Important events happen all the time, events the public needs to know about. Not too many years ago, the only way the public could know was through the press: first newspapers, then radio and television. The primary role of journalism was to report on what was happening, with an inside page or two devoted to offering informed opinions. In my youth, the Thursday weekly was our primary source of information about what was going on locally. As a young adult working on a career, I listened to the 6:00 a.m. radio news, read the morning and evening papers, and caught the evening television newscasts. Apart from rumors and phone calls, it was how I learned what was going on. Editorial views varied from one end of the spectrum to the other, but tended to gravitate toward the middle. Yellow journalism could be relied on to excite the masses – on occasion. Tabloids provided checkout counter entertainment to most, with a fringe of gullible true believers. Later on it was the NYT, WSJ, WP and CQ Weekly. All that has changed. News of what is going on comes unfiltered at lightning speed from a horde of reliable and unreliable sources. Journalism is not the same as it had been for nearly a century, and while the change has been building for several decades, it is this election cycle that has brought into focus.
The epicenter is Trump himself, and he is symbolic of the same thing going on with newsmakers everywhere else. During the very odd March 16 news conference he labeled the (mainline) media as the enemy of the people. He didn’t need it to report news about the president and his policies. He could do it himself, in his own words, direct to the people, without biased interpretation from journalists. And he has. He doesn’t have to answer hard questions if he doesn’t want to. He can be rude to reporters. Who cares? That’s what’s different. Journalists are no longer needed to inform the public about important events. Anybody with a computer, internet connection, and social media account can do it, and does it. So if journalists are not needed to inform the public about events as they have been accustomed to doing, what is their role?
At its base, it is to aggregate the available flow of information about events, paring it down to its essentials, and distributing it to an audience that may already know something, but not enough to be well informed. Being not simply informed, but well informed requires that aggregated information be examined, evaluated and verified. It can’t be easy. The instantaneous flow of unverified and intentionally distorted information that is easily fed into the world wide net requires constant vigilance from journalists who know their subjects so well they can enter the stream with solid reporting almost as fast as Trump can tweet, or his 400 hundred pound Russian sitting in a basement can type.
It means spending a great deal of time doing research and making connections in an environment where the old currency no longer has much value. What old currency? The small coins were demands about the public’s right to know. “If you don’t tell me, how will the public know, and the public has a right to know.” There’s a hollow threat these days. The big bills were congenial arrangements to make such and such known if so and so would be available for an interview. On the record? Off the record? Attributed or anonymous? We can work it out. Big newsmaker so and so doesn’t need that money anymore. So and so can get his or her message out whenever it’s convenient. When a Sunday talking head host discovered his high powered guest had nothing worthwhile to say, he asked the obvious question: Why are you here? The unstated answer was obvious. He was there to demonstrate that the administration does not need Sunday programs or big name papers to get their message out. They can appear and say nothing if they want to because the Sunday programs and big name papers are no longer important.
Are they no longer important? Not if investigative reporting remains a valid pursuit. What about the such and such that so and so does not want the public to know, or understand, but that is truly important for a well informed public to know and understand? It may be that big name newsmakers will weasel, obfuscate, or just sit there. Maybe they won’t show up at all. The programs and papers need to go on addressing the issues using the most qualified sources available, even if they are unknown outside their areas of expertise.
Well, so much for Sunday morning television and big name papers. What about the rest of traditional print media? It’s not a happy time out there in the newsrooms. Print subscriptions and related ad revenue are declining. Staff has been laid off. What can they do? The days of ‘Extra, Extra, Read All About It’ are long gone. The world already knows about it. What the world needs to know is what it means, how is it connected to other things, where will it lead? The world needs to know it as instantaneously as possible because verification and speed are the antidotes to rumor, intentional distortion, and propaganda. Print will never die, but the electronic version of it is not the future, it is the present! Moreover, what the public is so quickly made aware of tends toward the sensational and titillating. Truly important moments in the life of the world, or the local community, may be happening in obscure places or lack any titillating appeal, but skilled journalists scanning the horizon know differently, and it’s their job to tell us. It’s an expensive proposition. If ad revenues continue to be the primary source of financing it, I hope they can do better than the sleazy mix before us now. My toe fungus in fine, I can pee without assistance, I don’t need that medication, I’m not dating, and I don’t want to see the secret photos of Marilyn Monroe.
What about the rest of radio and television. What a mess! The greater part of it seems to be the electronic version of checkout tabloids, and a huge portion of the public eats it up. It’s cheap entertainment, not inexpensive, cheap. Competent journalism sneaks in here and there. The three broadcast networks do a decent job of digesting and capsulizing the day’s news each evening. The international 24 hour news channels do well. The domestic ones do when something really big happens, otherwise banality on a loop becomes the fodder that fills up the clock. One channel is up front about being a televised editorial page rather than a news outlet. Another pretends otherwise. Maybe competing for the largest mass audience is not what serious radio and t.v. should be doing. Maybe they should be aiming with intentionality at thought and opinion leaders. It’s their natural audience anyway, but I wonder if they too blithely assume it, not bothering to aim with intentionality? Who knows, aiming with intentionality could lead out into a broader audience.
OK, that’s it for now.