Moving forward beyond the GOP and Democratic Conventions we are forced to once again evaluate the effectiveness of our media in presenting news we can use.
As we wrote last week the short answer is we’re not doing so well. We are producing news you want rather than news you need.
The bottom feeding, bottom-line nature of our business has become so overpowering even John Oliver on Last Week Tonight mentioned it on his HBO series this week. It was part of his declaration that local newspapers are in trouble and without them we’d all be reduced to watching Wolf Blitzer bat around a ball of yarn.
Well not me. I’ll be trying to strangle him with the yarn.
However, Oliver’s lament on the print industry isn’t new, and while invigorating and enlightening to some, ultimately it didn’t nearly go far enough.
Oliver spoke about rich owners and investors like Sam Zell who took over the Tribune Company and shouted a hearty “F-you,” to a reporter when asked a question he deemed arrogant about the business of journalism. That he is no longer the owner of that consortium of vile dung ultimately brings us little or no consolation.
There is no consolation because this dire situation in newspapers is not, well, new.
Of course the owners are the problem. That has been identified for years. It was Mencken who first described chain-store methods to journalism, denigrating the Hearst “Dung hill” which only attracted “the duller and less picturesque sort of men, “and reducing American journalism to being “pathetically feeble and vulgar and so generally disreputable.”
Yes, the media is a food chain that falls apart without local newspapers as Oliver said.
We are the spine and the life blood. And most publishers and owners have no idea how to keep us healthy much less stop the bleeding which is killing us.
They preach click-throughs, click-bait and tweets never realizing the coin of the realm isn’t how often you speak or how you speak it, but what it is you say.
The coin of the realm remains vetted, factual information. And Oliver is correct that we need to find a way to pay for it and right quickly so.
People want and seek information. It is our job to present it as a disinterested third-party observer. We must be willing to walk down the aisle and lob bombs with equal aplomb on any view – vetting the view and exposing facts.
Most people apparently do not believe we are doing it – perhaps because in many cases we aren’t. The greed of people like Zell, coupled with their inability to understand why we are here in the first place is why his management-heavy strategy and bottom-line approach will never work in the long run.
Gone are the days of Barry Bingham who posted above the elevators in the newspapers he owned that he saw those newspapers as a public trust and always endeavored to run them as such.
Today a mere handful of companies own the vast majority of the outlets which produce news, and they are extremely limited in their understanding of the role of the Fourth Estate. There is but one answer: We must break up these monopolies.
That is where Oliver’s scathing report should have gone, but failed to do so. He teased us. He titillated us. Then in his own vernacular he walked away from us like a 19-year-old girl who pretended she liked us but ultimately said “No.”
Breaking up media monopolies will produce competition for information, drive up interest in the media and provide more jobs.
We need to redirect our efforts into hiring better reporters – those who know the difference and those who in Mencken’s words possess, “the resourcefulness, enterprise and bellicosity that his job demands.” We need to institute limits on media property ownership – as we had before the 1980s when the federal government began to allow news companies the luxury of eating each other raw and swallowing each other whole.
Every single evil Oliver preached about is the result of large corporations owning the voice. Who would not expect these monopolistic companies to pander to the lowest-common-denominator? How else can you gather the most viewers, readers and money?
But do not expect those who sit on the boards of these large companies, or morons like Sam Zell to understand this.
To use a John Oliveresque description: It’s like asking the crack whores to cure the addiction while they run around worrying about redecorating their crack den.