Thursday, April 14

A Fair And Balanced Futurama

Rupert Murdock's speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

I don't think it's thought-provoking quite in the way intended.

What is happening is, in short, a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They don't want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They don't want to rely on a God-like figure from above to tell them what's important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don't want news presented as gospel.

Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle. Think about how blogs and message boards revealed that Kryptonite bicycle locks were vulnerable to a Bic pen. Or the Swiftboat incident. Or the swift departure of Dan Rather from CBS. One commentator, Jeff Jarvis, puts it this way: give the people control of media, they will use it. Don't give people control of media, and you will lose them.

Now, first of all, this has a distinct air of "Times Style section declares Olsen twins fashion icons". There are only two things I know about trends among the young: 1) I don't know anything and 2) most of it is determined by what gets sold to them, not what they demand. And we are certainly living in an age where nearly every trend is despised by a large segment of the public almost as soon as it's embraced by another. "The swift departure of Dan Rather" or the "Swiftboat incident", whatever he meant by that, don't qualify as some utopian "people controlling their media" in any objective sense. Those are stories whose import is due to their having run in the mainstream, traditional media, not because they were on somebody's blog. Bob Somerby catches hundreds of stories like that, but none of those are ever cited as examples of "New Media", because they don't run on the "Old Media".

...we sensed ten years ago that people watching television news felt alienated by the monolithic presentation of the news they were getting from the nightly news broadcasts or cable networks. We sensed that there was another way we could deliver that news objectively, fairly, and faster-paced. And the result was the Fox News Channel, today America's number one cable news network.

Stifling the gag reflex, Murdock sensed ten years ago something which dated to the Nixon administration. He had enough money to take advantage of the end of the Fairness Doctrine and the public monopoly of the cable companies, and the moral code required to trash the very notion of balance and objectivity. That's no more heroic or insightful than bringing out a new flavor of soft drink. We are talking here of consumers "controlling their media" in the same way we talk about FAUX being fair and balanced.

What I worry about much more is our ability to make the necessary cultural changes to meet the new demands. I said earlier, what is required is a complete transformation of the way we think about our product. Unfortunately, however, I believe too many of us editors and reporters are out of touch with our readers. Too often, the question we ask is "Do we have the story?" rather than "Does anyone want the story?"

Is this why newspapers are in such dire straits? Because people don't want their stories? Why, a generation ago, did four out of five people read the newspaper, and so few want it now? Could the tabloidization of the news have anything to do with it? Hasn't the thirty-year slide into All Michael Jackson All The Time been defended as "giving people what they want?" But the fact is that change came about because media outlets, especially television, chose to trivialize their reporting in response to attacks from the right. Had they held to standards of real reporting, instead of sheltering behind Happy Talk and slick graphics, maybe a solid majority would now respect journalism. Pandering, slanting, and trivializing the news seems to have had the opposite effect. Is the ability to get that crap on your cell phone going to change that?


Anonymous said...

I like the continued use of the phrase, "We sensed" in the second quote.

Oooh - that Murdock! He's got otherworldly powers!

I can hear the horrified, hushed tones now: I see dead liberals!

Anonymous said...

Here's a link from Bookslut today about 2 books on the decline of newspapers:

Click here

My newspaper-with-breakfast habit is too strong to break. Laptop-with-breakfast just doesn't cut it.