Thursday, September 22, 2005

Upgrading Our Media System

After reading last night's post today, I realized that the final paragraph doesn't really answer the question posed in its first sentence. What I want to know is, "how can the news business stop hemorrhaging consumers and release the economic pressure that drives them to 'dumb-down', in Dan Rather's words, their content?" This is important because news is the chief conduit through which most of us learn about real events in the world outside of primary and secondary experience. It shapes our opinions and helps guide our choices about how to vote, where to live, whether and where to travel, and what to consume, among other things. A downward trend in Americans' interest in the news augurs a sharp disconnection from the outside world, which could increase our vulnerability to external manipulation and sociopolitical decay.

To stave off this possibility, I'd recommend rethinking the entire manner in which news is presented. The current paradigm of a staid reporter or news anchor presenting the news robotically has dominated print and TV journalism for decades, and it's clearly beginning to fail. One suggestion might be to start punching a few holes in the wall between news reporting and punditry. Under the system we have now, journalists do the legwork, go on location and try to remain objective in their writing, while columnists and talk show hosts for the most part simply read, watch, and opine from their armchairs. But an ideologically diverse press corps could dispense with the fiction of "journalistic impartiality" and offer interpretation along with their hard news--stridently enough that the reader or viewer would be able to separate the two. Pairing two reporters with opposite political viewpoints on a given story would allow spectators to decide for themselves which conclusion made more sense to them.

The more I read and watch, the more I start to feel that "objectivity" and bloodlessness in news reporting are on the wane. If it's the case that Katrina boosted the ratings of the 24-hour news networks and the profits of newspapers, it was probably in large part due to the indignant tone that many anchors and reporters adopted in their stories, most notably CNN's Anderson Cooper. I don't think Rather would call the coverage of Katrina "tarted-up", and I don't think that style of reporting applies only to times of crisis. Everyone--from liberals to conservatives, blacks, whites, politicians, citizens, the savvy and the ignorant--is upset at the news media right now. And I think a great deal of that ire has to do with an unattainable ideal of impartiality that goes unfulfilled in one way or another every day. Inserting more opinion into "straight" news pieces may not be the solution, but something really needs to change--journalism serves too significant a function to die.