I’m going to quote three leads from three pieces that were just written about the trouble with the news today. The litany of troubles is no longer the subject of debate. It is conventional wisdom.
First, see the remarkable essay by Judge Richard Posner (who knew that he blogs?) in Sunday’s New York Times book review, setting forth the state of the fourth estate:
The conventional news media are embattled. Attacked by both left and right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds. In a recent poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 65 percent of the respondents thought that most news organizations, if they discover they’ve made a mistake, try to ignore it or cover it up, and 79 percent opined that a media company would hesitate to carry negative stories about a corporation from which it received substantial advertising revenues….
Now here is Barb Palser’s piece in AJR on journalism’s backseat drivers (that’s us):
These are beleaguered times for news organizations. As if their problems with rampant ethical lapses and declining readership and viewership aren’t enough, their competence and motives are being challenged by outsiders with the gall to call them out before a global audience.
Journalists are in the hot seat, their feet held to the flames by citizen bloggers who believe mainstream media are no more trustworthy than the politicians and corporations they cover, that journalists themselves have become too lazy, too cloistered, too self-righteous to be the watchdogs they once were. Or even to recognize what’s news.
And now see Rory O’Connor’s piece, published in a few places on the web:
By any measure American journalism is in a state of crisis. Media scams and scandals abound, embroiling journalists and their news outlets — from Jayson Blair and The New York Times to Dan Rather and CBS News — in controversy. Plagiarism, errors and outright hoaxes proliferate, along with corrections, extensive “Editor’s Notes” and eventual apologies. Partisan political operatives masquerade as credible news agents, disseminating fake news produced by phony journalists. Columnists and commentators accept government and corporate money to shill ideas without disclosing it to their audiences. Government-produced propaganda is presented as objective reportage.
No wonder journalists rank near the bottom of every poll measuring the trustworthiness of American institutions.
And yet still, I hear journalists say there is no problem with journalism… and how dare anyone say there is.
: Here are a few samples of what Posner says about bloggers; read the whole thing. He understands the real interaction between citizens’ and professional journalism:
The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment is the blog. Journalists accuse bloggers of having lowered standards. But their real concern is less high-minded – it is the threat that bloggers, who are mostly amateurs, pose to professional journalists and their principal employers, the conventional news media….
Having no staff, the blogger is not expected to be accurate. [I’d certainly argue with that -jeff] Having no advertisers (though this is changing), he has no reason to pull his punches. And not needing a large circulation to cover costs, he can target a segment of the reading public much narrower than a newspaper or a television news channel could aim for. He may even be able to pry that segment away from the conventional media. Blogs pick off the mainstream media’s customers one by one, as it were.
And bloggers thus can specialize in particular topics to an extent that few journalists employed by media companies can, since the more that journalists specialized, the more of them the company would have to hire in order to be able to cover all bases. A newspaper will not hire a journalist for his knowledge of old typewriters, but plenty of people in the blogosphere have that esoteric knowledge, and it was they who brought down Dan Rather. Similarly, not being commercially constrained, a blogger can stick with and dig into a story longer and deeper than the conventional media dare to, lest their readers become bored….
What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust….
In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise – not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It’s as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.
How can the conventional news media hope to compete? Especially when the competition is not entirely fair. The bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab….
Some critics worry that ”unfiltered” media like blogs exacerbate social tensions by handing a powerful electronic platform to extremists at no charge….
But probably there is little harm and some good in unfiltered media. They enable unorthodox views to get a hearing. They get 12 million people to write rather than just stare passively at a screen. In an age of specialization and professionalism, they give amateurs a platform….
And most people are sensible enough to distrust communications in an unfiltered medium. They know that anyone can create a blog at essentially zero cost, that most bloggers are uncredentialed amateurs, that bloggers don’t employ fact checkers and don’t have editors and that a blogger can hide behind a pseudonym. They know, in short, that until a blogger’s assertions are validated (as when the mainstream media acknowledge an error discovered by a blogger), there is no reason to repose confidence in what he says. The mainstream media, by contrast, assure their public that they make strenuous efforts to prevent errors from creeping into their articles and broadcasts. They ask the public to trust them, and that is why their serious errors are scandals.