Thursday, May 26, 2005

The press: Stuck in a universe of spin


The challenge for traditional journalism is whether it can reassert its position as the provider of something distinctive and valuable ..... Somehow journalism needs to prove that it is acting on behalf of the public, if it is to save itself.
-- Report: State of the News Media, 2005

It was the end of a restless night. In my dream, I was at last in the study of a prominent journalist with whom I'd worked for weeks to set up an interview. Now he stood before me, a well-schooled, well-dressed, urbane man in his sixties. But when he spoke, only gibberish came out. He smiled, ruefully. But not a single comprehensible word emerged from the nonsense. I'd read his books, looked forward to his insights. But he was trapped inside a jumbled brain, an apparent victim of stroke.

My alarm buzzed and I awoke struggling to shake the cobwebs and face another gray morning. Still the dream didn't leave me easily. Could it be, I wondered, that this was a metaphor for American journalism in 2005 --a once-distinguished figure stripped of its voice, an oracle whose message has become so garbled, so distorted as to be meaningless?

Battered by the orchestrated attacks of ideological bloggers, carved up by corporate budget cutters, tripped too often by its own haste to be first, and abandoned by new generations of technology-laden multi-taskers, the news media seem increasingly to be howling hopelessly into the wind of a gathering storm. Either their message is quickly swallowed up in the swoosh of endless spin or they themselves are mistaking the energy needed to be heard over it for something substantive being said.

Listen to the language of the recent filibuster debate. It's as if the news media, on cue, accepted the talking points of the public relations practitioners. First, when the language was used by Democrats and Republicans alike, the news media wrote about the so-called "nuclear option," whereby the Democrats would paralyze the Senate if the Republicans acted unilaterally to eliminate filibusters. But Republicans decided they didn't like the term, that it cast them in a bad light. So they began talking about the "Constitutional option" and -- more than anything else -- "an up or down vote" on judges. I always thought that a vote was a vote. But sure enough, one cannot pick up a newspaper today or turn on the television without hearing references to "up and down" votes -- for John Bolton, for judges, for turning June 12 into national hedgehog day. You name it. It won't go away.

On to my second point. Listen again to the report on the State of the Media 2005, published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University:

Today, a host of new forms of communication offer a way for newsmakers to reach the public. There are talk-show hosts, cable interview shows, corporate Web sites, government Web sites, Web sites that purport to be citizen blogs but are really something else, and more.
... All this makes it easier for those who would manipulate public opinion - government, interest groups and corporations - to deliver unchecked messages, through independent outlets or their own faux-news Web sites, video and text news releases and paid commentators.

Journalists, struggling to compete in this environment, reflexively turn up the volume. They adapt the tone of the megaphone, too often mixing the journalism of verification with that of assertion, screaming at each other in food-fight roundtable "discussions" where scoring points counts much more than making points, further eroding public trust that polls suggest, in any case, might better be characterized as public suspicion.

What's gone wrong? I opened two Sunday papers yesterday and read little that held my interest. And this, a week after Amnesty International called the Guantanamo prison camp "the gulag of our time." Isn't that an invitation to analyze the facts Amnesty analyzed, to press members of Congress on whether and why (or why not) hearings are in order, to do more than quote the president saying, Amnesty's assertion was "an absurd allegation?"

I think it is. But that kind of reporting takes hard work, independence and investment. It's so much easier to scream "yes" or "no" and to mimic the language of Washington's spin doctors. It's so much easier. But then, how much longer will a disenchanted public pay for what's merely easier?


Post a Comment

<< Home