Tuesday, April 05, 2005

They shoot messengers, don't they?

The Terri Schiavo case proves once again that our most respected media organizations can't stop being suckered into covering the kinds of trumped-up stories that increasingly dominate the national news agenda.

As a direct consequence, newspapers, news magazines and the Big Three networks are losing credibility at an alarming rate, endangering not only their valuable franchises but also the very health of our democracy.

Though George W. Bush can't articulate a simple, declarative sentence, his spinmeisters have hijacked our headlines by skillfully pushing polished messages through a well-coordinated network of bloggers, partisan columnists, fake video news releases, compliant congressmen, bureaucratic operatives and even the White House press office.

The trumped-up tales include, but are not limited to, the phony intelligence that led to the Iraq invasion; the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth baloney that helped torpedo John Kerry, and, perhaps most excruciatingly cynical of all, the Schiavo charade. In every case, the press surrendered its independence, suspended sound judgment and blindly bought into the story without questioning its underlying premise.

No one seriously challenged the assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; the issue was what to do about it. The claptrap about Kerry was dignified as a legitimate campaign issue, rather than properly written off as a below-the-belt dirty trick. And the Schiavo case was treated as a national calamity, instead of what it was: a private family tragedy usurped by political opportunists.

Though these contrived stories respectively dealt with issues no less momentous than war and peace, the election of a president and the sanctity of life itself, the shallow coverage produced by the media, in the end, made the press, not the perpetrators, look foolish.

Once forced onto the public agenda, the concocted stories were treated under the long-standing rules of journalism as legitimate news. Rather than challenge these clearly fabricated stories, the media accepted them on face value because it was easier, cheaper and less politically and economically risky to do so. With several of the major media companies engaged in broadcast businesses licensed by the federal government, the economic and regulatory pressures are evident.

The problem for the press is that the American people don't blame the clever operatives who get the presses and TV cameras rolling on a trumped-up story and then quietly melt away. They blame the press for dishing out bad information.

Unfortunately for the media, the public increasingly is in the mood to shoot the messenger, judging by the continuing collapse of confidence in the media's credibility.

The queasy drop has been documented once again by Abandoning the News, a study just released by the Carnegie Foundation. The study shows how the public -- and especially younger people -- are rejecting such traditional, professionally edited media as newspapers and network TV for the News McNuggets served on cable news and the Internet.

As illustrated in the table below, the disorganized, derivative and often unreliable Internet is in rapid ascendancy as the go-to source for news, while our newspapers -- once rightfully regarded as the most authoritative medium -- have been marginalized as untrustworthy, late with the news, and, perhaps worst of all, boring. The national network TV news programs scarcely rank higher in the public's esteem.

Some frustrated news executives blame readers and viewers for a lack of perspicacity. But I would respectfully submit that the media have brought this on themselves by relaxing the stringent, critical standards by which they traditionally have judged stories. Beyond pressure from the righteous right, there are two additional major factors contributing to the dumbing down of the news:

First, the news cycle today never ends. On cable TV and the web, no news is not only bad news but it also is not an acceptable option. Immediacy, especially when dramatic video is involved, has become the primary consideration in determining coverage. Even our proudest news organizations now feel the pressure to write first and ask questions later.

Second, great damage is being caused by the economic squeeze forcing newsrooms to produce more stuff in less time with fewer resources. To grow profits twice as fast as they increased sales, the nation’s newspapers last year squeezed staffing, news hole and other resources. The Big Three broadcasters also trimmed headcount to make their profit targets.

Strapped for resources, editors and news directors know it is cheaper and easier to cover the Schiavo death watch than to determine how many indigent people died for want of medical care in the 15 years the courts have been tussling over her fate. Unfortunately, Ms. Schiavo could not be saved. Countless infants, children and adults could be alive today, however, if proper medical care had been available to them. Where are the stories that could have put some depth and proportion around the compelling issue of health care?

So, the problem is twofold. First, the press, which ought to know better, has been bullied and bamboozled by W's Base into covering phony stories. Second, the media have budgeted themselves into a situation where a few official mega-stories gain outsized attention and hundreds of important stories, including some very big ones, either are undercovered or overlooked outright.

Compelling coverage always has and always will build audiences. The more our big, important media outlets forsake bold, quality coverage, then the faster confidence, eyeballs and revenues will erode.

They need to get a grip. Fast.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the chart extremely interesting in that only 9% of respondants consider newspapers to be trustworthy, yet TV gets 21%. Even the bad old dot-com arena gets a percentage point above newspapers. Amazing.

5:04 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

This is from reader "JML" who writes:

Your post begs a lot of big questions about whether the "real" issues are what the media say they are, or what the public, or parts of the public, think they are; and whether the media have either the competence or the mandate to distinguish between the two. I've been watching this stuff since before Reagan, and somehow the issues the media try to rule out of bounds always seem to be the ones that make us Democrats uncomfortable. Yes, for the record, I said "us Democrats." I'm a union regular (though some of the things my union, the Newspaper Guild, does drive me nuts); I've voted Republican maybe 2 or 3 times in over 30 years (and the last 2
presidential elections weren't among those times); and I think that the
Florida courts were probably right on both the law and the facts in the
Schiavo case. (I see Glenn Reynolds, Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan,
who know more about it than I do, agree.) But you don't have to sympathize with the Republican Flat-Earth Caucus to see something creepy going on here.

It's not just about Schiavo -- it's about stuff like assisted suicide,
euthanasia, the whole argument that impaired "quality of life" is reason to withhold medical care or even to euthanize, possibly without the affected party's consent, as has reportedly happened in the Netherlands. To quote
only non-conservatives: Mickey Kaus has called the Schiavo case a stealth way of advancing a pro-euthanasia agenda, and Tom Harkin, Nat Hentoff and Barney Frank -- not to mention the disability-rights movement -- make similar arguments. Under the circumstances, saying the media should focus more on health care programs looks like a way of trying to change an embarrassing subject.

4:12 PM  

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