“Ladies and gentlemen, The Network News Hour with Sybil the Soothsayer ... Jim Levitt and his Almost Truth Department ... Ms. Madahare and her Skeletons in the Closet.... Tonight, another segment of Vox Populi.... And starring the mad prophet of the airwaves: Howard Beale!” (From the movie “Network,” 1976)
Everyone of a certain age remembers the story of the unhinged anchorman, Howard (“I’m mad as hell and I won't take it any more”) Beale. Examples abound that playwright Paddy Chayefsky was onto something. Keith Olbermann comes to mind – and all the more so after MSNBC took the highly unusual step of removing him from his anchor post for being too far over the top. Where journalism is untethered to standards of professionalism, and ratings are all, journalism suffers.
But the sullying effect of entertainment values on journalism is well understood. The thing that’s less well understood, and a much more intractable problem, is the role of journalists in the decline of journalism.
From their tiny and parochial grasp of the speech clause of the First Amendment, to their growing embrace of opinion rather than objectivity, to their response to all things Internet, the performance of much of the national press corps these days seems – to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Muggeridge – like the antics of an exhausted stock.
Journalists’ knowledge of and support for the First Amendment can be measured by the things they promote and the things they do not. They favor access to government information, the right not to have to reveal their sources, and weak libel laws. And leaving room for a little quibbling around the edges, all of these are good things. But note the parochialism. Journalists want access to information in the same way, and for the same reason, that fishermen want access to nets. The point being that, whatever the intrinsic public good, and it’s manifest, access to information is a practical need of journalists.
But what about the speech needs of people who are not journalists? Like the commercial speech of advertisers of legal products? Or the speech of college students, circumscribed by campus speech codes? Or the political speech of groups or individuals who, close to the date of federal elections, wish to make political arguments through issue ads? Or, even within the industry, of the right of media companies not to have to yield to onerous and government-mandated “public interest” obligations?
On these and other First Amendment issues, far too many journalists are silent if, as with campaign finance reform, they aren't actually on the other side.
Controversy over media coverage of this year’s extraordinary presidential election campaign opens a window on another journalistic sore spot, the twinned issues of objectivity and media bias. In an article dated 9/3, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post observed, without a hint of irony, that “denouncing the news media as biased plays well with many Republican voters.”
A similar observation was made the next day in an article in the New York Times. “If there is one mission Mr. McCain wants to accomplish at his convention,” it says, “it is to galvanize conservative voters who have shown signs of depression this year. Traditionally, one surefire way to do that has been to attack the ‘elitist’ mainstream news media.”
But whether we're talking about conservatives, who represent maybe one-third of the country, or Republicans who, at least at election time, represent half, the obvious question is why do they feel this way? Why is it that attacking the media is a “surefire” way to galvanize Republicans and conservatives? In all the years that I’ve been watching presidential campaigns, I don't ever recall reading a similar line about Democrats, or about liberals for that matter.
It’s true, of course, that there are people to the left of liberals who are critical of the media. But the great divide in American political life isn't between Republicans and conservatives on the one hand, and Marxists and leftists on the other. It’s between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. And thus, when journalists suggest, as they have for decades, that the existence of critics on the left as well as the right proves that their efforts are balanced, they miss the pregnant truth by a mile and persuade no one.
At what may be a tipping point for all of the professional media, isn’t this a problem that the industry should redress? Is there any other industry that, upon hearing that half of their market feels they’re being dissed, wouldn't move to correct, or at least ameliorate, that problem?
Of course the media are different from other industries in another way too. Owing to the “firewall” erected over time between the journalistic “product” and the management of the companies that own that product, the news industry is the only one in which corporate management exercises little control over what its writers, reporters, and editors produce – little control, in other words, over their very products.
So with management hamstrung by the firewall convention, who is willing and able to mind the store, so to speak? Certainly not those institutions that exist to fund, study, promote, and chronicle contemporary journalism.
Of the handful of foundations – like the Knight Foundation – that routinely provide funding for journalism-related programs at universities and nonprofit organizations, all share a mindset, whatever their funding priorities, that can be characterized as Old Newspaper. As such, they cling to journalistic notions that are outdated, uninformed, and fundamentally irrelevant. And what is true of the foundations is true, and then some, of the rest of the journalism infrastructure: TV critics, media reporters, ombudsmen, and the journalism reviews.
If, as they say, war is too important to be left to generals, perhaps it’s not too much of a reach to say that journalism is too important to be left to journalists.
Next: The Internet and its growing impact on journalism.