Monday, January 17, 2005

MSM stuck in the "Slough of Despond"

In today's New York Times, William Safire delivers a pep rally to the mainstream news media.

America's quality media are now wading through the Slough of Despond. Our self-flagellation, handwringing and narcissism threaten our mission to act as counterweight to government power.

Hear the wailing: The bloggers are coming! The Bible-thumpers are cursing our secular inhumanism! The plumber judges are plugging our leaks! The Yahoo president ducks our questions and giggles at our gaffes! News is slyly slanted as bias rears its head!

Cheer up. Despite the recent lapses at CBS and previous mishaps at The Times and USA Today, here's why mainstream journalism has a future.

I think it's a little self-important of Safire to proclaim that the "mission" of the news media is to "act as a counterweight to government power." (Besides, everyone knows that the news media only takes on this mission under Republican administrations.) But I think there is some good stuff here. In his column, Safire outlines five reasons the MSM should stop worrying and learn to love the new media revolution. For example:

1. On the challenge from bloggers: The "platform" - print, TV, Internet, telepathy, whatever - will change, but the public hunger for reliable information will grow. Blogs will compete with op-ed columns for "views you can use," and the best will morph out of the pajama game to deliver serious analysis and fresh information, someday prospering with ads and subscriptions. The prospect of profit will bring bloggers in from the meanstream to the mainstream center of comment and local news coverage.

On national or global events, however, the news consumer needs trained reporters on the scene to transmit facts and trustworthy editors to judge significance. In crises, large media gathering-places are needed to respond to a need for national community.

Item #2 contains some good advice as well. (Not that they'll take it.)

2. On resentment of media elitism by awakened cultural and religious voices: They're not crazies. Their opinions on stem cells and same-sex marriage are newsworthy and not an assault on church-state separation. Protests at "wardrobe malfunction" and campaigns against state-sponsored gambling are neither bluenosed nor repressive.

But there is no need for sensible seculars in mainstream media to feel an urgent call to get right with religion. It's O.K. to say "Merry Christmas" at the end of a newscast without worrying about equal greeting for Ramadan and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and all the rest.

Certainly our mainstream news outlets are in desperate need of reform. But the MSM will not benefit from the revitalizing force of fresh faces issuing forth from the hallowed halls of J-school,* because all you'll get is younger versions of the same old biased reporters.

What the news media needs isn't more graduates who have studied journalism. It needs graduates who have varying fields of study and who, incidentally, can deliver news and analysis from an informed viewpoint. Schools of journalism should insist that all their graduates be double-majors. Or at the very least, that journalism should be kept to minor studies only.

Part of the problem is that journalists, particularly at the entry level, must cover everything from international politics to the local community "doll and pet parade." Their knowledge must be a mile wide, but it is typically an inch deep. As a result, bluster and uninformed bias creep in to replace the insight that comes from having more than just a Cliff's Notes familiarity with the subject matter.

For example, I doubt many journalists even understood the allusion to Pilgrim's Progress in Safire's opening and closing sentences. In fact, it seems Safire himself may not have quite understood what he was saying when he closes:

Get out of that Slough, counsels Worldly-Wiseman: Pulitzer-quality journalism lies just ahead.

Surely Safire understands that in Pilgrim's Progress, the counsel of Worldly Wiseman leads the protagonist astray, seeking other poor counselors to relieve his burden instead of entering by the narrow gate.

(Or maybe he does understand and this is a sarcastic swipe at the MSM.)

(Nah, that can't be.)

*Sorry about the alliteration there. I overdid it.


At 8:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, is part of the mainstream media, or is it just a really big and well-done blog?


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