If you are hungry for a dose of irony, consider the following term: Turning Point.
It is a great favorite of the pontificators. Stalingrad was the Turning Point of the war in the East. Gettysburg marked the Turning Point of the Civil War. Etc.
The irony comes from two sources: 1) Turning Points are invisible to the participants, and, 2) They are logically equivalent to nadirs.
Events, like the tides, do not occur in smooth transitions. Waves of circumstance slam and recede, slam and recede. At the time, it is usually impossible to distinguish one wave from all the others. It is only later that someone can look back and say, Ah, this one was the peak.
More importantly, the very idea of a Turning Point implies that things have been moving all one way and then change. Therefore if you happen to be standing in the way of events, the Turning Point marks the spot where things got as bad as they were ever going to get: the Nadir.
There are certain areas where I fondly would like to believe things have gotten as bad as they are going to get. One of them is the Media.
During the Vietnam War someone suggested that the only possible solution was for us to declare victory and go home. Insofar as the media go, I have somewhat the same notion now. Why not just declare this moment a Turning Point and see if things begin to improve?
This notion does not just float on air. I think there are very solid reasons to believe the current sorry condition of the Fourth Estate is a temporary anomaly, based on a reaction to the impact of a technical revolution in their world.
The introduction of cable television and CNN driven, twenty-four hour a day news has increased the appetite of the media by at least an order of magnitude in a very short time. Everything else has been subordinated to a sudden need to fill (or compete with) a vast amount of twenty-four hour a day, up to the minute, up to this very second news. Some insiders now refer to their jobs as “Feeding the Monster.”
The effect of this has been uniformly disastrous on the standards of journalism. The insistent requirement for vast amounts of “information” and the instant equality of access (CNN has as much access as MSNBC has as much access as the networks has as much access as talk radio, etc…) has served as a great leveler. What used to be the best news organizations have been reduced to the same level as the worst.
Having asserted my theory of the of the problem’s cause, let us, with apologies to Dave Letterman, look at the effects: Here is my list of the ten worst vices of today’s journalism:
1) Talking Heads. If you put on two “experts” your moderator does not have to take the time to research the subject. In fact, it is better if the moderator doesn’t. Else the moderator might be tempted to challenge the blatantly skewed presentations that politicians and other mavins love to present. This might frighten the guests and endanger journalism’s most prized commodity: Access.
2) Elitist Condescension. Used to be, the press were ink-stained scribblers, inherently opposed to the Establishment. Today, the news media have been bloated to over-paid stars, certified members of the elite. They go to the same parties, share the same priorities, embrace the same values and have the same contempt for those not in the same club. They no longer respect nor share the concerns of their audience. Not for them the worries about health costs or child care. Instead, they are obsessed with the insider scandals and the gossipy sensationalism that betray the narcissism of a closeted aristocracy.
3) The Public Interest. If the public is interested, they have a “right” to know. There are no standards of privacy or decency that can be allowed to stand between the media and their ratings.
Says who? There is no law that says that curiosity automatically creates a “right.”
4) The Sound Bite. If an issue cannot be skewered on a three second sound bite, it is too complicated and boring for our audience. One could make a pretty fair thesis that the media are working hard to reduce the attention span of their audience.
5) It Ain’t News. If it ain’t got good visuals, it ain’t news. (Television only. Radio equivalent is, If it ain’t got a good sound bite, it ain’t news.). Since serious issues have lousy visuals and can’t be covered in a sound bite, they are not treated as newsworthy.
6) We’re Not Responsible. This one has two parts: A) If the competition is reporting it, it must be newsworthy. This implies that if the competition (which now includes the tabloids) has already put it out, they are justified in repeating it, no matter how fallacious or salacious. B) Whenever challenged, they say that they merely follow and respond to public taste. They don’t set it. At the very same time these very same people are soliciting advertising on the basis of their medium’s ability to influence public taste.
7) Unbalanced “balance.” If we put two sides on, we are doing “balanced” reporting, even when two equally valid opposing points of view do not exist. Putting on an historian of the Holocaust and a Holocaust denier is “balance.” Putting on a mainstream specialist on global warming along with some marginal moron (with a PhD) who denies there is any such thing is “balance.” Raising the fringes to appear equal to the middle is the very essence of IM-balance.
8) Attack Of The Ghouls. Victims of any tragedy, from hurricanes to floods to mass slaughter now have to have contingency plans on how to cope with hordes of unfeeling, ravenous barbarians with mini-cams and TV spots to fill. After the Jonesboro school slaughter, officials were forced to assign police to prevent the press from harassing the survivors.
9) ”Gotcha” Journalism. Take a deconstructionist bias and add a dash of Watergate envy and you get a press obsessed with finding dirty laundry and tearing down popular idols. White House press conferences of late have concentrated on rumors of scandal and ignored the following trivial issues: Kofi Annan’s success in negotiating with Iraq to avoid war, welfare reform, the Asian economic crisis, the international treaty on land mines, etc. Why bother with the boring stuff? Scandal is so much more helpful to one’s career.
10) The Real Story. It is fascinating and frightening how the media, almost without exception, are ignoring the real story behind all the other stories: The corruption of the Fourth Estate in our time. For some reason the media, who have been roundly chastised for just these flaws, just cannot see them. In the phrase of our day, they just don’t get it.
In their defense, the media movers and shakers point to their ratings. These prove, they say, that there is a public desire for what they produce. The existence of the public’s desire justifies their satisfaction of that need.
There is a public market for “snuff” films, child pornography and the like. There would probably be one heck of an audience for showing public executions. Our society rejects those choices and says that the mere fact of the public’s interest does not justify them
The question is not whether there will be lines of good taste drawn, but where. Recent days have seen a drastic movement of the lines of good taste in the public media. I think it is to our loss that it is so.
I would like to think that this is a temporary phenomenon. I would like to think that public disgust and their own consciences would lead to a return to decent journalism That future historians will see this period as an anomaly, an aberration created by the need for the media to react to having their world being turned upside down by technology.
A Turning Point.