There's more to life than fluff, hype and horse races
Let's put the discussion we will be having this week in context. Having effective journalism is the necessary condition for a self-governing society, for our constitution to succeed; our Founders, especially Jefferson and Madison, could not have been more emphatic on this point. Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black and Potter Stewart have written some of our most impressive opinions confirming this.
Effective democratic journalism means a news system that:
- is a rigorous watchdog over people in power and people who want to be in power, in both the public and private sector;
- provides a wide range of informed opinion on the important issues of the day, and provides an early warning system for issues on the horizon;
- ferrets out over time truth from lies so liars cannot operate with impunity.
By these standards we should have grave concerns about our journalism, and yes, it is getting worse. Doing quality journalism no longer makes business sense for the handful of firms that dominate the news business.
This can be measured empirically in the sharp decline over the past two decades in the number of working journalists covering stories at the local level, or by the sharp decline in the number of journalists over the same period covering the world for U.S. news media. This contributes to a journalism where we are more dependent upon those in power to tell us what is happening, and our journalists have become more inclined to accept what they say at face value.
It can be measured in the commercialization of news and the softening of news standards to include celebrity fluff and trivia. This gives the illusion of controversy while never antagonizing anyone in power.
It can be measured in the class bias built into commercially driven journalism, whereby the affairs of the wealthy and upper-middle class take prominence over issues affecting the poor and working class. In general, poor people only matter for our journalism when they get in the way of rich people. Labor journalism, only a generation or two ago a staple of American mainstream news media, no longer exists.
And it can be measured in the studies that reveal the profound ignorance of so many Americans around elementary political facts, like the fact that Iraq had no connection to 9-11 and did not possess weapons of mass destruction.
Perhaps the two most important measures of journalism are how well the press system covers elections and how it covers the decision to go to war. As Martin Kaplan's research [pdf] has demonstrated, press coverage of campaigns has plummeted, and too much of what remains is nutrition-less commentary on the horse race and spin.
As for the press coverage of the entry into the Iraq War, it is now almost universally understood that this episode is one of the darkest moments in U.S. media history. When we needed a vibrant news media the most, it failed us miserably, with consequences that boggle the mind.
The final measure of the deterioration of the news media comes from working journalists themselves. Once the proud defenders of their craft, journalists increasingly are appalled at the commercial assault on their professional standards and prerogatives. Leading journalists like Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register, now argue the system is failing and structural solutions are necessary. We know we are in a crisis of historic magnitude when the heir to the L.A. Times fortune, Harry Chandler, writes a column suggesting that community ownership may be the best institutional structure that can protect journalism.
Two provisos: First, in making this case, I do not mean to posit that we had some sort of Golden Age in the past to which we must return. In fact, my own work has been highly critical of journalism in times gone by. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests matters have taken a turn for the worse. We are in a fundamental crisis.
Second, the Internet is opening up a whole new world and dramatically transforming the possibilities for journalism. Glenn, I know you have strong ideas on this subject, and so do I. I will discuss my ideas in detail in coming days.
Robert W. McChesney is a professor of Communication at the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder and president of Free Press.