AS YOU'VE PROBABLY noticed, American journalism is going through a rough patch. At the old establishment outlets, circulation and audience numbers are sliding. Newspapers now routinely run shock-horror headlines about themselves, sob-sister tales of shrinking profit margins, rampant job cuts and the exodus of classified ads to Craigslist. In television, the news is just as bleak: The first week in July was "the least-watched week in recorded history for the four biggest broadcast networks," according to the Associated Press.
But the media's crisis isn't just financial. A long string of professional scandals -- everything from plagiarism to fabrication -- have shredded the public standing of the news business, along with its self-image. Twenty years ago, journalism was a revered, downright glamorous calling. Watergate still lingered in the collective memory with its image of reporters as dashing, heroic truth-seekers. Network anchors strode the Earth as gods.
Today, reporters shuttle in and out courtrooms where their own work is under investigation. The most talked-about journalists of the day are not so much the ones who reveal corruption as those who are accused of misdeeds themselves: the Judith Millers, Jayson Blairs and Dan Rathers.
In the latest round of nastiness, several leading newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, have been denounced for publishing stories about a secret government counter-terrorism program. President Bush called the stories "disgraceful," and one congressman has suggested that perhaps the New York Times should be prosecuted under the federal Espionage Act. In Washington, words we tend to associate with the 1950s -- "treason" and "traitor" -- are back with a vengeance, and they're being hurled at journalists.
The media's image has arguably hit a new low, though one hesitates to say that about a business for which fresh nadirs have become a way of life.
The point is, how did we get here? And is there any hope of redemption?
If you listen to the media's ideological critics, the fault lies entirely with the journalists themselves. The left believes that the mainstream outlets are gutless wonders, patsies for the White House. The right says those same outlets are rotten with liberal bias, determined to undermine everything this administration says and does.
Of course, these arguments can't both be true at the same time, but that's beside the point. For ideologues of both stripes, the media are just cannon fodder, a bottomless source of evidence that the other side is taking over the world. For such hopeless Manicheans, it will ever be thus.
But if you really want to understand the media's predicament, you have to look beyond ideology. These problems are all rooted not in substance but structure. We are living through a time of dramatic flux in the world of information. Familiar hierarchies that defined the news business for generations are being dismantled and rearranged before our eyes.
In the second half of the 20th century, the news business was dominated by three powerful television networks and a handful of important newspapers. It was a nice world in many ways -- profitable, predictable, easy to comprehend and navigate. More important, it was the only world we knew. For minds shaped by that era, my mind and probably yours, those institutions were almost indistinguishable from the news. Then, poof, in what felt like an instant (though it was more like a decade), they were gone.
Particularly crucial are two tectonic shifts. First, the media marketplace has become more competitive. Technology has unleased a breathtaking profusion of new media outlets -- cable, blogs, satellite radio, podcasts. Every few months a new option seems to arrive; the latest is YouTube.com, the red-hot website on which people post their own videos. As a result, the familiar old outlets no longer have the huge guaranteed audiences they used to take for granted, or the influence and profit margins that went along with them. What once was unthinkable has come to pass: the powers that be are no longer the only game in town. They are vulnerable.
The second shift is transparency. Thanks partly to technology, and partly to all this competition, news outlets have been forced to open up the sanctum, to reveal how news is stitched together and to answer for their mistakes. The wall that separated (and protected) the media from their audience has become porous. Remember when the letters page was the only way of talking back to the media? Journalists are now on the griddle all the time. Watching them squirm has become a kind of national sport, NASCAR for the brainy set.
Just a decade ago, media scandals were rare things. Now they are everyday occurrences. This isn't happening because news outlets are making more mistakes than they made in the past. If anything, they've become more careful about their work because they know the whole world is fact-checking every sentence, waiting to catch a goof. And when they goof, it gets out, big time.
This is not always pretty. The changes have created a fractious news environment, rife with tension and conflict for journalists and their audiences. But if you step back for a moment and take the long view, it's hard to argue that it's inferior to the landscape we left behind. Predictability is nice, and the forced togetherness of the mass outlets -- everyone in front of the screen, consuming the same product at the same hour -- lent society a certain cohesion. But it was an artificial cohesion. Glance back at the journalism of the late 20th century sometime; it's already begun to feel strangely homogenous and too perfect, like the facade of Main Street at Disneyland.
The messy, complicated media of this moment look a lot more like the culture they are supposed to reflect. Increased competition offers consumers more voices and perspectives on the news -- and blogs permit them to participate in defining it.
Yes, the grand old giants are in decline, but that's a terrible thing only if you believe that they deserved the extraordinary sway they held over the news for so long.
If those old outlets continue to offer strong, reliable journalism -- a craft that's not as easy as it looks -- they will survive. And if they fail, others will rise up to replace them. The new marketplace punishes errors, but it also rewards those who get it right. Increased scrutiny and skepticism will make the media stronger, not weaker.
Some journalists are worried that the profession is dying, but this is classic newsroom alarmism. As long as there is a popular hunger for truth -- a constant of human society, last I checked -- there will be work for people who want to dig it up. Witness the best of the bloggers, who have not only proved themselves adept fact-checkers but become tip sheets for the mainstream media. The dinosaur media have even started hiring them.
As for the new transparency, it's simply forcing us scribes to do what other powerful people have always had to do in this country: defend and answer for our actions. Ten years ago, the editor of the New York Times, certainly one of the most influential members of our society, was unknown to most Americans. Today, he's on television and the websites, justifying a bold story he decided to publish against the government's wishes, a story many Americans apparently feel shouldn't have been published. It's a brutal fight, but a meaningful one that is forcing us all to confront the role of the media in the age of terrorism. In a democracy, I don't see how anyone can call this bad news.