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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Mediocre Media Muddle . . . and the Critics Who Should Know Better

“The media” are a mushy, messy mélange.
It is distressing that, while our news media, infotainment industry and the mindless megaphones of cableworld devote their considerable energy to messing with our world view, they get so much help from people who think they’re being critical.
A late-breaking example, the one that triggered this rant, came in Sunday’s New York Times. Frank Rich, normally a well-informed and thoughtful commentator, found reason to spread the blame beyond the Balloon Boy Dad, Richard Heene. Heene is the guy who conducted the Colorado hoax involving the false report that 6-year-old (note the name) Falcon Heene was aboard a runaway aerial balloon.
Rich’s point was that “the media” panted after the story without pausing for a nanosecond to ask the no-fun questions that are traditionally considered the province of newspeople. A few adult queries and a modicum of background research might well have revealed the truth about the family, and certainly would have moderated the enthusiasm that drove the coverage.
While Rich lumped all kinds of media together, I don’t.

Media, yes. News? No
There is a fundamental point here, and it’s one that Frank Rich as well as other viewers of the scene don’t touch: Our true “news” media are a tiny and shrinking droplet in the information ocean that floods this country in a deep slosh of audiovisual sensation all day every day.
Some smaller, local newspapers are artifacts of a “real news” tradition, but are they equipped to make it very far into the future?
Television, radio and associated media are NOT news media. They provide sight and sound that can be momentarily gripping, pleasing, shocking or entertaining – but rarely are more than minimally informative. Rich referred, in his Times piece, to “the news media,” then went on to criticize cable television. He was comparing apples and, say, football fans. Cable TV most assuredly is not a news medium. It is an entertainment medium, sometimes capable of providing value in discussions and reports – but its nature is to provide sight and sound that attract and hold attention.
For decades, it has been said of television news, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Notice that a report from Washington requires a “wind-in-the-hair” shot of the reporter standing in front of the White House, or the national Capitol, or maybe a large photo thereof. You have to have something to see, and the medium favors stories that have visual drama or pathos.
But what is important often isn’t much to look at. Therefore, trends and stories that lack the looks are downgraded, if they appear at all. Check your emotional thermometer sometime after a half-hour of television “news” to determine how full and balanced your sense of the world is. Walter Cronkite once said that the entire content of a half-hour TV news presentation would fill maybe half a newspaper page.
The transitory nature of the electronic media experience also promotes superficiality. It flashes before you, and is gone. You can’t go back a paragraph or two, nor can you pause to digest the meaning of a particular point.
With the spread of self-operated technology, it’s all going further. The unfunny caricature now is two young lovers playing a board game together while each is separately texting other people.

Wailing for a Lost Cause

So when I, as a young newspaper editor, saw that polls showed television moving ahead of newspapers as people’s major source of news, I predicted the demise of print journalism. The fact that I was decades ahead of my time is not as important as the truth that something very like extinction is happening today.
One reason for my early cynicism was that, even at that age, I had a rather low opinion of the newspaper industry’s vision and commitment. Sure enough, around the 1970s even the best of America’s papers launched a long and fatal experiment with “doing TV” in print. In the last two decades especially, there has been a virtual merger between the newsroom and Hollywood. Things have become shorter, quicker, more colorful.
And less meaningful. My obsession through those years was modernizing and improving reporting, writing and graphics so the newspapers could become ever better at what they do – information and understanding – while developing more interesting and reader-friendly styles of presentation. That might have taken a modest amount of money, but it would have required the persistent investment of courage, imagination and leadership. Needless to say, there was precious little of all four available.
So, in my sour dotage, I would at least like the satisfaction of seeing today’s major thinkers probing the meaning of our exploding media universe, and applying some real thought to the challenge of operating a democratic republic with a citizenry now informed mostly by Jon Stewart.
. . . While multitasking meaninglessly via slick gadgetry whose main effect is to distract.

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