Friday, August 28, 2009

Journalism's Delusions

By Alan Caruba

“Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.”

The Society of Professional Journalists is holding its centennial convention August 27 to 30 in Indianapolis. I have been a member for more than 25 years. I haven’t earned a living at it since the 1970s.

I, for one, would not want to be among “the next generation of journalists” because it is likely to be one with few job opportunities and expanded requirements that include the mastery of a variety of technical skills. I became a journalist with a pen, a notepad, and a typewriter.

Today’s “professional” journalists are being replaced by “citizen” journalists, many of whom have real expertise in their area of reporting and have created blogs to share their knowledge. Their commentaries are often posted as well on sites that aggregate news on a broad range of topics and it is generally real news you cannot read in the mainstream press that day.

Today, a mainstream news reporter must often be adept with a television camera, albeit some are quite small and easy to handle. Some reporters, I’m told, also take still photos to accompany their stories. Presumably he must be able to take good notes. In smaller outlets, he may also be expected to help with page layout and design. And, of course, he is expected to be observant not only about what is occurring, but conversant with the larger events and trends as well.

Starting salaries are far less than just about any other skilled professional might expect and they remain low for most reporters and editors throughout their tenure. City rooms that used to buzz with activity, phones ringing, laughter and discourse, now echo with little more than the tap-tap of computer keys.

News is delivered fully written in the form of a deluge of emailed news releases. It is folly to send one by U.S. mail anymore. I know from personal experience that if a reporter doesn’t like what he’s receiving he will just email back “take me off your list” or a comparable message to the effect that your “news” interferes with his perception of the facts or conflicts with the unspoken shibboleths of his newspaper’s ideology.

A recent example of this is the astonishing general failure or refusal to report on the more than one thousand “tea parties” that took place around the nation. Too often these events with more than two or three thousand people in attendance received no notice.

There is little real “free flow of information.” Probably never was. News is what editors and reporters say it is. If they don’t like the news they are receiving they either ignore it, bury it, or find a way to put their own spin on it. Then they complain about its source; usually a former journalist-turned-public relations flack. The American Society of News Editors had to cancel their 2009 convention..

In the interest of full disclosure I have been one of those PR flacks for decades. The first thing a PR professional learns is to tell the truth. Anything else will come back to bite you. And let me also say that I like journalists, always have and always will. I am happy to count many as friends.

The real news at the Society of Professional Journalist’s centennial convention is the loss of advertising revenue that threatens what jobs are left. The Christian Science Monitor now exists solely on the Internet. Watch for this to become a trend. They will, however, still need professional journalists.

Among news magazines, U.S. News and World Report used to be a weekly. Now it arrives but once a month while offering subscribers Internet updates between issues. Time and Newsweek have put a picture of Barack Obama on their covers so many times in the past year that they are beyond embarrassment if they do it again…and again. They are virtually useless as sources of credible information.

The loss that is essential to the news business is their credibility. Consumers of news trust their newspapers less and less. And they have good reason.

The classic example is the way The New York Times continues to report evidence of “global warming” when the Earth is in a decade-old cooling cycle. An Associated Press science reporter is a disgrace. Newspapers are now in the daily “crisis” business, often without regard to whether a real crisis exists or not. Ordinary people go about their lives by ignoring the screaming headlines.

With a few notable exceptions is newspapers’ dogged liberal outlook in a nation where the bulk of Americans self-identify as being some degree of conservative. There’s a reason why people turn to Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh. They agree with them and they trust them. The basement ratings of CNN and MSNBC tell the story.

Journalism’s self-delusions pose a greater threat than the transition to the Internet, the sick economy, or any other factor. Reporting the news requires a genuinely objective examination of what is occurring. Without the capacity to do that, there is little reason to be among this or the next generation of journalists.


Rich Kozlovich said...

I often hear people say that they wish that the newspapers would go back to the way it was. Really? The fact of the matter is that newspapers (and there used to be a lot more in days gone by) were only credible because they actually took their stands publically. You absolutely knew their philosophy and much of what passed as journalism back then was “yellow journalism”. Many of the “great” journalists from the early 1900’s created “yellow journalism” as we know it today, Nellie Bly being first in my mind. Dan Rather comes to mind as a modern Nellie Bly, albeit he isn’t alone. True, there are honest reporters who believe that integrity is the backbone of journalism, unfortunately the “profession” is filled with Dan Rather and Mary Mapes clones.

Journalists have always been creators of news versus honest reporters of news, but the internet has caught up to them. For the first time in human history the average man can find the out what the truth is on any given subject. And in minutes research is an “enter” key away on very complex subjects; information that could take weeks to dig out at the library. And if it isn’t directly available on line, you can easily find out exactly what books that you to need read in order to find out.

And when we find out what the truth really is, we are startled that society hasn’t been aware of this information for all these years. The FDR depression myth is one classic example. And yet the information has been there for any and all to see….including the media. For those who really knew the history of these events; listening to and reading what has been said in the media for all of these years must have been nauseating.

They wail that there will be no one to cover the local city hall doings if newspapers die because there will be no reporters left. Really? If they stop doing it then a local pajamahadeen will start doing it.

Due to the recent death of Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 minutes, his life was covered extensively. But no mention was made of the fraudulent reporting about Alar. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan from the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) made a recent comment about that situation in ACSH’s Morning Dispatch that goes out to members. She said; “In February of 1989, 60 Minutes aired its infamous ‘Alar-on-apples’ piece claiming that Alar-treated apples caused cancer in kids. It was an outrageous piece of TV journalism, and ACSH immediately complained. Hewitt agreed to do a follow-up segment with Dr. Bruce Ames and me as guests – but it simply did not set the record straight. For the next ten years, I had correspondence with Mr. Hewitt asking 60 Minutes to apologize for this segment. During that time, famous authorities including Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, the World Health Organization, and more came out saying there was no scientific basis for the Alar scare. I shared these with Mr. Hewitt -- and finally won him over. He said the segment was a mistake. But to get an official apology, he said I needed to get Ed Bradley, the show’s producer, to agree it was a mistake. I repeatedly contacted Ed Bradley -- and he ignored me. On the very day of the tenth anniversary of the Alar debacle, I was flying from Washington to New York -- and Bradley was sitting two rows behind me. I passed him a note saying I was still waiting to hear from him. When we landed, he literally ran off the plane!”

When these media entities (print or electronic) cease to exist it will be a blessing to mankind. I will miss the crossword puzzle in the morning though. I'll get over it!

Buzzg said...

As a side bar to the original premise/theme of this blog I have noticed another form of deterioration within the printed media,(newspapers, news magazines, blogs). When I was in high school we were encouraged to read newspapers as a guide to proper usage and spelling as well as for the content found therein. Over the years the diminishing quality of usage and spelling regardless of content has become very apparent. As an example, the almost constant misuse of 'their' for 'there' or vice versa. There is a new phenomenon/convention involving the use of the conjunctions 'and' or 'but' to begin what is thought to be a sentence. If I had dared to start a sentence in a compositon with a conjunction the priests/nuns would have gone mad.

There are other grammatical sins, but they are too (too vs. to being one of them) numerous to mention.

The point is, that it has been said that when a society loses (that's another one, lose vs. loose)its manners it is on the way out. It has also been said that when a society loses its language it is doomed.

Observing the fauna around me I'm convinced our manners in general are trashed, and the language problem is of epidemic proportions.

We seem to have two strikes against us at this point in our history. Though I may hope now and then, I'm not hopeful.