Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Rather vs. the NJO

Dan Rather's upset, and rightly so, at what's become of the media since the 70s. In a speech Monday to Manhattan's Fordham University School of Law, he blasted what he dubbed the "new journalism order"--a recent, inopportune convergence of political and economic pressure against quality reporting:

Addressing the Fordham University School of Law in Manhattan, occasionally forcing back tears, he said that in the intervening years, politicians "of every persuasion" had gotten better at applying pressure on the conglomerates that own the broadcast networks. He called it a "new journalism order."

He said this pressure -- along with the "dumbed-down, tarted-up" coverage, the advent of 24-hour cable competition and the chase for ratings and demographics -- has taken its toll on the news business. "All of this creates a bigger atmosphere of fear in newsrooms," Rather said.

Sentiments such as Rather's and Jon Stewart's reflect an enduring belief in journalism as more than just another consumer product. According to this view, the media has a responsibility to act as an independent conveyance for knowledge and understanding, beholden neither to government priorities nor public prejudices. But it seems to me that if the unbridled free market remains the only determinant of which media outlets succeed and which fail, we'll soon find ourselves in a media environment wholly calibrated to pander to our preexisting views.

But, I could be wrong. It's possible that the largest US media outlets may have a degree of 'journalistic determinism' on their side; that is, people may give CNN, the NYT, Newsweek, and NBC Nightly News a great deal of latitude on their content without absconding in droves. After all, there aren't many organizations that have the necessary human and technological resources to produce incisive reporting on national and international issues. If this is the case, change could come with the ossification of a little editorial backbone in the big news boardrooms. And if sources start clamming up because of it, well, it might be time to pull out an encyclopedia and look up "investigative journalism."

So yeah, I dunno who's wagging what here. But it looks like top-down analyses of the ways in which news is selected, reported, and framed comprise a more realistic solution than relying on the American public to effect change by demanding better news coverage. People are already doing that; just look at any vaguely political blog. I'm hoping that the perspicacity of the Katrina coverage turns out to be contagious, but for that we'll just have to wait and see. Maybe the media only doffs the kid gloves in times of national crisis, but I hope not.