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Low quality of today’s big media still surprises



How many times can we be astonished by the same phenomenon? How often should our jaws drop before we resolutely clench our teeth, hunker down and come to terms with basic media dynamics that keep emerging?

Understandably, many people are appalled by the low quality of news media – and TV news in particular – at historic moments. That’s what happened the other day when the Supreme Court handed down a decision that infringes on a citizen’s right to vote. In effect, the high court ruled that a state has a right to insist on unreasonable requirements for voter identification at the polls – and, with some exceptions, the media coverage largely treated the news as a oneday story.

The online media-criticism Web site MediaBloodHound took a major network to task for its response to the portentous judicial action on April 28. The watchdog site provided a righteous howl the next day.

MediaBloodHound told readers that NBC Nightly News – the flagship program anchored by Brian Williams – allotted 80 seconds to last week’s momentous Supreme Court ruling that there’s nothing unconstitutional with Indiana’s law requiring a photo ID to vote. Meanwhile, during the same broadcast, it spent over two minutes on the concern caused by photos of teen star Miley Cyrus in Vanity Fair.

That kind of disparity between media attention and story importance is a frequent source of annoyance – or outrage – among many Americans who want something more than they’re getting from major media outlets. The appropriate reverence that many people have for the principles of a “free press” have been conflated with the freedom of corporations to dominate the daily information spectrum according to standards that undermine democratic possibilities.

It’s a precept of medical ethics that patients must not undergo experimentation without their timely and informed consent. There should be some kind of analogous precept for journalistic ethics in a society that’s striving for democracy. Shouldn’t we have ready access to timely news that informs the public rather than – through omission or manipulation – distracting or bamboozling the public?

If this sounds like an old complaint, it is. And the shock that keeps coming around might, by now, be wearing a little thin. If something keeps happening, year after year and decade after decade, how shocked can or should we really be?

Frankly, I’m getting a little shocked by all the shock.

Where have we been all this time? Often, I fear, we like to think that the media machinery has gotten worse when actually the change is more that we’ve awoken from customary slumber (which is periodically apt to happen).

Those who point out a longstanding pattern may be called “cynical.” But, whatever we call it, the capacity to see the big picture is probably a prerequisite to being able to change it.

Celebrity news – usually to provide and free of the complications of actual journalism – is very attractive to network programmers. A common rationale is that it’s just a matter of giving viewers what they want. But the maverick TV journalist Linda Ellerbee had it right when she said two decades ago: “That is the biggest fallacy in our business. That’s the argument that people on our side use to put dreck on the air.”

Ellerbee added: “The American public didn’t ask for trash television. They’ll watch it the same way we go out and watch a fire. It’s not all they want.”

In fairness, the advent of cable television has widened the choices for viewers. But the overwhelming bulk of the material that pours through the channels is heavy on the superficial. In real time, we live as history is being made – but the incidental gets so inflated in media importance that we easily lose track of what’s important. You might say that’s a journalistic failure of historic proportions.

©2008 Creators Syndicate

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