“All we want are the facts, ma’am.”
—Sgt. Joe Friday
Not long ago I was sorting through old papers for disposal. I came across a clipping saved for some forgotten reason. On the reverse was this headline: “NAACP Chief Says More Assistance Needed.” This headline might have appeared in my hometown paper today (though I stopped reading it years ago). But the date was May 1971.
Presumably “news” is the report of an event or a situation that the reader cannot experience for himself. When the chief of the NAACP makes a statement, it is an event, though his demanding higher welfare payments is not exactly hot news. The “news” report reeks of advocacy and is all too characteristic of the “news” we have been getting for a long time now.
A worse example. For some years my father attentively took care of my mother during the terrible progress of Alzheimer’s. Their life gathered so much sympathetic admiration that word got around, and one day a reporter showed up. The resulting newspaper story mentioned Mr. and Mrs. Wilson in the first paragraph. Then they disappeared, to be followed by 14 paragraphs about how not enough was being done for African-Americans with Alzheimer’s. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson were just a hook for irrelevant advocacy.
Back in my misspent youth as a reporter in the mid-60’s, if I or one of my colleagues in the newsroom had been given this story, we would have turned out a “human interest” piece that would have touched and been shared by the whole community. And we would have done it without presenting anything that was not an observable fact or a precisely accurate quotation, the latter taken with a pencil and not a recording machine. The paper was part of the community. Readers would read the story and feel that their city was in some sense a shared community, and a decent one.
Furthermore, the paper was locally owned. And it had editorial writers who were intelligent, knowledgeable, and articulate, and had actual opinions. Some readers even turned to the editorial page first thing. Nobody would do that now, though he might eventually get around to the letters. But why read canned opinions that are the same as those on every other paper and television station? And which are not even really opinions but just repetitions of the party line? The same family owned both papers in town, but they had separate histories, took different stands, and actually competed for scoops.
I describe a situation that is (barely) within living memory. Of course, newspapers are obsolete. There are many fewer than there used to be. They are all owned by conglomerates with no interest in their communities, and would disappear entirely if it were not for their websites and those multicolored big-box-store and supermarket inserts. People might read them (from something other than habit) if they had genuine local news and opinion, but they are run and staffed by carpetbaggers who are quite literally incapable of that. Otherwise, anything you want—sports, stock-market quotes, weather—you can get better from radio, TV, and the net. Except perhaps the comics, and I don’t think many people read them anymore.
Newspapers, of course, have never been perfect. Through most of our history they were very partisan—which everybody knew and allowed for. You could still get a good idea of the political world from them. In the 19th century papers even printed complete texts of important speeches and public documents. Historians can rely on newspapers as a good source in writing 19th-century history. Future historians will find today’s newspapers entirely useless. Welcome to the Soundbite Age.
Television news, of course, is even more destructive, because a lie told with carefully culled pictures is even more convincing than a lie told with words. I have heard that television news has a declining clientele, as more and more people turn to their own sources on the net, and that is all to the good. Disappearance and destruction could not happen to a nicer group of guys and gals than our valiant TV reporters. It is well known on campus these days that student majors in journalism (now called something fancy, like “media arts”) are even dumber than education majors. They all dream of being glamorous anchorpersons.
Back in the 90’s I had direct experience of this. I was becoming egregiously notorious for having publicly declared that Southerners would be better off out from under the U.S. government (a proposition with which rational disagreement is impossible). Professors were taking class time to denounce me, and administrators were trying to figure out what to do with me (or to me). (One administrator was smart enough to make me a positive exhibit of intellectual diversity to the public and the legislature.) A student journalist came to interview me. The resulting article dwelt on what she considered uncomely aspects of my person and various third-party denunciations of me as either a fool or a devil. None of my clever and moderate observations about the need for devolution or the virtues of Southern culture made it into the article. I did not expect her to like me or to like what I had to say or even to treat me respectfully. However, here was a real story, something quite original, if oddball, going on on campus that an old-time reporter could have made quite interesting and horizon-raising. The point is that this young lady was doing exactly what she thought aspiring journalists were supposed to do—put down what the prevailing powers had declared unacceptable. It was quite literally outside her mental equipment to think that there might be some other approach to the “news.” She will doubtless go far.
The theory of democracy requires that public issues be presented fairly and debated openly and frankly, so that satisfactory and inclusive decisions can be made. Thus, the people can be informed and their will determined. Political parties and interests work hard to prevent issues from being presented objectively. It used to be thought that it was the duty of the media to inform the people fearlessly and impartially. That is the ideal that one still hears, although the practice has never quite reached the ideal. But the American media today are a massive obstacle to democracy. They are not nonpartisan observers and reporters but a force in competition for political power. Even worse, they reflect and accelerate the ongoing sinking of American culture toward the lowest common denominator. They are instruments of commerce and entertainment, not of information and debate.
Consider the vast power exercised by the owners and directors of the major television media and their celebrity anchorpersons over our public life. Nobody every voted for them. In most cases we do not even know who they are. How did they get such decisive, controlling power over American public discourse that even presidents have to treat them carefully? Who is Campbell Brown? Who elected her to broadcast her shallow and commonplace notions to the world, to the exclusion of several millions of more intelligent citizens? The media quite literally determine what information, ideas, and personalities are presented to the public and what are excluded. And, like any colluding ruling class, they all agree on the agenda. The media now even claim status for themselves as a formal power of the realm and assert royal immunity from the laws that apply to us regular citizens. Whatever this is, it is not democracy.
But then, we live in a regime in which five unelected Supreme Court justices can force millions of people to alter their way of life; in which an unelected minor federal judge can veto the express will of the people of an entire state; and in which a few unelected New York bankers may at will inflate or deflate the money used by everybody. That is not democracy either, and nobody seems to notice or care. Never mind. We will make democracy thrive in Russia, Afghanistan, and Libya.