The News About the News
American Journalism in Peril
by Leonard Downie, Jr. and
Robert G. Kaiser
Vintage Books, 2003, paper
Good journalism ... enriches Americans by giving them both useful
information for their daily lives and a sense of participation
in the wider world. Good journalism makes possible the cooperation
among citizens that is critical to a civilized society. Citizens
cannot function together as a community unless they share a common
body of information about their surroundings, their neighbors,
their governing bodies, their sports teams, even their weather.
Those are all the stuff of the news. The best journalism digs
into it, makes sense of it and makes it accessible to everyone.
Bad journalism-failing to report important
news, or reporting news shallowly, inaccurately or unfairly-can
leave people dangerously uninformed. The news media failed to
report adequately on the overextended and corrupt savings and
loan industry before it collapsed and cost depositors and taxpayers
billions of dollars during the 1980s. The press failed to discover
and expose the tobacco industry's cover-up of evidence of the
addictive and cancer-causing effects of smoking and its clandestine
marketing of cigarettes to young people until plaintiffs' lawyers
discovered both in the course of liability lawsuits during the
l990s. At a time when nearly half of eligible Americans don't
vote, the news media have steadily reduced their coverage of government
and elections, leaving citizens vulnerable to negative and misleading
political advertising that fills the airwaves instead, enriching
television and radio stations during election campaigns. Although
Americans are more globally connected than ever, most news media
steadily and substantially reduced their coverage of foreign news
during the last years of the twentieth century, depriving Americans
of the opportunity to follow the world around them. This fact
was J widely discussed after the terrorist attacks of September
2001, when foreign stories suddenly became fashionable again.
Bad journalism can misinform. Television
newscasts and many newspapers routinely overemphasize crime news,
so Americans continue to fear that crime is getting worse when
it has actually been decreasing for years. Journalists eager to
attribute the deadly bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building
in 1995 or the catastrophic explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long
Island to Islamic terrorists misled Americans before they knew
that the real culprits were Timothy McVeigh and an exploding fuel
tank on the Boeing 747. Glowing, uncritical coverage of new technology
companies in the late l990s encouraged many Americans to sink
their savings into speculative stocks and mutual funds that soon
crashed, collectively costing them billions of dollars.
Much bad journalism is just lazy and superficial.
Local television stations lard their newscasts with dramatic video
fragments of relatively inconsequential but sensational fires
and auto accidents. Broadcast and cable networks devote news time
to mindless chat and debate. Newspapers fill columns with fluffy
trivia and rewrites of press releases and the police blotter.
Bad news judgment is commonplace. "If
it bleeds, it leads" is a self-mocking slogan among local
television journalists, but also an accurate description of the
reflex of television news directors to make gory crime stories
the first news items on the 11 o'clock news. The celebrity divorce,
the police raid on a massage parlor, the opening of a county fair-all
too often, it doesn't have to be new, or factual, or interesting,
or important be labeled "news."
That's the good news. But bad news is more typical. Too much of
what has been offered as news in recent years has been untrustworthy,
irresponsible, misleading or incomplete. Sometimes, good journalists
with the best intentions fall short of their aspirations or make
mistakes. But the most alarming weaknesses of the news media have
been systemic, and they have seriously undermined good journalism.
Too many of those who own and lead the nation's news media have
cynically underestimated or ignored America's need for good journalism,
and evaded their responsibility to provide it.
Most newspapers have shrunk their reporting
staffs, along with the space they devote to news, to increase
their owners' profits. Most owners and publishers have forced
their editors to focus more on the bottom line than on good journalism.
Papers have tried to attract readers and advertisers with light
features and stories that please advertisers-shopping is a favorite-and
by de-emphasizing serious reporting on business, government, the
country and the world.
If most newspapers have done poorly, local
television stations have been worse. Typically, local stations
provide little real news, no matter how many hours they devote
to "news" programs. Their reporting staffs are dramatically
smaller than even the staffs of shrunken newspapers in the same
cities. The television stations have attracted viewers-and the
advertising that rewards their owners with extraordinary profits-with
the melodrama, violence and entertainment of "action news"
formulas, the frivolity of "happy talk" among their
anchors and the technological gimmicks of computer graphics and
"live" remote broadcasting.
The national television networks have
trimmed their reporting staffs and closed foreign reporting bureaus
to cut their owners' costs. They have tried to attract viewers
by diluting their expensive newscasts with lifestyle, celebrity
and entertainment features, and by filling their low-budget, high-profit,
prime-time "newsmagazines" with sensational sex, crime
and court stories.
All-news cable television channels and
radio stations-to which the networks have ceded much of the routine
coverage of serious national and foreign news-fill many of their
hours as cheaply as possible with repetitive, bare-bones news
summaries and talk shows that present biased opinions and argument
as though they were news.
Much of what has happened to news has been the by-product of broader
economic, technological, demographic and social changes in the
country. Most newspapers, television networks and local television
and radio stations now belong to giant, publicly owned corporations
far removed from the communities they serve. They face the unrelenting
quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street now typical of American
capitalism. Media owners are accustomed to profit margins that
would be impossible in most traditional industries. For General
Motors, a profit margin of s percent of total revenue would mark
a very good year, but the Tribune Company of Chicago, which owns
newspapers and television stations located all across the country,
wants a 30 percent margin. Many local television stations expect
to keep so percent of their revenue as profit. Protecting such
high profits can easily undermine the notion that journalism is
a public service.
Many in the news business became convinced that in an era of unparalleled
prosperity and security, Americans would rather be entertained
than informed. The consequences of this attitude are obvious on
every television news show, and in too many newspapers. The temptation
to push serious news aside in favor of glitz and melodrama has
too often been irresistible. A national infatuation with celebrities,
both encouraged and exploited by news media, has had a profound
influence on journalism. It has also tempted too many journalists
to try to become celebrities themselves.
Independent, aggressive journalism strengthens American democracy,
improves the lives of its citizens, checks the abuses of powerful
people, supports the weakest members of society, connects us all
to one another, educates and entertains us. News matters.
52 percent of Americans said they only
follow national news when something big is happening; 63 percent
said the same about international news.
In the l990s the newspaper industry fell into a siege mentality.
Early signs of defensiveness were evident in the eighties, the
decade when newspapers all over America copied the color and graphics
of USA Today, but rarely if ever gained new readers. A more powerful
paranoia was born in the recession of 1990-91 and aggravated by
a sharp increase in the price of newsprint as the recession ended.
Total newspaper circulation declined, gently but steadily, and
for some papers precipitously. Newspaper publishers began to pay
serious attention to statistics that showed a steady erosion of
newspaper readership in American society, especially among young
people. Editors were shaken by public opinion polls that showed
a sharp decline in the credibility of the news media, including
newspapers. Then the World Wide Web on the Internet materialized
out of the ether, portending, many in the industry initially decided,
gloom and perhaps doom. The doom would follow if online competitors
to newspapers managed to steal away classified advertising, the
source of 20 to 40 percent of all newspaper revenues.
There is no disputing the fact that newspapers
are no longer the ubiquitous, pervasive news and advertising medium
they once were. In 1964, 81 percent of American adults were regular
newspaper readers; by 2000 that number was 55 percent. Young people
were the least likely to read a paper. Conceivably, newspaper
readers would steadily die out.
Brokaw, Jennings and Rather actually lost about 40 percent of
their audience between 1981 and 2001.