I have seen the enemy, and he is us

Regardless of the outside pressures and circumstances, the failure of the mainstream media — especially television news — is the responsibility of the people who work within the institution. This was brought home once again to me this morning.

In an insightful commentary in Sunday’s Washington Post (Thanks, David), Bryan Keefer offers reasons why young people are so disillusioned by the news. He’s a 26 year old news junkie, and we ought to be listening to what he has to say.

To me and others raised in our media-saturated environment … the mainstream media seem trapped in the age of “All the President’s Men.” They’re still wedded to outdated ambitions like getting the “scoop” or maintaining a veneer of objectivity, both of which are concepts that have been superseded by technology. We live in an era when PR pros have figured out how to bend the news cycle to their whims, and much of what’s broadcast on the networks bears a striking resemblance to the commercials airing between segments. Like other twenty-somethings, I’ve been raised in an era when advertising invades every aspect of pop culture, and to me the information provided by mainstream news outlets too often feels like one more product, produced by politicians and publicists.
So true, Bryan. So very true. He also asks why mainstream online outlets don’t provide links to references or make use of what he calls “newsreaders” (RSS). Good questions as well.

But he hits on this issue about the people in the business, the scoopers and those attempting to follow the impossible route of objectivity. At a conference at Kansas State University yesterday, New York Times publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., said newspapers and broadcast stations that try to give unbiased information face increased skepticism and even cynicism from the public these days. He also made a reference about the people who work in the news business.

“What I’ve come to understand is that reporters and editors are by their very nature great optimists and incurable romantics,” he said. “We continue to care deeply about the world and its many problems, and we passionately believe that we have the ability to change humankind’s destiny and improve our collective quality of life.”
I must tell you — as a person who has been in or around the TV news business for almost 35 years, Mr. Sulzberger’s view of newspeople is decidedly different than what I’ve encountered in the last couple of decades. Oh it was definitely true when I first got into the business. I remember advice I got from my first News Director, Don Loose, at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee (an old newspaper guy). “People who work in this business,” he said, “are motivated by three things — in THIS order: ego, working conditions and money. If someone comes to you asking for a raise, first ask yourself if this person feels appreciated or if their work is making a difference. If that’s not the problem, then ask yourself if their equipment is all working, if their chair is comfortable and if they have enough light. If that’s not the problem, THEN consider giving them a raise.”

So it was “back then.” My contemporaries were a part of a group who wanted to make a difference in the world. That was our motivation.

Whenever I interviewed newcomers as a News Director, I always asked why they chose this business. I hired the ones who said it was a way a single person could leave a mark and help people. Unfortunately, the vast majority in later years gave responses like, “I’ve always wanted to be on TV,” or “Ever since the anchor came to my school, I knew it was what I going to be.” TV Spy’s Watercooler regularly features discussions on the path to bigger and better in the news business. We didn’t talk about “good 2nd station markets” or how to break a contract when I started out. We were too busy covering the news.

It’s all become very formulaic. People see the glamour and fame from afar and investigate how to get what they want. The emphasis is on the resume tape, the “scoop” to which Keefer refers. We’re obsessed with ourselves and always on the lookout for the edge that’ll take us where we really want to go, although we never really know exactly where that is. We just know that unless we’re “up there,” we’ve somehow missed the formula for getting from here to there.

Improve the quality of life? Well, yeah, if it’ll get me to a top ten market.

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