and politicians, journalists have gone from being respectable public servants to professionals that the public loves to hate.

This isn't just potshot press-bashing. While the media has always been a whipping-post for our democratic failures, the facts point to more than mere anger or frustration with the press. Twenty years ago three-quarters of all Americans read the paper every day; today that figure has shrunk to just one in two. In fact, the latest Times Mirror figures show that the number of people who read a newspaper "yesterday" has plunged from 58 to 45 percent in just one year. Moreover, only two percent of American cities now have more than one newspaper — that's down from sixty percent in 1910. From Little Rock to San Antonio to Pittsburgh, newspapers have fought losing battles with dwindling circulation figures, having to shut down or sell out to their competitors.

Beyond declining readership lies a still more disquieting trend: the public's growing resentment and distrust of the traditional news media. Recent Times Mirror polls indicate that Americans generally regard reporters as less ethical than politicians. Two-thirds of those surveyed felt that the media routinely slants the news. About half believe reporters get their facts wrong. Another poll, conducted by the Los Angeles Times, found that sixty percent of respondents think journalists have nothing in common with them. Only 26 percent said the press looks out for ordinary people. As columnists Germond and Witcover mused, "Opinion polls consistently show that reporters are held in extremely low esteem by ordinary Americans, somewhere just a notch or two above child molesters."

These facts suggest that American auto manufacturers are not the only industry to seriously misjudge its customers. Newspaper readers, like car shoppers, are rejecting the latest products and looking elsewhere. And newspapers, like Detroit auto companies, seem to be at a loss for what to do about it, vainly studying the latest reader surveys and focus group reports for clues.

So what's wrong with American journalism? There are of course as many answers to that question as there are disenchanted news consumers. But there are some rather clear patterns at work. Many observers point to the widening rift between newspaper profitability and good journalism. Eighty percent of the nation's newspapers are now controlled by a handful of newspaper chains, they note, a figure which has nearly doubled in the last three decades. As James Squires points out, the new corporate journalism "is run solely in the interest of the highest level of profitability." This bottom-line approach is reflected in so-called "pink flamingo journalism" and the "Gannettization" of news — the dumbing down and jazzing up daily papers across the country at the expense of substance and quality journalism. The franchising of America's newspaper industry has also robbed many papers of a meaningful connection with their local communities.

A growing body of literature tackles the vaunted objectivity ethic at the heart of American journalism. Some critics charge that objectivity is illusory to start with since journalists inevitably control the sources (or, as is sometimes the case, sources control the journalists). Others feel that the objectivity mindset leads to point-counterpoint or he said/she said formulas of news reporting that ultimately have a paralyzing effect on the public. So long as journalists see themselves as detached, value-neutral observers, news becomes a mere recital of context-free information — often irrelevant, often misleading.

Today's journalists are often seen as rude and arrogant representatives of the establishment rather than as champions of the people. This fact was forcefully illustrated in a 1991 Kettering Foundation study called Citizens and Politics which found that the media is partly to blame for the gap that has developed between the citizenry and our nation's political leadership. Public outrage over politics- as-usual, the report said, is being blocked by an "iron triangle" of politicians, interest groups, and journalists. Reporters, once considered the most ardent defenders of our democratic freedoms, are increasingly seen as part of a privileged political class which has dislodged the public from its rightful place in the dialogue of democracy.

The tone and emphasis of today's news is another reason for the crisis of American journalism. The prosecutorial culture of the press, with its emphasis on conflict, drama, accusation, and controversy, has alienated the public. There was a time, perhaps, when being a good reporter meant being street-smart, asking tough questions, siding with the underdog, and even making a few enemies to get to the bottom of a story. But the cynicism of today's news seems to be rooted not in a vaunted muckraking spirit so much as a professional angst among reporters. Honest skepticism has been supplanted by a chronic cynicism that all but guarantees a negative slant on news.

The late cultural critic Christopher Lasch, in his newly published The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, charges that journalists — along with academics, writers, and other members of what he calls America's "cognitive elite" — have lost their faith. Stripped of their belief in a higher meaning, he says, today's journalists have "inoculated [themselves] with irreverence." The clearest evidence of this fact is the disdain and even hostility with which the media typically depict the visionaries and believers of this world. If the antidote to cynicism is commitment — whether to a community, a belief, or an ideal — is there any wonder that a generation of journalists whose professional identity is tied to their autonomy and very lack of commitment should be so disillusioned and sick of heart?

Even the imagery of journalism seems to suggest a profession in tumult. The mystique of the trench-coated, hard-drinking, poker-playing newspaperman has given way to an image of reporters as bloodthirsty creatures that roam in packs, scavenge en masse, and are prone to all-out feeding frenzies. Like lawyers and politicians, journalists have gone from being respectable public servants to professionals that the public loves to hate.

Of course, news consumers bear some responsibility for what has happened to American journalism. This is a news-obsessed culture, after all, generally more concerned with day-to-day trivialities than with the larger picture. If the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial tells us anything, we monitor the day's news almost obsessively, yet with scant attention to detail. We follow it the way we follow a ballgame on TV in the next room. It's on in the background until a big play; then heads turn to catch the replay. If as news consumers we prefer glossy visuals, sound bites, and colorful "factoids" to substance, context, and continuity, we can hardly fault the media for providing it.

That said, however, journalists themselves — including their editors, publishers, and producers, of course — have to shoulder the burden for what has happened to news. They are the architects of their own misfortune. In today's rapidly changing news environment, journalists — especially print journalists — have to reclaim their heritage and go back to what they do best, namely report. Moreover, they need to go back to asking the tough questions — not only of their subjects, but of themselves. If that means making a commitment to something nobler than a withering professional ethos, journalism may yet have a bright future.

Scott London is the host of "Insight & Outlook," a cultural affairs program, on KCBX Public Radio. He explores the future of American journalism with veteran Washington Post reporter and syndicated columnist Lou Cannon on Monday, April 27, at 4:30 p.m. (89.9 in Santa Barbara, 90.1 in Santa Maria, 90.9 in the Santa Ynez Valley).

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