“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” So said the man whose own personal library formed the beginning of what is today the Library of Congress and who was also one of the most well-read Americans in our history. I am talking of course about Thomas Jefferson.
While Jefferson was probably paying respect to the method of becoming more learned through practice and life experience rather than attempting to obtain all necessary and useful information from books, a modern interpretation might easily be summoned. For the less optimistic, it may read to stay away from the mainstream news, lest you don’t get the whole story.
So goes this constant conversation in our society, particularly in liberal, intellectual circles, of the downfall of modern day media. Many reminisce fondly about the days of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, when journalists were objective, simply extracting the truth from world events and passing it on to the public.
Of course, Enemy #1, responsible for all (or most) of this filthy “infotainment” is Fox News and its billionaire media mogul, Rupert Murdoch.
But even for those of us who would prefer corporate juggernauts like Murdoch didn’t control countless media outlets around the world, including newspapers, radio stations, and cable and news channels, you do really have to hand it to him. He is one savvy son of a gun – leveraging one opportunity after another in the free market, capitalist system within which he has been required to conduct business.
According to Nielsen Media research’s first quarter results for 2010, of the most-watched cable news programs, Fox News has the 13 highest rated shows. Even The O’Reilly Factor’s rerun gets 500,000 more viewers than the highest rated non-Fox cable news program.
Unfortunately, the common response of those who dislike the current obliteration of all cable news competitors by Fox is to complain. The gripe is that journalists and media outlets should just get their act together and start doing their job like their forbearers (see Cronkite, Murrow, et al.). Worse yet, because of the falling ratings of the likes of CNN and MSNBC, “Foxization” is occurring, with more news programs adopting some of the same strategies of Fox News such as utilizing more dynamic, flashy visuals and sharp-tongued commentators.
News consumers who dislike the current trajectory of news reporting must make peace with and ultimately embrace media as an industry, chock-full of businesses trying to make money like any other, and stop wasting their time cribbing about media entities losing their professional objectivity.
Media is a business and it must be treated with the same accountability mechanisms the marketplace allows. If consumers are not happy with products being produced, they must voice their criticism of products that are substandard, and most importantly, they must vote with their wallets. When media insist on presenting news in a flashy, fast-paced, horse-race or procedural way that lacks quality, depth and context, consumers must object if they disapprove. Change the channel. Write the station. Write your newspaper. Support different media.
When news outlets choose to spend enormous amounts of time covering stories that are irrelevant to society (e.g. the balloon boy, Jon and Kate) or assign childish labels to individuals or stories (e.g. “Jihad Jane”, “Christmas Day Bomber” or “AfPak”) that demonstrate an unwillingness to communicate with the viewer in an adult fashion, those that disapprove must affect the media in the only way they understand – the bottom line.
For journalists and citizens with an ardor for a media system less focused on advertising dollars and susceptible to corporate influence, different models must be put forward to challenge the status quo. Autonomous media outlets must be supported, such as ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit investigative organization whose own journalist, Sheri Fink recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting. Publically financed radio stations and newspapers can be more widely advocated for and financed. Innovative business models must be introduced.
This includes a more passionate acceptance of new media as legitimate forms of communicating news. They are not a fad, nor are they always of the highest journalistic quality. As former CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer has said, the Internet is different than traditional media because “it doesn’t have an editor”. With this maxim in mind, new media serve as the vehicles for the production and distribution of news and must be appropriately interpreted within the context in which they reside.
Media continues to change with the rise of the Internet and as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has coined it, the “flattening” of the world continues as millions of new global citizens have access to view, produce and disseminate information like never before. Our world has seen the number of people with access to the Internet jump from 300 million in 2000 to 1.8 billion a decade later. The number of media channels competing for viewers is only going to continue to multiply.
Elites cannot remain in a stasis that yearns for a bygone era when news was supposedly above politics and assuredly more “fair and balanced.” Even if such a time ever did exist, which is itself debatable, it was due more to the small number of competitors within the industry than a plethora of altruistic reporters with journalistic “integrity.” Most importantly though, the reference is now obsolete.
Technology has transformed media so that it will never regress back to a previous era. Instead, our society must not only accept the fact that media in the 21st century has a new face – or probably more importantly, “faces” – but also view media in the capitalist context it deserves. Fox News has found a business model that is superior to all others in the business environment in which it operates. For those who disapprove of Fox’s methods for informing the American public, the question is, do you have anything better?