The combination of an overly corrupt presidency, headed by a mentally unstable president, combined with largely unaccountable 24 hour internet and cable TV commentaries has transformed American journalism beyond recognition.
Traditional reporting, defined in the book Reporting for Journalists, (Chris Frost, 2003; London: Taylor & Francis) as “a duty to seek the truth and present it to readers, and not the truth as statecraft would wish them to know, but the truth as near as he can attain it,” by The Times of London editor John Thadeus Delane (1817-1879), todays sounds idealistic. But his point is that there is a difference between politics and politicians,
Some journalism, like sociology, often dwells on the obvious; merely broadcasting things some people knew all along. That is the case with Trump who many long-time New Yorkers always knew was a publicity hound, real estate developer thug, pathological liar and womanizer. That was the background story for many of his playboy exploits and publicity stunts the New York tabloids reported on for decades. But when the subject of this Yellow Journalism was elected president, it called for a more reflective type of reporting that involved some convenient amnesia on the part of some major news outlets, compounded by the censorship of corporate journalism and the old-line respect for the office of the president, which were clearly now void and up for grabs.
The overlay for all of this was the Tower of Babble, AKA social media and the terrible demands of 24-hour journalism. By the election of 2017, it was evident that the omnivorous format of 24-hour journalism was already beginning to fray. News broadcasts that pre-dated the introduction of Ted Turner’s 24-hour cable experiment used to be focused into a 30-minute broadcast, often once a day, and supplemented by shorter local news shows at meal hours. This news format worked for decades to inform the American public.
But Turner’s experiment is now off the rails. Cable news shows repeat the only a handful of news stories daily and then supplement them with an endless line of wanna-be commentators, political hacks, propagandists, paid contributors and social provocateurs. When they appear together, the framed guests look like the opening credits for the Brady Bunch.
What is driving this new form of lower-quality journalism is that it is based on speculation. “What ifs” and “Why do you think”-type questions get boring quickly, especially when the commentator does not have any new information. Serious journalism also strictly avoids speculation. Instead, serious journalism is based on the five “W’s”, the observable and scientifically verifiable who, what, where, when, why.
Talk radio and odd entertainment networks, like FOX news, thrive on speculation and its logical offshoot, conspiracy theories. Somewhere in this professional gap between old-line journalism and the newer pressure to entertain and tittle, Trump emerged as a cynical beneficiary of timid journalism that was afraid to call him out him as the elected sociopath he remains today.
In an excellent article, “The Case Against the Media, by the Media,” (New York Magazine, 2016), based on 113 interviews with editors and reporters, the magazine noted that journalism today suffers from the overuse of anonymous sources, an emphasis on speed that results in oversimplification of complex stories, and bad decisions by publishers that caused newsroom employment to suffer. A good example of this was CNN’s the terrible decision to hire Corey Lewandowski as a “commentator” when in fact he was a paid propagandist.
This article covers many angles of contemporary journalism and how it failed miserably to assess the Trump campaign and the mood of the nation, but one of the best summaries came from Jeff Sharlet, magazine journalist and professor of English at Dartmouth, who said “The ability to report on mainstream politics — that’s what the (corporate media) machine is for. The machine was not made to understand things like Occupy Wall Street or Trump. The machine was not made to understand the sort of Bernie Sanders world. It’s making a very strong effort at it, but even so, you see the machine stumbling.”
This was best said in this same New York article by Michael Hirsh of Politico, who gave this grave assessment:
“I see this in some ways as the tail end of a long arc of history. We started with a few authorized outlets that really spoke authoritatively; and that’s largely gone with the wind. The Times and the Post are still around, but there’s a question of how much they really dictate the agenda in the way that they used to. And in the meantime 10,000 weeds have bloomed on the internet, sites where like-minded people gather, where they get a lot of their information, much of it just garbage. There’s no real anchor.
“And of course a guy like Trump comes in and exploits that to the hilt. He ran roughshod over a traditional media that still sees itself as the platform for authoritative news, but which is actually used less and less for that. If Trump is elected president that will underline just how irrelevant we’ve become.”
Legitimate, contemporary journalism may also have reached its boundary. In an article “Journalism in the Age of Trump,” (The Nation, August 13, 2018) author Michael Massing writes:
“In the end, Trump is both the product and the servant of an entrenched system—one that news organizations generally shrink from challenging. Why is that? Because writing about the way things really work would endanger journalists’ access to sources? Because it would provoke an outcry from powerful people? Because it wouldn’t produce enough traffic?”
So maybe the electorate knows how contemporary government really works. The U.S. today is a corporate democracy, not one that responds to the voters. If it did, government would be more liberal and Democratic since Republicans are in a numeric minority nationwide.
But from the media perspective, what fills this void?
Certainly not social media, community institutions or public education. The best we can do is rely on common sense and make decisions based on your family’s long-term interests, including those that benefit the community. Good journalism is still recognized and will survive, but authentic, professional media outlets will have to a better job at educating their viewers and readers about the steps they take to make a quality product. In the end, quality journalism will survive and thrive.