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Media Crisis 2004: Summing Up and Moving Forward


NEW YORK, December 17, 2004 — It is that time of the year again, the time for closing out the news year, a time of summing up, and looking ahead. A year ago, at this time, I wrote:

“You know the drill. Every network assigns someone to create a master reel with their hottest video and most poignant moments, usually brought to a close with a collage of well-known personalities and politicians who bit the big one and are no more set to teary music. In that moment, news becomes nostalgia and the present belongs to history.”

As regular readers know, the MediaChannel has been here every day with a collage of our own, usually drawn from the news-not-in-the-news, or not-in-the-news-yet or news of news half told. Our focus is on the messenger and the media in an ongoing effort to understand how it is we have so much information available and yet the public knows so little about what is really going on.

Its safe to say that for many 2004 will be heralded as the year of the blogger, and of more media scandals than you can shake an I-Pod at.

Missing in the media march down memory lane is likely to be the trends that are reshaping the media itself.

The central question is: how did an institution with a brave history of safeguarding democracy become a threat to its survival?

It has not been a good year for journalists and journalism. 54 reporters died answering the call of duty, the highest death toll in a decade according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Many were killed in Iraq, Others died at home, like investigative journalist Gary Webb by his own hand. What type of despair drives a talented and committed reporter like him to kill himself? We will, I suspect, soon find out. I suspect it is more than just personal despair in light of how his exposes of CIA backed drug pushers were targeted by a mainstream media gang bang. (A CIA internal probe later validated one of his key findings.)

The big fear, as journalists die, is that journalism itself may soon follow.

Some years back, I read a book about the emergence of the “post journalism era” cataloging the abandonment of a commitment to real news in the news business. It spoke of how packaging and “mechanics” and compression and infotainment defines the new uber-merged corporate media order.

At the time, that indictment seemed alarmist, and premature.

Not any more.

The Committee for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the Media Report itemizes the institutional shifts that dwarf all the flash media scandals that ripple through the news — from Dan Rather’s apparent demise to the mea culpas of mainstream media regarding their jingoistic war coverage, from the Sinclair Broadcasting fiasco to the continued affront to journalism represented by the Fox News Channel.

The Committee’s State of the Media report showed a system that is devolving and losing credibility. Here were a few of the main findings:

1. A growing number of news outlets are chasing relatively static or even shrinking audiences for news. That audience decline, in turn, is putting pressures on revenues and profits, which leads to a cascade of other implications. The only sectors seeing general audience growth today are online, ethnic and alternative media.

2. Much of the new investment in journalism today is in disseminating the news, not in collecting it. Most sectors of the media are cutting back in the newsroom. While there are exceptions, in general journalists face real pressures trying to maintain quality.

3. In the 24-hour cable and online news format, there is a tendency toward a jumbled, chaotic, repetitive and partial quality in some reports, without much synthesis or even the ordering of the information.

4. Journalistic standards now vary even inside a single news organization. Companies are trying to reassemble and deliver to advertisers a mass audience for news not in one place, but across different programs, products and platforms. To do so, some are varying their news agenda, their rules on separating advertising from news and even their ethical standards.

The last item makes projecting a consistent sense of identity and brand more difficult for news organizations, reinforcing a public perception that the news media lack professionalism and a sense of any duty to the public interest.

No one is happy with our fragmented and polarized media system. The surveys show it. The right bashes the so-called “liberal media” while the left goes after their right-wing media counterparts. Is there really a distinction any more? Junk News seems to drive out quality news. Young people defect from all news to the Comedy Channel. Shouldn’t both sides bridge the political divide to help overhaul a media system that now threatens us all?

Ted Turner says his Cartoon network has three times as many viewers as the Cable News Network he is more famous for birthing. The satirical Onion gets to the heart of the news better than most real outlets. This week they joke that convicted murderer Scott Peterson will be sentenced to ten years of endless exposure on LIFETIME channel programs and recreations of the killing of his wife.

While some trivialize media as a problem, others are trying to do something about it. That is one of the big stories about the media not yet in the media: the emergence of a media and democracy movement. Watch for a year of media activism and advocacy from such groups as Media For Democracy, MediaChannel, Free Press, Common Cause, Media Matters for America, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Consumers Union, FAIR and, possibly, MoveOn.org.

These groups are here to stay – often struggling to sustain their good work in a media environment hostile to their vision.

If the media won’t fight for its own soul and survival, others — like us and our many readers, affiliates and members worldwide — are committed to do it for them.

– News Dissector Danny Schechter is the “blogger-in-chief” of Mediachannel.org. His new film WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception)exposes media complicity in the War in The War in Iraq. See www.wmdthefilm.com.

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