Professional journalism will never save itself unless it gets off its pedestal. Since this is a nearly impossible human task, I have no hope that the answers to forces destroying professional journalism will ever come from inside the institution. It’s just not going to happen. We have seen the enemy, and he is us (but we can’t admit it).
I come from a unique class of television professional journalists, having worked in the industry both before and after it was taken over by corporations, corporate lawyers, shareholders, and the rules of being a profit center. I can honestly say that it was all about gathering the news before (see my 1998 essay “The Lizard on America’s Shoulder”), but it drifted to the industry of managing audience flow afterwards.
This was brought to mind this morning after reading yet another Chicken Little account of the collapse of professional journalism, and I need to point out a few things (again). “Without professional journalists,” wrote Tom Glaisyer and Sarah Stonbely for CNN.com, “who are paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest, the very health of our democracy is in peril.” This statement is absurd on two grounds. One, professional journalists aren’t paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest. They are paid to help their owners make a profit. That’s not cynical; that’s simply the truth. Two, and this is the most damaging, the people, the audience whose trust they assume, know it. Puh-leeze!
That which is important has taken a back seat to that which is easy and that which will attract, for the core mission of any business is to make money. In today’s business climate, things are really problematic, which applies even more management heat to control costs and earn more, more, more. The bottom line runs everything, and those who write stories warning of dire consequences for journalism and democracy are not examining the facts and, therefore, simply demagoging for attention. C’mon, people. Read the signs. People are sick to death of what we’re feeding them, and they’re revolting. That’s the problem, not our precious mission.
Once again, here’s the Gallup data. We’re at an all-time low in press trust. Note that the decline in press trust began in 1976, not 2000 or 2004.
Glaisyer and Stonbely’s piece (which you should read, BTW) concerns the FCC’s recent report on the state of the news, specifically television. That, of course, they govern, but the problem is much deeper than just TV. Moreover, the FCC report is highly biased, because the government has the deep pockets voices of the Telecom industry tickling their ears about using those public airwaves for broadband. Nevertheless, the article drones on about journalism.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is impossible to ignore the inequalities created by changes in media or the harmful effects of the loss of journalists, newsrooms, and oversight. Local communities are suffering from a vacuum of relevant local news and accountability in news coverage.
I’d argue that the opposite is true and that communities are beginning to be served as never before — from the bottom up — by people who aren’t bound by the same corporate necessities of the pros. If I lived in Lewisville, a neighboring suburb near me, I’d be VERY grateful for the work of Steve Southwell, for example. Steve’s blog, whosplayin.com, has kept the heat on a school board that needed heat and has since been largely replaced by informed voters. How were they informed? Steve. Is he a professional journalist? He makes enough money to pay for his hosting, so I guess so. Did he go to school for it? No. Does he work for a big media company? No. He simply performs, as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and many others call “acts of journalism” that have resulted in elected officials being held accountable.
Steve’s not alone. This is taking place all across the country, mostly in small ways so far, but journalism is alive and well in the U.S. Only the fatted calves of corporate journalism are being whacked.
The Great Horizontal is responding to the Gallup numbers, because they know that we’ll never do anything about it.