The Critical State of the Fourth Estate

Valerie Plame testifies under oath. Alberto commits perjury. White House e-mails are released. The Feds convict Scooter of lying under oath. A failing IraqNam policy gets a 2nd, 3rd, perhaps a 4th surge, with no end in sight. Yet, what was considered newsworthy? The upcoming Anna Nicole docudrama. 

At least yesterday’s Chicago Tribune had a story of how a mom and her infant were infected with a fatal smallpox variant, because dad was medically prepped to be another IED target in IraqNam.

These are our current choices: 

  1. Boredcast: local & national news; radio;
  2. Cable news: CNN, Faux, MSNBC, Bloomberg;
  3. Print: dailies & weaklies;
  4. The “Internets” with their tubes and blogs.

Perhaps with access to broadband and wi-fi tubes, it was inevitable that the internets would overtake paper, TV, and air as the best method of accessing news. But it’s not just an issue of convenience. The media damaged their product beyond recognition and caused their own demise. 

Viewers are increasingly unhappy with the quality of news. We tire of OJ, Michael, Paris, Britney, and missing blond bimbettes. Yet, as dissatisfaction grows, the quality continues to fall. 

Take local news boredcasts. Please. Almost all local stations were bought up by corporations, thanks to Mike Powell’s FCC experiment.  Except in large cities, local boredcasts are no longer local. Put simply, they are compilations of crap, journals of junk, medleys of miscellany, harborings of hogwash. If you ignore sports/weather, the amount of “news” content fell by 5.4 minutes per half hour since Powell allowed corporate take-overs. Many local stations fired their investigative reporters, keeping a skeleton crew to cover fires, car crashes, and missing children. When “the news” no longer contains any, why do they bother to keep the name? 

National news is worse, not better. One example of how standards have fallen, how news is no longer the issue, and how investigative reporting became an endangered species,  is symbolized in one person – Katie Couric. Watching an entire episode of her blatherings (“episode” is the least pejorative term I can think of) is not just hard, but mind numbingly painful. Evening news isn’t. Morning news is happy smiley talk on coke. Today’s Sunday talking head shows? Spin over substance. When real  issues are discussed, the corporate masters manage to insure that nothing bad is said about them. 

Cable News has little to brag about. Forget the fairly unbalanced Faux Gnus. It doesn’t even qualify as decent entertainment, much less a credible news source. Any station that hosts BiliOus blow-hards, or claims that Libby’s not guilty verdict is worthy of note, while his six convictions are ignored is not worthy of further mention. 

Unfortunately, the other stations are no better. Once a must see station, especially with breaking stories, CNN has turned itself into a high tech, low brow, waste of time. MSNBC has a rising star in Keith O, but like the other stations, most of the product is miserable. Rather than report hard news, they concentrate on glitz and special effects. When the Comedy Station is more trusted as a news source than cable news, you know that there is a serious problem afoot.

Newspapers have a lot to answer for. As their readership shrinks, rather than improve their product, they cut researchers, editors and investigative journalists. TribCo actually had the balls to fire an editor who refused to make deep, self-destructive cuts. Gannett and other groups followed suit. 

When future historians try to point to a time when the old fashioned news business died, they will probably choose 2003-2006 as the time when conditions became critical, if not fatal. The signs are already visible. That isn’t just blood in the water, those are internal organs floating in the jetsam. 

We now have hard facts to support the upcoming death of news. According to Columbia’s School of Journalism, print media advertising revenue fell again last year by 1.7%, with news advertising dropping by more than 0.3%. That’s  hundreds of millions in losses.   Link

Boredcast news revenue also fell, and except for Keith O, cable viewership and ad revenue fell across the board. Only two outlets saw an increase, the radio and internet tubes. For the print media that operate on the internets, a rise in internet revenue couldn’t offset their print losses. 

So why is the news business dying? What happened to real journalism? Where did they go wrong? Four answers summed up in four words: Corporations, consolidation, avarice, conservatism.  

Conservatism

Talk and news radio, and the cable stations have wrongly railed against some “liberal bias” in the media. Yet the facts are exactly opposite. Talk and news radio is almost completely demented and ultra- conservative. Air America may survive, but even they serve more as entertainment than news. 

Recent unbiased media studies show that cable, boredcast, and print all have a distinct pro-administration flavor. Perhaps the memory of 9/11 have caused the media to become “patriotic” and prevent them from closely investigating a corrupt president and his cronies. But more likely, it is something else:

Consolidation

The worst thing to happen to modern news media was Mike Powell’s appointment to the FCC. His easing of rules intended to prevent media monopolies caused a revolution in how news is delivered. Instead of hundreds of independent entities, competing with each other, and serving their public directly, we now have six huge corporations which control 90% of what we see, hear, and read in America. Not only are our choices fewer, the quality reflects the total lack of competition. 

What happened to radio music has been repeated in the field of news. When Clear Channel and its very few competitors began hogging the airways, the death of real music was swift and painful. Today, local content, experimental music, jazz, blues, or classical either don’t exist or are hard to find. Every station in every city seems to play the same boring pap, unless the band is called the Dixie Chicks. 

Newspapers, TV news and cable news now show the same crap, simply on different platforms. Regardless of how they dress it up, it still sucks. 

Corporations

Anyone remember when Japan took over a movie company, in the hopes of cashing in on creative talent? Remember how they failed? Well, corporate owners may be good accountants and bean counters, but creating a vibrant, creative and informative product was never their goal. Controlling the media meant that they could control, even avoid bad news about themselves. When did (or will) NBC ever break a story about accounting flaws, product defects or bad corporate management in GE? 

Corporate owners tend to be conservative, and their tastes have clearly controlled what gets into the news. By design or by accident? It really doesn’t matter. When control of so many of the message bearers is concentrated in the hands of a very few, everyone is worse off because of it.  Of course, corporations are guilty of something else, too. 

Avarice

At present, we have just a few masters controlling the old fashioned news business. It was only a matter of time, it was natural that what they do naturally becomes the norm – squeezing every cent of profit out of the businesses, even if the quality of content, research and pure feet on sidewalks investigative reporting had to be cut as a result. Profit is now the password for almost every news organization. If it doesn’t sell ads, cut it. Forget about informing the public, we need a 20% return on our investment!  Avarice has led us to the outside of the building doing Anna Nicole’s autopsy being covered live by three cable and 20 broadcast stations. Yet war crimes in IraqNam, the failing surge, the Libby verdict, Haliburton’s traitorous move to Dubai and its many crimes in IraqNam are not considered newsworthy. 

The outlook for the old fashioned news business is grim at best. Only on the internet have revenues, ads, and viewership increased. Even there, the old media companies are being attacked because of their content, or lack thereof. Blogs, foreign competition, and independent groups are doing a great job of covering stories that the “MSM” seems to ignore. Not just political blogs, but special interest groups investigate and report what is happening better, faster, and more thoroughly than a Tribune Company, CNN or Faux website. While some of the quality is questionable, and the tubes still suffer from rumor-mongering, poor writing, and bad research, it is a hell of a lot easier to get international news, and even a better grasp of what is happening here from foreign reporters. The best part of it is that Google news even makes it easy to find, contrast and compare, and investigate on your own. 

Long live journalism once again,  at least the independent, non-corporate kind. 

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