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Sunday, November 14, 2010

"The Case Against News We Can Choose"

Ted Koppel misses "Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith" and their "relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know":

The case against news we can choose, by Ted Koppel, Commentary, Washington Post: To witness Keith Olbermann ... suspended even briefly last week for making financial contributions to Democratic political candidates seemed like a whimsical, arcane holdover from a long-gone era of television journalism... Back then, a policy against political contributions would have aimed to avoid even the appearance of partisanship. ...
We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly - ...political partisanship ... encouraged ... by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.
The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. ... This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone. ...
We celebrate truth as a virtue, but only in the abstract. What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts - along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.
To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the "public interest, convenience and necessity," as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. ... News was ... the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.
On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable. ...
Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed.
It was an imperfect, untidy little Eden of journalism where reporters were motivated to gather facts about important issues. We didn't know that we could become profit centers. No one had bitten into that apple yet.
The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. ...
The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we're now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers. ...
There is ... not much of a chance that 21st-century journalism will be adapted to conform with the old rules. Technology and the market are offering a tantalizing array of channels, each designed to fill a particular niche - sports, weather, cooking, religion - and an infinite variety of news, prepared and seasoned to reflect our taste, just the way we like it. As someone used to say in a bygone era, "That's the way it is."

I have mixed feelings about this. When the networks and other media are trying to be objective but get the facts wrong, as they do, there is now a way to challenge the statements that did not exist 40 years ago when three networks had a monopoly on public discourse. If all three networks said it, then it was true. So the good part is that "facts" that really aren't facts can be challenged in a way that didn't happen 40 years ago. And there is another good part too. Sometimes there are legitimate differences in the way a set of facts can be interpreted. These differences are aired today in ways they weren't in the past when only one side of the argument might have made it onto the networks.

The bad part is that actual facts can also be challenged in an attempt to divert attention and create smoke screens that obscure the truth. And it seems to me that the cost -- the deliberate attempt to undercut truth for political advantage -- has more than outweighed the benefit of being able to challenge information presented as factual when it isn't, or presented as representative of the conclusions drawn from most scientific work on an issue when the conclusions actually point in another direction.

I don't have the answer to this either, but since Koppel emphasizes the bad in the new system without noting much of the good, I thought I'd at least point out that some parts of the new system are better than the old. I don't want to go back to system with three white guys on networks with a monopoly on the news tell me the "truth." More competition than that is good, the problem is that the competition leads networks to maximize entertainment rather the provision of accurate information. Thus the need, it seems to me, is to find a way to enhance the good parts the new system while minimizing the bad. Part of that, I think, will come as people adapt to the new information technology we now have -- we are still in transition and still learning how to best use the new tools. But that's unlikely to be enough, and it won't solve the problem of people only seeking out the things they want to hear, and so called news sources meeting the demand for one-sided presentations. The harder question is whether some sort of government intervention is needed to give the news media the incentive it needs to present the facts "without fear a favor." I think a case can be made that it is in the public interest to have such information available, but beyond truth in advertising rules about what can and cannot be labeled news, and subsidies of some sort to encourage movement in this direction (but how to design these?), it's hard for me to think of ways to make this happen that aren't overly restrictive. Any ideas?

    Posted by on Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 12:24 PM in Economics, Press | Permalink  Comments (57)


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