The Decline of Journalism

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

Chuck_ToddA lynchpin of the idea of America has been the meme “freedom of the press”. It is specifically mentioned in the First Amendment and many have declared it essential as a bulwark against tyranny. The Constitution, however, was written at the time when it took little expense to produce a newspaper or a one sheet broadside informing the people about one’s point of view. It was a time that had no media except for the print media and so “the press” as it existed then played a central role in informing the citizenry about the important issues of the time. From 1704 on the regular newspapers and magazines in the colonies had begun to charge for advertising, but the price of a paper still was the most significant revenue stream. While press freedom always was impacted by the major advertisers a paper had, the impact was quite minimal for more than 150 years, most importantly because each newspaper reflected its publisher’s point of view and that was the raison d’etre for the publishers. Then too, one could publish independent leaflets (broadsides) that could also sway the public discourse. Print media, which mainly included newspapers and magazines held sway as the conduit through which most Americans learned of the doings of the world and from which they formed their opinions politically. This “monopoly” last until the late 1930’s when the CBS and NBC radio networks started developing correspondents to go overseas and cover the world descending into war.

Depending on which side you were on the tradition of American journalism was a long and proud one. It played a significant role in the American Revolution and continued to do so for long afterward. The “free press” almost always took sides in that certain publications were known for their views and from what point on the political spectrum they saw the world. Investigative reporting was a proud American tradition, protected in the main by our Constitution and exposing the dark underside of America’s dream. The reader either is aware of, or can easily find instances where such reporting made a difference in the “people’s view” of a given issue and so I won’t detail the history except broadly. Sometimes, such as in William Randolph Hearst’s manufacture of the “The Spanish American War”, this press freedom was used in service of private interests. At other times with journalists like Lincoln Steffens; Ida B. Wells; Ambrose Bierce; Upton Sinclair; and Jacob Riis; to name a few, the public was informed of corruption both public and private in a long tradition dating back to the founding of this country. Whether one agreed, or disagreed with the information source, one could depend on the fact that given the already obvious point of view of the journalist/reporter, what they were reading was indeed a nuanced version of the facts that at least properly developed one side of the issue. The advent of first Radio and then Television supplanting the print media as the source of information for most Americans led to a trend in so-called “objective journalism” that has resulted in reporters/journalists/newsreaders presenting “both” sides of a dispute, without insight or context. Its’ my contention, as I’ll explain, that this has become very dangerous to the idea of an informed electorate and has resulted in sensationalistic bombast on a given issue, rather than intelligent debate allowing the public to make informed judgments as to where they stand.The idea for this blog came to me a few weeks ago after hearing about the controversy that erupted after Chuck Todd, NBC’s News Director had a discussion on the MSNBC show “Morning Joe”, with Ed Rendell, former Governor of Pennsylvania. The significant portion was this:

“MSNBC host Chuck Todd said Wednesday that when it comes to misinformation about the new federal health care law, don’t expect members of the media to correct the record.

During a segment on “Morning Joe,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speculated that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. Todd said that Republicans “have successfully messaged against it” but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that’s President Barack Obama’s job.

“But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it,” Todd told Rendell. “They don’t repeat the other stuff because they haven’t even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”

In the aftermath of more than 150,000 people signing a petition in protest of Todd’s belief, he was still somewhat nonplussed by the reaction he had caused. In truth he was clueless because from his perspective and from the perspective of all of the corporate news media in this country just presenting both sides of an issue meets their journalistic obligations and they have no duty to inform the public when clear misstatements are being made. I’d originally thought when I planned this piece to go into a long history of why this once honorable profession has fallen on hard times, but my preference is to cut to the chase. The broadcast and digital media has become the most important source of educating the public as to the issues of our time. I say educating specifically because as I see it the purpose of including the press in the First Amendment was the understanding of our founding Fathers that in order to maintain this new type of government they had invented, there was an overarching need for an informed public.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Reading the First Amendment in context its aim is to ensure a public informed enough and active enough to redress any grievances they might have with potential government tyranny. From their perspective, in their era, the freedom of the press was the mechanism for ensuring that the public was informed. With the advent of the public’s information being filtered through large information entities, that are run for profit by extremely large corporations, the duty to inform the public on the issues has devolved into merely reporting the naked contentions of either side, without the need to provide context. Thus though Todd knows and has admitted that the Affordable Care Act has been wildly mischaracterized by those opposed to it, he feels no duty to inform the public of that mischaracterization or any of the mistruths associated with it. From his perspective that is the job of the Administration and they are losing the battle simply because the President has not “sold it” properly.

Todd’s view reduces journalism to mere reportage of the various statements made about an issue and the coverage of the “horse race” aspect of election campaigns. It allows vastly unqualified people of either party, to run for and attain office based merely on their ability to craft a message or to sell themselves. With people of this mindset reporting the news is it any wonder that our political system has become a circus based on the principle of advertising and public relations? I seriously wonder why anyone would bother to get a Journalism Degree any more if this is what Journalism has become. Regarding the central mindset that encourages this phenomenon NYU Journalism Professor and Media Critic, Jay Rosen wrote a blog analyzing the basics. It is called: “He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User” and he writes:

“There I am, sitting at the breakfast table, with my coffee and a copy of the New York Times, in the classic newspaper reading position from before the Web. And I come to this article, headlined “Ex-Chairman of A.I.G. Says Bailout Has Failed.” I immediately recognize in it the signs of a he said, she said account.

Quick definition: “He said, she said” journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

When these five conditions are met, the genre is in gear. The he said part might sound like this:

Mr. Greenberg asserted that he would have reduced or at least hedged A.I.G.’s exposure to credit-default swaps in 2005, when A.I.G.’s credit rating was reduced.

“A.I.G.’s business model did not fail; its management did,” he asserted.

Followed by the “she” said…

That provoked another scornful counterattack from his former company, saying that Mr. Greenberg’s assertions were “implausible,” “not grounded in reality” and at odds with his track record of not hedging A.I.G.’s bets on credit-default swaps.

I had read enough of the Times coverage of Mr. Greenberg to wonder why the editors would run something so lame. Their business columnists have been (excuse the expression) kicking ass on meltdown coverage, including A.I.G. But here there was no attempt to assess clashing truth claims, even though Times journalism was available to do just that. Instead Hank Greenberg got to star in a game of “you say black, I say white.”

Mr. Rosen wrote that blog in 2009 and four years later nothing has changed. In his blog he went on to describe the advantages, to the press, of this type of reporting:

“Turn the question around for a moment: what are the advantages of the newswriting formula I have derisively labeled “he said, she said?” Rather than treat it as a problem, approach it as a kind of solution to quandaries common on the reporting trail. When, for example, a screaming fight breaks out at the city council meeting and you don’t know who’s right, but you have to report it, he said, she said makes the story instantly writable. Not a problem, but a solution to the reporter’s (deadline!) problem.

When you kinda sorta recall that Hank Greenberg is a guy who shouldn’t necessarily get the benefit of the doubt in a dispute like this, but you don’t know the history well enough to import it into your account without a high risk of error, and yet you have to produce an error-free account for tomorrow’s paper because your editor expects of you just that… he said, she said gets you there.

Or when the Congressional Budget Office issues a report on ethanol and what it’s costing us in higher food prices, the AP reporter to whom the story is given could just summarize the report, but that’s a little too much like stenography, isn’t it? So the AP adds reactions from organized groups that are primed to react.

This is a low cost way of going beyond the report itself. A familiar battle of interpretations follows, with critics of ethanol underlining the costs and supporters stressing the benefits. Of course, the AP could try to sort out those competing claims, but that would take more time and background knowledge than it probably has available for a simple “CBO report issued” story. “Supporters of ethanol disagreed, saying the report was good news…” gets the job done.

These are some of the strengths of the he said, she said genre, a newsroom workhorse for forty years. (Think it’s easy? You try making any dispute story in the world writable on deadline…)”

In the end it comes down to the truth that these types of journalism make the job of the reporter/news writer much easier. The other big advantage is it keeps you out of hot water with your bosses and leaves your work immune from criticism. However, in its wake it leaves an uninformed electorate and a news media more interested in poll numbers than it is in reporting the facts. Most Americans lead very busy lives and keeping themselves informed of the news is low on their list of priorities. Given the difficulty entailed in really obtaining the facts on a particular issue, is it any wonder how really uninformed the electorate in this country is? My point here is not pro or con health care, although some comments will no doubt go there. My interest is in whether you think this mode of reportage is either fair, or valuable in the creation of an informed public. My opinion is that it is a travesty, but your may have a different perspective.

Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

77 thoughts on “The Decline of Journalism”

  1. Otteray,

    I like Amy Goodman. She isn’t a member of the corporate media or half of a “power couple” like Amanpour–who is married to Jamie Rubin (Robert Rubin’s son). I’m always suspicious of members of the media who have links to big banks, corporations, and government–like Andrea Mitchell who is married to Alan “The Oracle” Greenspan.

  2. Who Coined ‘Obamacare’?

    Jeanne Schulte Scott, a heath care industry lobbyist and former senior counsel in the Office of the General Counsel for the Health Care Financing Administration under Reagan who – despite that – has done some really good work on behalf of citizens since then.

    Who used the term first as a pejorative?

    Mitt “it was a great success at the state level I take credit for but disastrous socialism (ooooooo spooky) at a national level” Romney. A neo-fascist, neoconservative Republican of the worst sort.

    A term coined by an industry lobbyist, used in an irrational albeit self-serving attack by a Republican.

    (Mis-)Usage is important, especially for neologisms used in propaganda, as is etymology.

  3. Jake Tapper is about the best, straight reporter out there, IMO. He has hammered the NSA more than anyone else that I’ve seen. He has Greenwald and Wyden on regularly.

  4. Chuck Todd is actually a fairly good, straight, reporter. And I saw him on Jeopardy, he’s very smart. Chris Matthews is dumber than dirt. Katy Kay from the BBC is also pretty smart.

  5. Gene,
    Bob Edward’s book about Murrow was published in 2004. After NPR fired him, he went on an extended book tour. Unfortunately he never came to our area or you can bet I would have an autographed copy. You can get a discounted copy at booksellers, and Amazon has a few hardback copies left for less than twelve bucks.

  6. OS,
    The Edward Murrow and Chuck Todd interview would be a Monty Python skit made in heaven!

  7. OS,

    There is a wicked comedy skit in that idea.

    And I agree about Edwards. He’s the real deal. I’ll have to keep an eye out for his book.

  8. Gene,
    I have this evil fantasy of Chuck Todd walking into Edward R. Murrow’s office for a job interview. It would be a sight to behold.

    There are few real journalists any more. Christiane Amanpour comes to mind. She would have a far better chance of becoming one of ‘Murrow’s Boys’ than the likes of Chuck Todd or David Gregory.

    Speaking of Murrow, NPR canned one of the best interviewers they ever had when they let Bob Edwards go from “Morning Edition.” He is now back, with “Bob Edwards Weekend” on NPR. Edwards wrote a book about Murrow, “Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism,” and it is worth a read.

  9. Mike S: In my view, this is a common failing of many a business; in this case it is a failing of a terrible business model (Journalism).

    In particular, the state of Journalism you describe today is a common failure of the free market; what is truly in the best long term interest of the typical citizen (being informed and able to make a decision that reflects reality) is seldom in their short term interest, always optional, and almost never the “winner” in the competition of their various work, household and relationship duties they should accomplish right now.

    As a business failing, businesses by their nature cut corners; and this “he said, she said” journalism is clearly a form of cutting corners. By Jay Rosen’s description, I suspect it has always been in use as a way of generating some filler for pages going to press, a kind of “patch” to cover a hole in the page. But the same market failure rears its nearly invisible head. The patches are easy, and over the course of a generation or two, instead of a page with a few patches on it, the whole newspaper has become just a daily quilt of patches, and the original opinion and direction that sold the paper (and distinguished it from other papers) has been lost. People stop buying it. But the business model has evolved, the paper is just that quilt of “he said she said” patches and advertisements, and nobody will pay for it, and now the industry dies as the Internet replaces it.

    But the Internet is hardly better, it is just more free. There is more actual Journalism on the Internet (Greenwald and Taibbi come to mind, others like Turley provide actual researched content by himself and some guest bloggers), but for the most part the Internet is also awash in the “easy filler” paradigm of an endless sea of shallow words and asinine assertion.

    I would say the kind of “free press” the Founders envisioned is still alive and well on a handful of Internet sites, it is just overwhelmed thousands to one by the flood of others shouting for attention, wannabe celebrities and angry venting. Not to mention the competition for attention in every possible form of entertainment, and the relentless striving of those that want to “monetize” any content ever read or seen by anybody.


    Who exactly is responsible for this confusion?

    Who coined the term “Obamacare”?

    Who propagated it?

    Also, what RWL and OS said. Eric Severied would eat Chuck Todd’s face for claiming to be a journalist. This is one area where British terminology is far superior to American English. They use the term “news readers”. Because that’s what they are. But here, there is much less actual news than entertainment. I just might run screaming into the streets if I have to see one more picture of Miley Cyrus sticking her tongue out. But that? Is an editorial decision.

    Who hires the editors?

    Who determines their priorities?

    A good faith decision about substantive material interest to the public or a corporate mandate and the drive for ratings and ad dollars?

    Good job, Mike.

  11. “Haven’t even heard the Democratic message,” on Obamacare?? He’s been trying to sell that snake oil legislation, passed by reconciliation, for going on 4 years. He has the bully pulpit and he’s a gifted speaker who could sell fridges to Eskimos. This won’t sell because you can’t sell shit, everyones got plenty. I’ve been watching campaign like ads DAILY for months telling us this snake oil will cure our woes. The insurance companies involved in this Ponzi scheme are getting taxpayer funded ads, it’s corporate welfare.’s those damn Republicans fault. Critical thinking goes down the toilet when ideology is in play.

  12. This just in:
    -The Kardasians are Roma.
    -Mike Wallace has a prior name of Wallechinsky and his son used it for a while on Air.
    -John King talks too fast but does so at the direction of the CNN tribe.
    -The word Media is kind of like the word Data– overused and amorphous.
    -When the Media quotes Data, you get what you pay for. The Data shows.
    -Congress has no gonads and that is not because Dianne Feinstein is an 80 year old lady who wants to define “journalist” so as to take away the First Amendment Rights of bloggers.
    -Koch Brothers both do coke. Not talking soda here.
    -Americans need to look elsewhere for Media.

  13. Diane Rehm is the best interviewer on the airwaves. Her radio programs discuss issues, concepts, and reasoning in civil dialogue. In my experience she often has three panelists, right, left, and a researcher or educator. Her format is what all exploratory, issue exposing, civil discussion is meant to be.
    The bread and circus crowd need not apply

    The Repubs are trying to drown NPR in the bathtub. The “New” Dems are probably in agreement with the repubs on this one.
    New Dem meaning the now exposed philosophy of Fienstein. Obamas blatant support of Wallst and corporate deals. Pro bomb everything Kerry. Talk tough Harry Reid, has been tying his own shoelaces together. Harry Reid is not this stumbling, and fumbling, due to ignorance, He too is a Manchurian candidate.
    The crony capitalists are winning, The crony capitalists want everything, Congress is in their pocket. (most of them)

  14. Mike Spindell,

    I started reading your article last night. It hit so hard in the start I had to stop. I read Todds quote and a lightbulb went off. (actually on).
    Capitalism now owns the press. Like a contrived sport, it is the New York Dems vs the Texas Repubs. (fill in your own sport name) Todd thinks his job is solely to report what the team owners tell him to. MSM responsibility (according to Todd) is to sit in the luxury box and repeat equally what each team owner tells him to.
    I have feared this was true for a while now, but my cynicism often takes me too far…… OOPs not this time.

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