Between the ongoing debate over health care, the Bernanke re-nomination fight, the apparent Obama turnaround on economic policy, and the special Senate election in Massachusetts, one was struck again by how difficult it is to get news without spin. In the electronic media, especially on cable television, it is not news — it’s selective facts. The growth of blogs and the declining importance of network news (less than 60 percent of the public watch network news) is sounding a death knell for the assumption that viewers are intelligent enough to make up their own minds.
People have always read selectively, and generally sought to reinforce their biases and predispositions, but today only news junkies and internet gurus, plus some elites and academics, make the effort to understand or hear the other side. Most people have time for one news narrative, if that. As a result, the power of the news has been placed in the hands of the opinion makers, not the reporters. No one is interested in balance or hearing two or more sides to a story.
In the heyday of the networks, television always strived to separate interpretation and analysis from reporting. Eric Sevareid, David Brinkley, and Howard K. Smith identified their evening commentary precisely as such. Walter Cronkite would publicly oppose the Viet Nam War; nevertheless, in a bitterly divided America he remained “the most trusted man in America.”
One realizes how transparent cable news talking heads have become when Jon Stewart — generally a sarcastic voice on the left — takes equal pleasure aiming his barbs at the left wing anchors on MSNBC and right wing talkers on FOX News.
The Wall Street Journal once was seen as having impeccable business news and in-depth national and international reporting separate from its conservative, pro-business opinion pages. Since the Bancroft family’s sale of the Journal in 2007 to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., the paper has rapidly become another organ of the Murdoch empire, which makes virtually no attempt to separate news from opinion.
The public’s attention span today is only as long as it takes to send a tweet of no more than 140 characters. News is only another form of entertainment and a generally depressing one at that. The public is interested in the president’s dog because that is real to any family that owns or has owned a pet, but they are not interested in policy analysis. They want jobs, business loans, refinanced mortgages, and healthcare but have no time or interest in anything but a yes or no answer. They enjoy watching “news celebrities” vent their pent up emotions and expressing in public what those at home only tell their friends and family in private.
The tabloid press has always exploited the seedy and the personal lives of public figures and celebrities. Today’s reality shows are merely the transference of this public fixation to seemingly average Americans with whom the public can identify, in whose lives they can become involved, and through which they can escape the reality of the news around them.
While state-run media will probably never take over in our democratic society, the cost to gather information and collect facts eventually will drive most traditional journalism out of business. What will remain will be opinionated rants and raves, spin by government public relations officials, and baldly promotional celebrity “news.”
As foreign bureaus become too expensive for the “old guard,” screamers and ranters will fill the void in Mideast reporting, competing to attract the largest following. (There is more space today in Beit Agron, the general media headquarters in Jerusalem, than in anyone’s memory.) Al Jazeera will always have deep pockets. The question is whether there will be any Western news organizations and Jewish media forces left able to report the facts and give context to Israel’s struggles with her neighbors.
The decline of an actively engaged press will produce only losers. The public will not be properly informed. Those who make the most noise and gimmicks will grab the public’s attention. Who will be left to report the truth?