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Thursday, March 11, 2010

The U.S. media badly needs a wakeup call


Different societies allow their news media different roles. In most countries the media is subordinated to power, whether of the government or the ruling class. Surprisingly or not, the American model is not widely emulated globally.

Unfortunately, these days, it is not even widely admired within the United States. This is beyond sad.

A recent column expressed my view that the feverous coverage of Tiger Woods' private life was beyond all good taste and professional reserve. Actually, I thought it was totally disgusting. This view appeared to be widely shared.

One e-mail from a reader in Southeast Asia more or less spoke for many others received: "I full-heartedly agree with you. This kind of prurient media circus nauseates me no end. Tiger Wood's affairs should remain between him and his wife, or between him and the women who agreed to have affairs with him, unless a crime has been committed. Bravo."

A reader in South Korea e-mailed: "I agree with your article 100 percent. The media knows no bounds and their recycles often run stories into the ground."

But a contradictory salvo from a serious professional (whom I greatly respect, so I wish to keep his identity private) completely shook me up. "I have never read such complete ———— [well-known four-letter word] in my life."

That ribald response bothered me not because it was critical of my column (big deal!) but because it reflected what I fear is an attitude of widespread denial in the established U.S. commercial news media. They may not know what has hit them; worse yet, they may not realize what is going to hit them.

Let me explain.

The current crisis in the U.S. news media is usually attributed to technological or financial factors. But my view is that the crisis is largely spiritual. When the heart and soul of something is lost, darkness and disintegration are not far behind.

Journalists all over the world used to admire the U.S. news media; some still do. The power of our journalists to set the agenda, topple presidents and in general scare the living daylights out of political and public figures used to trigger an envious drool from journalists in other lands. But to see the U.S. media fall over themselves in the race to the bottom of propriety has been sobering indeed. The sordid specter even raises doubts about the quality of our democracy.

Not too many American journalists are aware of their role-model status. Few perhaps care one way or the other. Except for the U.S. foreign correspondents, after all, the worldview of the average journalist here does not extend much beyond Washington, as if that provincial city were the center of the political universe — which of course it once used to be.

But that was then, and this is now. Like our melting ice caps, the American news media is shrinking in size — and significance — and much more precipitously. Today, loud-mouthed, know-nothing bloggers vie for influence and effect with heretofore famous New York Times columnists. Network-news divisions downsize while new Web news sites spring up like springtime weeds in an abandoned lot. Seasoned journalists willingly defect from established news organizations to start up or join existing Web sites. In 10 years the American news-media landscape will be barely recognizable.

America's iconic media institutions are receding so dramatically that new jobs are scarce and existing ones are evaporating. The ultra-premier publications — Time magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post — once led the professional pack triumphantly and proudly. At Time, all the stupid if tantalizing gossip was rightly ghettoized into one page of the magazine: People. No more. Now People is not only its own magazine, but Time is more like People today than the Time of yesterday.

I feel sorry about what's happening. Now an issue of a news magazine comes to your home that looks so anorexic and so feeble that you feel bad for it. I don't even consider myself a subscriber anymore; the decline is so pathetic, I view my subscription check as a sort of a charitable contribution, as if saving the imperiled jobs of an endangered species: the traditional American journalist.

All of this may well be somewhat exaggerated, to be sure. Time and The Washington Post and ABC News still have significant clout. Some of my students would still drown their two little pet Pomeranians in a bathtub to land a job there. A major American newspaper columnist probably still has more pull than the average U.S. congressman (though that's perhaps not saying much).

But the trend lines are near- catastrophic, and, if you believe they will proceed apace, they contain evil seeds to transform American democracy in ways we surely cannot predict. The insistence of the quality news media on joining the race to the slimy bottom will only hasten their irrelevance.

The tragedy is that I do not believe they really understand that.

Veteran U.S. journalist Tom Plate's 2007 book on the American media, "Confessions of an American Media Man," will be reissued in May in a second edition. © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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