Why Is Our Media So Dysfunctional?

What this guy said. — Read the whole thing.

I’ve wondered, since the pit of the Bush years, why the media seemed content to merely sit back and passively conjecture on the ins and outs of news stories that would have had the likes of old-school reporters like Edward R. Murrow or even Walter Lipmann straining at the leash to ferret out the entire truth and print it, regardless of who it spattered. I think it’s partially due to the fact that news departments aren’t run like they used to be in Lipmann and Murrow’s day; back then, they were considered loss-leaders from a financial standpoint: no one expected them to make any money due to the large staff and resources it took to adequately cover stories in disparate parts of the country/world. They were considered for the most part a cost that the network (or newspaper) bore because they a) understood that the news department provided a near-sacred public service, and b) because they knew that a good news department was a large part of what drew people to a given media outlet.

Not anymore.

Today, news departments have had their budgets slashed, overseas bureaus shuttered, etc, at the same time as they’ve been told they’re now expected to compete on the level of the rest of the network’s or magazine’s programming: i.e., in the war for ratings and advertiser dollars. And we know what happens when the quest for money/ratings drives something, don’t we? In the area of news, you wind up increasingly with infotainment instead of actual reportage.

In the above-linked case, the target is David Gregory (whom, I will admit, is one of the…ah…shall we say, riper, targets of this kind of media critique), but it could just as easily have been any one of ┬ádozens of other people who still call themselves reporters. These are people of national scale who are paid handsomely for their work (in many cases on the national scene, very handsomely), many of whom are household names with recognizable faces and voices; the very leading lights of our political and current-events media, but who appear to believe these days that reporting consists not of diligent research to uncover the truth of a given story, but that there is no such thing as objective truth. This recent – and very damaging – view of the function of journalism has it that every story has “two sides,” even if one of the sides could be conclusively demonstrated by a literate teenager in less than five minutes to be factually wrong. And – far worse – it further holds that it is not even the job of reporters to fact-check their sources or subjects of their stories in order to try to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from lies, or any of a number of related concepts which used to form the general understanding about what journalism is, both among the public and – more importantly – among journalists themselves.

This sort of Pontius Pilate-like “what-is-truth”-ism on the part of what are presumed to be our most sage reporters leads to inanities like (all the way back during the protests to the Iraq war) media outlets giving the same serious treatment (and air-time) to 70,000 anti-war demonstrators at the Federal Building in San Francisco as it gave to three dozen pro-war demonstrators at the Concord Naval Weapons station in San Francisco. This passes for “balance,” because it remains impartial on the questions of who is right or wrong, and even on the question of which is more authentic, larger, has the greater support, etc. It fills in the valleys and lops off the top of the mountains, resulting in one endless, leveled playing-field….when anyone who lives in the real world knows that the playing field is rarely if ever truly level. But just turn on your TV, and guys like David Gregory will make it appear as if it always is.

This is the same “we report, you decide” kind of faux-impartiality which allows climate-change deniers to enjoy equal “weight” on TV news as the countless fathoms of credentialed professionals on the other side. When reporters no longer do the job of trying to inform themselves on the issues they cover, so that they can’t be lied to easily by someone wishing to manipulate the facts, but no longer even believe that it IS their job to fact-check or call B.S. on…well…outright B.S., the public trust is broken, and the public discourse suffers – greatly.