When did Mainstream Media get to be a dirty phrase?

I once thought the worst one might say about mainstream media is that it was professional, predictable, at times boring, but usually responsible, generally trustworthy and fact-checked.

Today it is under attack, principally by Fox and talk radio as something disreputable and surely not to be trusted. In fact, listening to the right-wing media it seems they are on a campaign to set themselves up as the only viable alternative to mainstream.

Isn’t there a contradiction in that, or am I missing something? How can the fringe become mainstream in its own right? And why would it? Once it became mainstream wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of being radical in its own right?

Sean Hannity attacks the media weekly (daily) with such vile that it he has become a caricature of a little boy ranting while trying very hard to appear like a sober, elder newsman.  The more he bobs and bops, the more his girlish strop becomes increasingly inane.

Here’s a headline Mr. Hannity – you are every bit as much mainstream media as the next network anchor.  You cant enjoy the kind of publicity, prominence, power and viewership without being part of the mainstream.  Try as hard as you want to deny it, but you have met the enemy – Mr. Mainstream, and you are him.

What’s curious too is the unstated contradiction raised by this.  Michael Savage boasts he is America’s most popular radio talk show (clearly something he wants and needs in order to maintain ratings and advertising revenue) and then attacks everyone else as mainstream.  He wants in as part of the club yet wants no part of its membership?  Fox TV does the same.  They want to be treated as mainstream – part of White House pools and other media seen as responsible, national journalists, and they compete for the purpose of divvying up the advertising pie, but yet at the first chance they get – their personalities say, oh no – not us; we’re not mainstream but we’re different, special, counter-culture.  Isn’t it interesting that conservative voices are today seen as counter-culture?  Back in the old days… that just seems very different.

Look – mainstream or not – the question is what’s wrong with being seen as mainstream – tell the facts, provide insight, do the tough pick and shovel work of stationing reporters all over the globe and the country and provide news coverage of important events, regardless of how they may attract ratings.  Tell the news that responsible editors believe need to be told and understood.  Provide analysis and not rants.  Provide context instead of opinions delivered with increasing angst and volume.  Limit assertions in favor of sound bites and quotes from individuals engaged in the stories, and do so for more than :50 to :10 seconds each.  What value is so short a sound bite?

Mainstream used to be a good thing.  Why now is that the enemy?  Why should it be the enemy?  And why should we – any and all of us – have to decide what news we like on this basis.  News isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest – it was never intended to be a profit center –  but we now spend more time killing the messenger than we do in listening to the message.  It is both wrong headed and dangerous to the Republic.

The message is this – tell me what you have to tell me, don’t boast over how good a job you’re doing at telling me, and stop decrying everyone else for the job they’re doing.  Just do your job – fair and balanced, and I’ll decide.

Politics, Partiansanship and Priorities – why doesn’t the media focus debate on what is seriously threatening the bulwarks of government and democracy?

Announcing his intention not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate, Indiana’s Evan Bayh (D-IN) said, “After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so by serving in Congress has waned. For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples’ business is not being done.”

What a sad admission.  What a sorry state of the Congress as articulated by one of its insiders.  Too much partisanship? Too politicized? Not enough of the people’s work is being done?
At first I applauded Sen. Bayh for his conviction but the more I think about this the more unsettled I become. Why not fight the prevailing wind?  Too Quixotic?  Unwinable?  Pointless, a fight not worth fighting?   How sad that seems.
Senator Bayh can do what he chooses, to fight what he believes is worth fighting, to take a stand where he believes one must draw a line, stand and fight.  I am however reminded of former Congressman Robert Drinan (D-MA) who always believed that the means was every bit as important as the end, that the way legislation was crafted and implemented was as important as its end result. Congressman Drinan was also a Jesuit and that might explain his unyielding commitment and personal focus. Ultimately Pope John Paul II compelled Bob Drinan to choose between his collar and calling and his seat in Congress, and Father Drinan returned to academic and ecclesiastical positions.
I applauded Evan Bayh for taking his stand and calling attention to his frustration.  But the more I think about it, I am concerned if this is the easy way out?  I am struck by the thought that if people whose convictions are truly noble are being compelled to leave the Congress, aren’t we all as a nation at a loss for their departure?

The media isn’t helping… it is polarizing too.  Whether to the right (FOX) or left (MSNBC) or the muddled middle (CNN), the public is not being served by dispassionate debate and articulation of the facts.  There is a rah-rah quality to many presentations that neither serves democratic discourse or perpetuates sober debate in lieu of screaming and emotion.  The health care debate, the public meetings, the posturing and promoting of personal agenda would seem to more the sufficient evidence to indict both politicians and much of the media.

Of course there will be calls for restructuring, just as there have been calls for campaign finance reform as if this will be the cure-all, the panacea for what ails us.  I think it might be deeper than that, deeper even the the pockets of wealthy candidates who seem intent on spending personal fortunes to win their election.  Deeper too than just positioning and spin.  Much deeper than what can be squeezed into a 30 second attack ad or single column op-ed.

The real problem is tolerance.  Until we work to reform the process, unless we all agree that the means matters, until we stop the rhetoric and bombast at the expense of listening, then there will be only greater partisanship and discord, tumult and disharmony.  From sound bites and quotes, to commercial messages which banter about words like “liberal” or “conservative” with such venom as to make each totally unpalatable, we will continue to alienate audiences, to turn people off, and to polarize listeners and viewers who will believe only in what they are already convinced about, supporting sides they favor and eschew all other viewpoints.

That is the true loss we face.  We should report on that.

Why do the words “Trust” and “News” in the same sentence seem unbelievable to the audience?

Perhaps the problem isn’t that audiences do not believe their news providers, as one recent poll would have us believe, maybe we just don’t want a diet of facts we disagree with or truths that disturb us?  Maybe it is that we are becoming largely a nation of self-righteous, opinionated zealots who disagree with any voice other than our own?

There has been a lot of coverage about the recent survey that Americans do not trust their news sources.  It’s prompted many news managers to assert their coverage is absolutely grounded in fact, rooted in the inherent bedrock of journalism and the larger audience’s problem stems from reading, watching and listening to other organizations who clearly, evidently don’t respect or even value news, truth, and fairness in the same high degree or standard.

But I haven’t read any one yet who has laid some of the blame on the audience.  What, blame the audience?  Are they the victims of poor reporting or to blame for failing to demand better?  What?  Wait!   Could not a compelling argument be offered that over the past 20 years the audiences have demanded less and worse, they have appeared to be satiated on a measly diet of incomplete news mush.

Audiences today seem to be divided in Foxes or Hedgehogs, those who find a web source and burrow down (foxes) or those who behave like hedgehogs nestling among many stories or sites picking up tidbits of information that they associativity relate into a  pastiche.

Whether that audience finds the right blend of news and facts and information seems irrelevant for they feel informed, and based on a wide array of bits of information they are as assertive as they believe themselves to be well self-informed.  But audience surveys show how poorly informed they truly are.  USC’s Annenberg School did a survey – both print and TV side by side – of the Los Angeles market and found “A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news. How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27″  The full document can be found as a link from there.

So what has gone wrong?  How do we dissect the road we took that has led to our own dismay and destruction as a trusted source of information and news?

TV News is an industry which became a playground for consultants invited by general managers and news directors in pursuit of dollars.  The professionals were often co-conspirators in the rush to expand audiences and achieve higher ad revenue as news became a business instead of a responsibility.

This slippery slope dates back generations.  In the 1970s consultant-inspired thinking gave life to happy talk and eyewitness news which were innovative at the time but became feeding grounds for wasted time, irrelevant comments, and ersatz displays of emotion.  In the 1980’s live trucks enabled reporters to use technology – some of which were over by the time the newscast began but by-God they had presence.  They were there LIVE and again precious air time was sacrificed for glitz.

Stories that were complex were deemed to be too difficult for TV or were said to be “too depressing” for the audience that might be watching at meal time, and the consequence is an entire generation was fed a buffet of crime and chaos.  The ‘if it bleeds it leads” style of news still predominates in  even the largest markets.

News is partially to blame for creating an audience which has been stuffed on the candy of irrelevance at the expense of substance.  A friend says television news doesn’t handle complex carbohydrates well and that’s true.  It doesn’t because anything serious or chewy is skipped over with the conviction that the audience either doesn’t care to be bothered with the facts or wouldn’t understand those complexities or the nuance.

Consultants told news managers the only things the audiences care about was weather and traffic, witness the boom in high dollar technology and promotions for super duper Doppler and accurate at all costs weather and traffic graphics that proliferate in all media markets today.

It is easier to watch weather… it is certainly easier for anchors to engage with banalities about the weather in lieu of risking showing ones true ignorance of substantial news matters.

I recently watched the NBC affiliate in San Jose take more than 30 seconds to announce and illustrate a set of 4 new stamps about cowboys on their evening news.  The fact that none of them stemmed from the bay area, the artist was a not local resident, nor was there any editorial linkage to the story that made it relevant was, in itself, irrelevant.  On any night when there is substantive news to report, the producers chose this story as more important, and it became the subsequent subject of an engaged dialogue between the anchors, as if 30 seconds wasted on the story itself wasn’t indulgent enough.

If the education system has done a poor job teaching civics it is a lesson that has not been lost on reporters who are assigned to important stories without the proper grounding.  Just before opening arguments in the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial in Santa Maria, California a reporter from the Los Angeles market asked me, “Which side goes first?”  They truly had no idea; clearly they had not even watched enough episodes of “Law and Order”.  It is a simple thing, and they should have known – but they didn’t – and the amount of other, missing information was daunting.  This was a person who would go on to report the trial, assumed to be some one with knowledge, and yet they were vastly out of their league reporting anything but a fender bender.  Or new stamps.

Should we be surprised that we have created a generation of idiots?  Hardly.  In entertainment this is an audience who watches programs such as “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  Why we set the bar so low, not even at the junior high school level, is probably because we have little conviction the adults in the audience would be competitive if the curriculum was more challenging.

News today is in an economic crisis.  Networks are closing their overseas bureaus preferring to simplify and voice over material from bases in London.  Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton warned of the consequences of this in his book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.  What was bad then (2005) as overseas bureaus were closed and reporters on the ground in distant lands were fired is being replicated today by ABC News in the United States.  One cannot cover news as if it is an exercise in distance learning.  Nothing can be substituted for feet on the ground, eyes on the scene local knowledge of the people and institutions making important decisions and creating news.

The point is this — when confronted by a survey that the audience doesn’t trust its sources of news is really not that unexpected.  Distressing to professional news people – yes, it should be.  Distressing to any one who cares about an educated public, yes!  it should be too.  But is it the fault of news, per se?  Partially of course.  The blame or responsibility for this is at the feet of a society which doesn’t really seem to value its news, or any one that gives lip service to news instead of really understanding and wanting to be taxed with serious substance, instead of the pabulum that has passed as news for so long?

There is blame for many – for education systems that don’t teach the value of news and information; for individuals who shun anything but infotainment, and then participate in surveys to say they don’t trust news.

It prompts me to wonder, just who do they trust?  Who do you trust?  Comment or email… let me know what you think?

Numbers Do Matter

News has become a playground for worsts and mosts and hyperbole.  News and TV generally from cable shows to even entertainment programs like Dr. Phil make everything black and white, regardless that we live our lives for the most part in the nuance of gray.  It’s not enough to be sad or sick, we want the people we see, read and hear about (and their stories) to be at death’s door.

Reporting numbers and speaking with experts is always challenging, after all, they, in theory, have knowledge that generalists and most journalists do not possess, but why is it that journalists so frequently fail to challenge their hyperbole?

During the weekend’s coverage of the Gulf oil spill one so-called expert from the Sierra Club spoke to NBC News with great emotion and absolute conviction that the spill was far larger than had previously been reported.  He gushed on suggesting the spill could in fact be 50,000 gallons, even 100,000 gallons a day!  Perhaps true, but he didn’t know, and he wasn’t challenged by the reporter who blithely accepted the assertion and proceeded on in the narration.  That’s a significant number and a wide discrepancy of perhaps up to 100%.  It’s OK not to know; it is OK to even speculate, but how about some context or qualification before numbers – any numbers – become misunderstood and the story misreported?

Geraldo (Rivera) on FOX News did it too, breathlessly interviewing guests from a busy Times Square intersection about what could of happened had the car bomb detonated.  Note the verb: could.  One guest, obviously pumped by the opportunity to appear on TV, burst forth that had a dirty bomb gone off “Times Square would be contaminated for anywhere from 50 to 100 years.”  Geraldo and the other guests solemnly but enthusiastically nodded approvingly accepting this assertion as sober evidence of absolute danger and impact.  The fact that the Times Square bomb was not dirty was never challenged while again, just speculating with the numbers between 50 and 100 leaves significant room for debate and discussion.

Speaking of numbers and expert’s assertions, look back at coverage from the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.  When covering that we heard experts say that the ocean and islands would remain scorched earth and that nothing would ever grow on those shores or under those waters again.  The reality, within 6 months nature started to return.

The point is simple, but it is beyond bad news sells.  Yes it does… and that’s news.  If you want just the good news you should confine yourself, for the most part, to the sports section, although even that has become more difficult in recent years due to scandals and bad behavior.

It is frustrating that contemporary reporting on the oil spill requires reporters to seek out experts who are prompted to say the sea is forever doomed and all creatures will inevitably die, choked by oil and cloaked in a gooey slime unlike any we have ever seen before.  The car bomb isn’t allowed to be a close call but becomes an incident that would surely have resulted in thousands of casualties and a forever blackened a New York landmark.

Each sentence is mired in half-truths and certainly assumptions run amok.  As a journalist I bristle at what I consider to be reckless reporting that appears to hype the story, feed the hysteria, and ultimately deceive the audience.  There are so many other examples – certainly politics and it doesn’t matter whether you favor the left or the right, the administration or the opposition, health care reform or tea parties – my point is that reporters who use numbers and hyperbole unchallenged and unqualified do not serve the public interest, do not serve their profession well, and do more harm to the public discourse.