Last week I just happened to read a piece of media criticism by James Fallows that was published in The Atlantic in February, 1996. It didn’t surprise me to see that very, very little has changed.
Here’s Fallows, writing about 1995:
In January of last year there was a chance to see how well the lesson had sunk in. In the days just before and after Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union address to the new Republican-controlled Congress, he answered questions in a wide variety of forums in order to explain his plans.
On January 31, a week after the speech, the President flew to Boston and took questions from a group of teenagers. Their questions concerned the effects of legislation or government programs on their communities or schools.
Earlier in the month the President’s performance had been assessed by the three network-news anchors: Peter Jennings, of ABC; Dan Rather, of CBS; and Tom Brokaw, of NBC. There was no overlap whatsoever between the questions the students asked and those raised by the anchors. None of the questions from these news professionals concerned the impact of legislation or politics on people’s lives. Nearly all concerned the struggle for individual advancement among candidates.
Today, President Obama answered questions posted on Twitter. The Boston Globe compared the topics of questions put to the President on Twitter to those asked by the White House press corps over the past two weeks. Two percent of the questions asked on Twitter were about negotiations with Congress, compared to 24% of the questions asked by the pro journalists.
I think the good news, though, is that when it comes to getting information about how government policies affect people’s lives, we have a lot more alternative outlets today than we did in 1996. Sure, we have several terrible 24 hour cable news networks that devote more hours than ever to horse race coverage of what’s going on in Washington, DC, but we also have plenty of online outlets that dig deep into the actual results of government policy. That’s a big improvement.
By the way, you should read the article mentioned above, Why Americans Hate the Media. It’s completely relevant and interesting. The footage from the Ethics in America television show mentioned in the article is available on YouTube.
The increasingly compromised position of journalists
In today’s New York Times, David Carr writes about the subjects of articles demanding to review their quotations before they are published. Needless to say, this practice is corrosive to the practice of legitimate journalism, which is about reporting on things that public figures would not openly tell you on their own.
I think it’s interesting to look at why this is taking place. Not only is the democratization of the media hurting news reporting as a business, but it’s also reducing the value of the media as an interface between public figures and the public. At one time, if public figures wanted to disseminate a message, they had to talk to reporters with the hope that the reporter would convey their message in the way they intended.
That’s no longer necessary. A celebrity, politician, or business leader can publish a tweet, or a tweet that links to a blog post, or a video on YouTube. Those, in turn, will be shared by everyone who cares about them. The idea of making an announcement by giving a reporter an exclusive interview is almost completely dead.
The power to reach the public directly gives public figures the power to dictate the terms of their relationships with reporters. The other side of this story is the increased reliance on anonymous sources in reporting. In the modern age, if you’re going to speak publicly, you may as well just deliver the news yourself. Talking to journalists is what you do if you want to deliver news without having to give your name.
I don’t see this relationship between the media and sources changing anytime soon, so it’s up to us to take this changing relationship into account as media consumers. One thing’s for sure — it’s not a great time to be a journalist.