The Real Problem With the Media
This summer, a co-worker at The New Republic posed a worthwhile question: what would have filled the newspapers for the last seven months if it had not been for Monica? One story-in-waiting, certainly, is the set of fiascoes and firings that marked journalism this past summer, from The Boston Globe to The Cincinnati Enquirer, from Peter Arnett to Stephen Glass. Every few weeks, another newspaper or magazine made news itself, usually for printing as fact stories that did not happen.
But while the discovery of fiction in several national publications is pretty unusual, we should not look at those disparate troubles as the symptoms of a more widespread disease in today's newsrooms--a few bad apples don't necessarily tell us much about the rest of the bunch. The real scandal, at least as far as journalism is concerned, was the very thing that kept those troubles in several newspapers and magazines from attracting more attention: the press's painful over-coverage of the great presidential pitfall. And that over-coverage was made possible by a substantial threat to journalism: the changing way that we get our news.
Alone, the summers fiascoes follow no real pattern. In May, The New Republic fired Stephen Glass, a writer whose unusual talent for reporting all-too-perfect anecdotes came from the fact that they were too perfect: he made up at least parts of 27 different articles, sometimes inventing the stories wholesale. In the course of the summer, the Boston Globe forced the resignations of Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle for similar (if somewhat less marked) fictional tendencies. Even Time and CNN got on the bandwagon. In a joint project, the two media giants (and veteran reporter Peter Arnett in particular) alleged that American troops used nerve gas in Laos in 1970 despite the report's meager sourcing and despite the strong objections of many who knew what actually happened.
The fact that much of this happened in the span of a few months makes it quite tempting to deem these troubles the signs of some larger problem in journalism. For conservative media critics, the answer is (surprise, surprise) the shortcomings of the liberal media: "Because of their institutional liberalism," Joseph Perkins writes of The New Republic and The Boston Globe, "it didn't occur to them...that their talented young liberal writers were producing fiction." Never mind the fact that Glass was more libertarian than liberal and that his fabrications targeted politicos of all stripes--even Perkins wouldn't want facts to get in the way of his preconceptions.
Pundits may try to weave Glass, Smith, Arnett and Barnicle into a nice, tight problem in today's media, but in truth, the summer's most critical journalistic scandal has little to do with fabricated articles, however egregious those fabrications were. The real forces that push journalism toward fiction are the changes in the way that people get their news. With the rise of Internet and 24-hour news channels, the news cycle has irreversibly changed, putting a high premium on a network or newspaper's turnaround time--the idea is to get out a report or a commentary as quickly as possible.
In an effort to attract customers, news services are making more effective use of the various mediums of communication, coupling TV shows with books, magazines, and movies: witness Time's collaboration with CNN, the ever-growing mention of the Internet on TV shows or the recent AT&T/TCI merger. "The idea," a New York Times editorial asserts, "has always been that various divisions of Viacom or AT&T/TCI or News Corporation would work together to promote one another's product."
In the past few years, then, the ever-present temptation toward sensationalistic news has taken on a new twist. Collaboration across various types of media (often known as "synergy") gives readers and viewers unprecedented access to information, but it also blurs the distinction between news and entertainment. The strict mores of the newsroom butt heads against the need to attract viewers and then to sell them the related products, regardless of whether they are fact or fiction.
In terms of the fiascoes, synergy does not help us understand all that much. Synergy might have created a climate where Steve Glass could thrive, but it did not force him to lie again and again. Synergy is not even the critical factor behind CNN's botched Tailwind tale, though the fact that the story was both aired on CNN and reported in Time did magnify the damage. Still, the idea of synergy does help to explain the insanity that is the media's coverage of Zippergate. As Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry noted, "the press has but one speed on this story and it's fast forward with too few editors who press the pause button." In a realm where the impatient reader can download the relevant information (say, the Starr report) within minutes of its release, the multimedia corporations live and die based on whether they can attract consumers quickly and refer them to the other resources and media outlets they own.
Ironically, as the drive for profit through multimedia becomes more of a force in newsrooms, the press's failings start to mirror our whims as viewers and readers. Since we want entertainment and excitement, we tend towards channels and papers that do the best job of giving us the dirt. Sure, we're somewhat appalled by the fact that our newspapers have become R-rated. But part of us wants to know the low-down, so we keep reading, and we keep buying the papers that do the best job of dishing it out. In essence, we give synergy its energy.
The over-saturation of Zippergate stories might seem another example of what is wrong with the media elite, a group that (as conventional wisdom would have it) is too insulated from mainstream opinion. While the nation cries out for an end to the madness, the media keeps running front page stories about the scandal's ins and outs. As the media adapts to the changing ways we get our news, though, the all-important editorial independence from business concerns gets harder and more costly to sustain. So if providing us with the gossip and entertainment we like is increasingly the goal of our news providers, perhaps the standard gripes against the media elite are wrong. Maybe the media needs to be more insulated from mainstream pressures.
Daniel J. Hopkins '00 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.