Sunday, January 29, 2006

Koppel's Crusade

Red Ted
In his first week as Frank Rich's stand in at the Times, Ted Koppel laments the decline of television news and the rise of what he calls "boutique journalism" -- news that is tailored to suit advertising's most profitable demographic.

The increased sensationalism and subjectivity of the news (think Fox News Channel) is not about bias but bean counting, Koppel writes. "The accusation that television news has a political agenda misses the point... It is not partisanship but profitability that shapes what you see."

He continues:
Most particularly on cable news, a calculated subjectivity has, indeed, displaced the old-fashioned goal of conveying the news dispassionately. But that, too, has less to do with partisan politics than simple capitalism. . .

Even Fox News's product has less to do with ideology and more to do with changing business models. Fox has succeeded financially because it tapped into a deep, rich vein of unfulfilled yearning among conservative American television viewers, but it created programming to satisfy the market, not the other way around. CNN, meanwhile, finds itself largely outmaneuvered, unwilling to accept the label of liberal alternative, experimenting instead with a form of journalism that stresses empathy over detachment.

Koppel repeats Nicholas Lemann's argument, made in last week's New Yorker, that the nostalgia for an era of harder-hitting broadcast news was not due to a lost generation of aggressive broadcasters like Edward Murrow, but because the regulatory environment 30-40 years hence forced broadcasters to better serve their public.

This era of journalism, writes Koppel, "was in the days before deregulation, when the Federal Communications Commission was still perceived to have teeth, and its mandate that broadcasters operate in 'the public interest, convenience and necessity' was enough to give each licensee pause."

"He should also have said that it was the lobbying done by his own network bosses -- unreported by him and his TV news colleagues -- which directly led to the FCC's abandonment of encouraging the public interest," counters Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "The FCC's raised eyebrow only occasionally contributed to a more responsive TV news environment."

Koppels' right on one score though. In the last twenty years -- with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine and the reluctance of a corporate-friendly FCC's to hold broadcasters to account -- we've seen an explosion of bottom-feeding, bottom-line news.

In most cases this market driven info-product devolves quickly to the type of news twaddle that has sent many a serious journalist packing.

An example, as media analyst Andrew Tyndall noted in his survey of news stories from election year 2004, is the abundance of celebrity news against the relative scarcity of news that Americans say, in poll after poll, matters to them most. According to Tyndall, broadcast and cable news stories about Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson in 2004 far exceeded time newscasts devoted to presidential candidates' stances on the economy, health care and the war on terror.

In the public debate, this crisis in journalism is explicitly tied to the dangers of consolidating media ownership and the corruption of regulators by Big Media. Ultimately, the question must be asked: Does a commercially-driven media even have the ability to serve the needs of a self governing population?

"Indeed, in television news these days, the programs are being shaped to attract, most particularly, 18-to-34-year-old viewers," writes Koppel in the Times. "They, in turn, are presumed to be partly brain-dead — though not so insensible as to be unmoved by the blandishments of sponsors."

Think what happens to these same viewers when it comes time to vote, and the fact that less than half of them (41.9 percent of those who were registered in 2004) even bothered becomes horrifyingly real.

It's a vicious circle. The cheerleading news coverage of the war in Iraq, both before and during the conflict, has also led to widespread public disaffection. Post-election discoveries of pundits that received lucrative, undisclosed contracts from the Bush Administration to push unpopular policies further undermined American confidence in the fourth estate. A lack of confidence and engagement in the media further distances Americans from the political process. No public voice in politics allows corporations to run ram shod over our legislative process.

The exposure of economic influence on the reporting of major newsrooms – as detailed by Koppel in today’s New York Times – delivers not just a near fatal blow to the credibility of our "free press" but also to the future propsects of a participatory democracy.