Saturday, October 07, 2006

Journalists: Look to Your Future

Yeah, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page first appeared in 1928–and William Randolph Hearst’s father let him take over his San Francisco Examiner forty years before that. But that doesn’t make it any less aggravating today when roads and airspace have to be closed to keep an overly aggressive news media from intruding on the funerals of girl tragically slain.

Worse: they were Amish girls, part of a community that does what it can, anyway, to keep our technology driven world at bay.

Few incidents of recent years show quite so starkly just what is wrong with the American commercial news media. You’ve heard it before, and over and over: they respect but one thing, being first now–for that, they believe, brings in viewers, and viewer numbers are all that’s important.

The Amish aren’t scared of technology, nor are they unfamiliar with it. No outsider can really know them, but I spent a year in Lancaster (near where the killings happened) and live in a community in central Pennsylvania where the clop-clop of horses pulling Amish carriages is an hourly occurrence–so I have seen them, at least. What they want is the privilege of controlling their own lives. We entrust a lot of our future to distant events when we partake of the “grids” of modern life. Depressions and wars: these aren’t even the only things that impinge on our beings when we accept full partnership in the money economy and the national ethos. Just look what changes in gas prices do to us... altering our travel plans, making us lower the thermostat and buy different cars. Without debt and reliance on distant markets, the Amish are immune to such things as the devastation of economic depression: their crops will still grow, they can still build and sew.

They know what they give up, though–their decision is not made in ignorance of the technological world. So, they don’t need our protection, just our respect.

The government of Pennsylvania tried to force that on the news media for the funerals, closing airspace and roads for several miles around the funeral sites. But the government should not have had to do that.

Like addicts promising to reform tomorrow, the commercial news media just do not seem able to help themselves–if they can get in there, they will, Amish (or whoever it might be) be damned.

As I said above, it’s an old song, but the news media don’t ever seem to learn. They walk around bemoaning the fact that Americans respect them only a little more than the serial killers they cover–but they never change their behavior.

In the 1990s, when people like “Buzz” Merritt and Jay Rosen tried to develop another model for the news business, they were shot down by many of the people within, people who cried that “civic journalism” transgressed on the ethical integrity (among other things) of journalists.

Ethics? Integrity? In journalism? That’s like an alcoholic priding himself or herself on their self-control. There is none in the journalism business. Just look at poor Hildy Johnson trying to get out of it in His Girl Friday, one of many remakes of The Front Page.

Occasionally, there have been (and are) specific individuals in journalism who act with a high level of integrity. I think of Edward R. Murrow, I. F. Stone, and (today) Keith Olbermann–though there are many more, their impact is relatively small. The “industry” as a whole has no ethics, no integrity, and never has.

The very structure of journalism makes it (in a sense) sacrifice its future for satisfaction today. There’s an irony to this, for newspapers, TV and radio networks, and all of the other news media entities hope to be around for the long haul–though they act as though all that matters is today. The problem is that their business models are focused on numbers now, not on insuring strong numbers in the future. Only rarely have there been media owners who understood things differently. The Ochs/Sulzberger family at The New York Times, William Paley at CBS, and the Knight family once of Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) come immediately to mind. The problem is that the protection from the standard model rested with individuals–and individuals don’t last forever. These people had (and have–some are left) desire and ability to keep the news side separate from the business side. Even so, their task was no easy one. The difficulty they had (and have) was ably portrayed by Nancy Marchand as publisher Margaret Pynchon in the late 1970s TV show Lou Grant.

Merritt and Rosen are right when they say that journalism must find a new model–or one will be found for it and the older news media entities will go the way of the dinosaur. The problem is that few people inside journalism are willing to put in the work, the study, necessary to finding a way to redesign their profession. Money still comes in; the people at the top are paid handsomely. The flattery resulting from one’s voice on the radio, face on television is intense. The very fact of that money insulates the news media from the reality of their own future.

So, instead of trying to improve their profession, journalists continue to chase stories in a pack, each one hoping to break out in the lead. They continue to haunt press rooms, waiting for stories to come to them. They still preen and boast, while many in their audiences look on with a disgust that has been growing now for generations.

Correct though they may be, perhaps Merritt and Rosen are on a fools errand, trying to change people who refuse to be changed. They have tried the interventions, but the drunks have stalked off in huffs–back to the bars. They have dragged them to AA meetings, even gotten them to stand up and say, “Hi, my name is The Washington Post and I’m addicted to breaking news.” But it hasn’t helped. Given the structures of the industry, it may never.

Ultimately, it may take forces completely removed from the commercial news media to provide us with the coverage we need. Fortunately, with increasing technological innovation, that might not be as far-fetched as it seemed even a decade ago. Citizen journalism, fueled by people with computers and cellphone cameras, may one day put the professionals completely out to pasture.

Today, Rosen and others are trying to find a middle ground, a way to utilize both the citizen journalist and the professional to create a new model–hope springs eternal–and I wish them luck. But I am beginning to believe that there is little hope for the bloated beast that haunts our airwaves and our newsstands.

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