Journalism in crisis

Sometimes when you begin the belated business of de-cluttering, you find something precious. Much of the other files contained the trite and trivial along with boring ministerial statements and these were binned for they were no longer relevant.

But within one I discovered some pearls I had put aside for 20 years. They represented some enduring truths about the decline  of journalism; the rise of   the celebrity culture, along with persistent complaints from viewers about television’s excessive  commercialism.  Many of the writers’ insights are worth  reading even in the rapidly changing world of  media, my specialty for a decade or so. So let’s start with one of the giants of US journalism.

In 1904 Joseph Pulitzer was an American newspaper publisher whose Pulitzer  Prize was founded in 1917. The prizes are still given annually to recognise and reward excellence in American journalism, photography, literature, history, poetry, music and drama. Much earlier (in 1904) he wrote about his vision and the role of journalists:

“ …the journalist holds officials to their  duty.  He exposes secret schemes of plunder.  Our  Republic and its press will rise or fall together.  An able, disinterested public-spirited press with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government  is a sham and mockery.  A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to  mould the  future of the Republic will be in the hands  of the journalists of future  generations.  (Source: The College of Journalism, May  1904).

He’d be disappointed today with rise of giant media conglomerates while thousands of American journalists have been made redundant. In Washington media openly describes the present White House administration as being ‘a culture of criminality’. In turn, media outlets like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News represent the far right of the Fourth Estate. Media have, like the US, become  openly partisan.

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Fast forward 94 years. Robert McChesney, associate Professor of Journalism and mass communicationsat Wisconsin University spent a week here. He said  he was ‘horrified’ by the amount of advertising on our television screens. McChesney warned the commercialisation does not encourage the kind of free, comprehensive, stimulating exchange of information that public television ideally offers and which is provided only by National Radio.

“Commercialisation does not want a public that thinks, debates, questions, questions and makes up its own mind, it simply wants a public that consumes”  he told the newsletter  Issues, the  journal  of Friends of New Zealand Broadcasting.

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And from  the magazine Quill comes the call for building ‘a new house for journalism ethics’ It’s by Jay Rosen, associate Professor at New York University and Director  of the project on Public Life and  the Press. It’s more esoteric than other views, but it also calls for a wider perspective of the industry.  He writes:  …the deepest ethic for which journalism stands, is not a tenet of journalism, but of enlightened humanity’.

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The next  filing is a clipping from the  Australian newspaper on June 13 1992. Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) pointed out the failings of American media a generation after he and  fellow reporter  Bob Woodward broke Watergate  story 20 years earlier.   He’s not one for pulling punches and  he wrote:

‘ Increasingly the  United States rendered today in the American media is illusionary and  delusionary – disfigured,   unreal, disconnected from the true context of our lives. In covering  American life, the media  – weekly, daily,  hourly  – break new ground  in getting it wrong.  The coverage is distorted  by celebrity  and the worship of celebrity, by the reduction of  gossip which is the lowest form of news; by sensationalism, which is always a turning  away from society’s real condition;  and by a political and  social  discourse – that we, the press, the media  the politicians and the people – are turning into  a sewer’.

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Eeew…. We’ve always known we  the editorial  grunts of another generation were often proud down in  the gutter,  but  not down. That may  have been one step  away from the sewer, but it was easy to find  the muck of  the powerful – hence our  label of muckrakers. Anyway here’s what  the late George Gerbner, the  founder of the  Annenburg School of Communcations at the University of  Pennsylvania,  wrote  about  television,  which he described as a modern day religion.

‘… it presents a coherent vision of the world And this vision he said, is violent, mean, repressive, dangerous – and inaccurate.. Television is  the toxic by-product of  market forces run amok…it has the capacity to be a culturally enriching force, but Gerbner warned,  that  today (1997)  it breeds what fear and resentment mixed with economic frustration can lead to – the undermining of democracy’.  (Reprinted  from the Atlantic Monthly in  Spotlight, May 1997).

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Free marketeers are fond of proclaiming: “Let the People decide”.  But do  people really “ decide” when, over time, hungry media oligopolies arise and come to dominate the choices offered? In such a context “ viewer  freedom” becomes a diminished thing” ( Howard Stringer, President of the US network CBS  the 1990 address at the Fleming  Memorial lecture – Free  Market Fairy Tales and the Pursuit of Quality  Television).

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And  finally a view from  the great journalist  Bill Moyers:

Journalism has been driven down the hierarchy of  values in the huge conglomerates that dominate what we see,  read and hear. And to feed the profit margins, journalism has been directed to priorities other than “the news we need to know to keep our freedoms.” One study reports that in 55 markets in 35 states, local news was dominated by crime and violence, triviality and celebrity. 

‘From 1977 to 1997, the number of stories about government dropped from one in three to one in five, while the number of stories about celebrities rose  from one in 50 stories to one in every 14. Out across the country there’s a virtual  blackout of local public affairs.’ (Alternet.org, September  18, 2004)

So what to make of an old box file and the aspirations of the past. In the last few year the arrival of digital attracted advertising – the commercial oxygen of print and free-to-air TV. In 1992, National removed all ownership restrictions, leaving the way open for a fire sale of media outlets. And then along came the Internet whose promise was debased by social media which has become anything but social. One final nail in the coffin: advertising. Somewhere in this mix lies the potential for public television when and if it ever arrives.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.