Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fit to Print?

Is the survival of the "serious news business" a sustainability issue? By serious news business, I mean the kind of in-depth, worldwide reporting outfit once taken for granted but that is now—in the US especially—an endangered species. In print especially: the New York Times and Washington Post are moribund, both having slashed their staffs and bureaus. Once-indispensible Newsweek was recently unload for one Yankee dollar.

On TV, the situation is in some ways more dire. A short while ago, my brother was visiting from England and wanted to watch "the news." It was 8:30 pm, and there was no news to be had. On every "news channel"—MSNBC, CNN, Fox, and even CNN Headline News—there was a talking head, the TV equivalent of the bloviating news blogger, with entertainment gossip or sports scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

TV news as it is consumed in England doesn't really exist in the US anymore. There is no 24 hour reportage of world events on American TV, no equivalent of BBC24 or, dare I say, Al Jazeera. America's 24-hour news outfits tend to focus on just a few "sexy" domestic political events, which sooner or later are turned into a horse-race-for-the-presidency story. The traditional 6:30 pm newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC are so obviously skewed to an aging audience that if I can't stand to watch them, why would a 21-year-old!

I suggested my brother go online—to the huffingtonpost, for instance—but there again, the narratives drive toward comment, not in-depth reporting, and gossip, not hard news. There are bright spots: NPR is a growing concern and does a decent job of worldwide news gathering and investigation with its limited resources and somewhat limiting medium. And let's not forget how American filmmakers have revived both the arts of documentary making and muckraking, led by the indomitable Michael Moore!

Many social, political, and cultural movements suffer from the parallel downward spirals of shrinking news bureaus, increasingly soft-edged reporters, marginalization of investigative reporters (did I mention Michael Moore), proliferation of partisan commentators, and infotainment. But consider how deleterious this death spiral is to the national conversations that surround the Four Pillars of Sustainability, serious conversations that can only take place with serious amounts of research and reporting ...

• Ecological Sustainability—Climate Change is real, is happening, and needs solutions, although the climate change story that gained the most traction recently was the one about UEA climate scientists' supposedly damning internal e-mails.
• Social Sustainability—The media has always played a crucial role as watchdog to monitor the progress of human rights, labor rights, and corporate governance, but how well is it doing when it comes to the national conversation about US immigration reform?
• Economic Sustainability—The sub-prime mortgage disaster was also a disaster for the media. They got to the story after the fact, and, thanks to news units' financial wings, actually contributed to the mess.
• Cultural Sustainability—The genius of the First Amendment of the US Constitution was that it deliberately recognized the growing power of the media and found a place for it within a democratic republic. Thus the media became a vital part of American culture, both political and social—but what happens now that the media is devolving back into partisan soapboxes, entertainment rags, and sports pages?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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