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. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite both revealed the underside of the good ol days of network news when you had three channels to chose from. Both made ad pitches for cigarette brands while doing the news show itself and both smoked on the air. Millions bought into this and millions have since died of smoking. In his biography Cronkite makes light of the time that he corrected the diction of his employer when he stated: Winston tastes good as a cigarette should. He was supposed to say: “like” a cigarette should and he got chastised. In his memoir he never apologizes for encouraging millions of kids to smoke.

    Today if you can find Link TV on your television choices, that is where you can find Democracy Now! and Amy Goodman. She is the best. And ten times better than the likes of Ed Murrow or Walter Cronkite.

  2. One problem is the language. We call any talking head on TV that can read a list of questions assembled by someone else a journalist or a reporter. They’re not. Chuck Todd exemplifies that. The British called them “News Readers”, journalists and reporters were something else entirely.

    Our format is entertainment, not the delivery of news. Half a dozen people with opinions sitting around opining about events is not news, it’s an agenda-driven propaganda-fest.

    Our media: TV, radio, press (and increasingly Internet if business and the government has it’s way) is extraordinarily consolidated and the business’ that owns it has an agenda that, in the absence of a fairness doctrine, is freed from even a passing nod to facts or reality.

    We do not have anything that even begins to resemble a free press as many of us recognize (or remember) a free press assuming actual journalism and investigation is part of that equation.

    Good reporters/journalists on TV? Rachel Maddow’s staff, they know how to put a story together and do research.

  3. Elaine,
    keep the Murrow video coming. Chuck Todd should be watching Murray and understand that the facts do matter. No matter who is telling them.

  4. ** Gene H. 1, October 5, 2013 at 11:33 am


    Murrow’s interview of McCarthy is a thing of beauty. He pushes all of Joe’s buttons and then basically stands back while the man proceeds to self-destruct. Truly a masterful reveal of McCarthy’s nature by playing to his nature. **

    The irony of the day, we still have not broken free & are currently stuck trying to forge & hold the middle ground while we fight off the rotten Fascist to our right , (Romney, Bush Family, Karl Rove type, etc..) & those damn Commies to our left, (Clinton’s, Obama, Reid, etc..)

    So close to the same demagogues one can hardly tell any difference between to 2 groups of azzholes.

    Where are our leaders?

    Is it Alex Jones/Infowars, Professor Turley, Ron/Rand Paul,Dennis Kucinich, Alan Grayson?

    If only Willie Nelson was younger, Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings was back with us maybe they could be leaders, but they are not.

    We have to stop being fooled again & again.

    1. Elaine M wrote: “Jon Stewart Revisits ‘Bullsh*t Mountain’ As Fox News Reports On The ‘Liberal’ Shutdown”

      LOL. So you depend upon a liberal comedian referenced on a left wing propaganda website to establish authority for your worldview?

      Fox News far outshines Comedy Central for objective journalism. I guess that is one reason Jon Stewart regularly appears on Fox News.

  5. Thank you everyone for an interesting discussion thread. Because OS and I are old enough to remember Murrow as he actually broadcast we became aware of what a real journalist is. I was 10 when my parents let me stay up to watch is “See It Now” program at 10:00pm on CBS. It was a two parter that exposed Senator McCarthy for the man he was and led to his eventual downfall. It was the Murrow’s, the Sevareid’s and the Cronkite’s generation of correspondents matured via WWII that led to a “golden age” of TV news. One that was destroyed by Corporate takeovers and the relegation of the News Divisions as responsible to the Entertainment Divisions.

    BTW here is an interesting link that directly deals with this topic:

  6. david,
    I do hope you are kidding about Fox News.? Objective journalism? You may want to double check their lies about Obamacare and death panels just as a primer into how objective they really are.

  7. davidm,

    “My time watching the news is limited, so when I do watch it, I usually watch Fox News. They believe in objective journalism and correct mistakes made on the air. ”

    I didn’t know you were a comedian. That’s the funniest thing that I’ve heard all week.

  8. Interesting article. The reasons for the problems in journalism are varied, but I think dishonesty is a major reason. The idea that a journalist does not have a responsibility to correct false information is egregious.

    My time watching the news is limited, so when I do watch it, I usually watch Fox News. They believe in objective journalism and correct mistakes made on the air. They not only correct their mistakes, but mistakes that others make. Fox News is probably the last objective reporting agency.

    My second choice is CNN. Although they are not as objective as Fox News, they are less influenced by propaganda than networks like MSNBC. NBC has basically become an arm of the Obama media network.

  9. Elaine,
    Did you notice that about 2:40 in that video, McCarthy laughs. He sounds like Beavis and/or Butthead.

    Seems appropriate to me.

  10. Mr. Turley…

    Did you receive the copy of the book i sent you…And the Writ of
    Certiorari and documents on the subject of wiretaps at the Supreme
    Court…that i sent you…my mail has been manipulated from time to
    time…want you to know that it has been mailed to you…you should
    try to get Geraldo to address this important landmark issue

    woody voinche

  11. Nick S. I must strongly disagree with you on Chuck Todd. I have had several exchanges with him well before this latest claim that reporters need be nothing more than stenographers that convinced me of 1. He is lazy; 2. He is not a journalist by any stretch and 3. As as stenographer he would be employable because of 1. He is lazy.

    I am still for Stewart and Cobert. They are the best!

  12. About Amy Goodman:

    Investigative journalism career

    In 1991, covering the East Timor independence movement, Goodman and fellow journalist Allan Nairn reported that they were badly beaten by Indonesian soldiers after witnessing a mass killing of Timorese demonstrators in what became known as the Santa Cruz Massacre.[8]

    In 1998, Goodman and journalist Jeremy Scahill documented Chevron Corporation’s role in a confrontation between the Nigerian Army and villagers who had seized oil rigs and other equipment belonging to oil corporations. Two villagers were shot and killed during the standoff.[9] On May 28, 1998, the company provided helicopter transport to the Nigerian Navy and Mobile Police (MOPOL) to their Parabe oil platform which had been occupied by villagers who accused the company of contaminating their land. Soon after landing, the Nigerian military shot and killed two of the protesters, Jola Ogungbeje and Aroleka Irowaninu, and wounded 11 others. Chevron spokesperson Sola Omole acknowledged that the company transported the troops, and that use of troops was at the request of Chevron’s management. The documentary, “Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship”, won the George Polk Award in 1998.

    Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, said, “She’s not an editorialist. She sticks to the facts… She provides points of view that make you think, and she comes at it by saying: ‘Who are we not hearing from in the traditional media?'”[10]

    Democracy Now!

    Goodman had been news director of Pacifica Radio station WBAI in New York City for over a decade when she co-founded Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report in 1996. Since then, Democracy Now! has been called “probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time” by professor and media critic Robert McChesney.[11]

    In 2001, the show was temporarily pulled off the air, as a result of a conflict with a group of Pacifica Radio board members and Pacifica staff members and listeners. During that time, it moved to a converted firehouse from which it broadcast until November 13, 2009.[12] Democracy Now! subsequently moved to a studio located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.[13]

    Goodman credits the program’s success to the mainstream media organizations who leave “a huge niche” for Democracy Now![11]

    When President Bill Clinton called WBAI on Election Day 2000[14] for a quick get-out-the-vote message, Goodman and WBAI’s Gonzalo Aburto challenged him for 28 minutes with questions about Leonard Peltier, racial profiling, the Iraq sanctions, Ralph Nader, the death penalty, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clinton defended his administration’s policies and charged Goodman with being “hostile and combative”.[15]

    Arrest at 2008 Republican Convention

    During the 2008 Republican National Convention, several of Goodman’s colleagues from Democracy Now! were arrested and detained by police while reporting on an anti-war protest outside the RNC.[16] While trying to ascertain the status of her colleagues, Goodman herself was arrested and held, accused of obstructing a legal process and interfering with a police officer,[17] while fellow Democracy Now! producers including reporter Sharif Abdel Kouddous were held on charges of probable cause for riot.[18] The arrests of the producers were videotaped.[19] Goodman and her colleagues were later released,[20] and City Attorney John Choi indicated that the charges would be dropped.[21] Goodman’s (et al.) civil lawsuit against the St. Paul and Minneapolis police departments and the Secret Service resulted in a $100,000 settlement, as well as an agreement to educate officers in First Amendment rights of members of the press and public.[22][23]

    1. Good stuff Elaine. I have Democracy Now on auto record and never miss it.
      My worry is poor Amy is going to burn out with the work load she keeps.

  13. OS,

    Murrow’s interview of McCarthy is a thing of beauty. He pushes all of Joe’s buttons and then basically stands back while the man proceeds to self-destruct. Truly a masterful reveal of McCarthy’s nature by playing to his nature.

  14. I trust your research on the origins as that is what I figured was the case. I’m just saying Obama is too narcissistic to stick w/ an acronym like ACA. I guess the term grew on him. Plus, I think it’s a smart way to go. Once Obamacare became part of the nomenclature, just say, “Yeah..not bad.”

  15. Elaine,
    I forgot about who Amanpour is married to. Regardless, she goes where most reporters fear to tread. I saw her reporting live several times with bullets whizzing over her head. One has to wonder how often she can tickle the tail of the dragon and get away with it.

    What I am waiting to see is the modern equivalent of Murrow cutting Joe McCarthy down to size on live television. I figure with people like Todd and Gregory doing the interviewing, it will be a long wait.

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