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The Relentless Decline of the News

NBC News, if that’s what it is or can still be called, devotes a substantial amount of resources to stories on opinion polls. Its website boasts five such reports between July 11 and 13, 2012. Their subjects range from American confidence in organized religion and “wealthy friendly” attitudes to a growing anti-bailout mood in Finland.

Not surprisingly, the former home of John Chancellor, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley reported nary a word about a July 11 Gallup Poll that showed American confidence in television news, like that in religion, has plummeted to unprecedented depths.

“Americans’ confidence in television news is at a new low by 1 percentage point, with 21 percent of adults expressing a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in it,” the Gallup report begins. The figure has hovered in the 21- to 23-percent range since 2007.

The poll, an annual opinion survey on 16 American institutions, was conducted June 7-10. Television news ranked 11th, one spot below newspapers, whose public confidence levels have followed downward trends similar to TV’s.

In 1979, more than half of Americans – 51 percent – had a “great deal” or “a lot of” confidence in newspapers. The figure is now less than half that at 25 percent, though this year’s figure is not an all-time low. That benchmark was reached in 2007 at 22 percent.

In 1993, the first time Gallup added television news to the poll’s institutions list, 46 percent said they had a great deal/quite a lot of confidence in it. This year’s results are six points lower than last year’s 27 percent.

The Gallup data are but the latest indication of how low the mainstream media have sunk.

A 1999 poll by the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Pew Research Center, for example, found:

* 21 percent of the public thought the press cared about people, down from 48 percent in 1985;

* 58 percent respected the media’s watchdog role, down from 67 percent in 1985; and

* 45 percent thought the press protected democracy, down from 55 percent in 1985.

In their landmark 2001 book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explained why a group of journalism editors, educators and authors gathered for the 1997 meeting that spawned the concerned journalists committee.

“They barely recognized what they considered journalism in much of the work of their colleagues,” they wrote. “Instead of serving a larger public interest, they feared, their profession was damaging it.”

***

Gallup noted that the 2012 poll was taken before CNN and FOX News blew their coverage of the Supreme Court decision on President Barack Obama’s health care reform law, erroneously reporting it had been overturned on Commerce Clause grounds. The implication is that the figure might have been even lower had the poll been taken after the ruling.

While the poll’s historic fits and starts could be tied to specific events, four distinct periods can be delineated throughout the nearly four decades that newspapers have been included in Gallup’s annual confidence poll.

1973 to 1979 – Public confidence in newspapers, then the most dominant source of news for American citizens, soared from the high 30s to the peak at 51 percent.

1980 to 1982 – Public confidence in newspapers declined more precipitously than it had risen, falling to 35 percent.

1983 to 2000 – Public confidence in newspapers averaged in the mid-30s, fluctuating between 29 and 39 percent.

2001 to 2012 – Public confidence in newspapers steadily declined from 37 percent to 25, with a low of 22 in 2007.

The first period coincides with the post-Watergate era, when papers vigorously exercised their democratic responsibility to watchdog the institutions of power. It was a time when, in the words of Chicago-born journalist, author and humorist Finley Peter Dunne, newspapers comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

The second comprises the early years of the Ronald Reagan administration, when the corporate, right-wing strategy of blaming the “liberal media” for America’s decline reached its zenith with a mouthpiece in the White House.

The third corresponds with the Reagan-Bush years and the rapid expansion of the corporate state and news media, which value profits over principle, mission and all other values.

The fourth dovetails with the post-911 era, the consolidation of corporate media power and the dawn of the Internet age, when citizens took control of their own news from the editors and producers who had set their agenda for decades.

***

In the longer historical view, the news media’s decline in public confidence can be correlated with the demise of American journalism and the nation’s transformation from a democracy to a plutocracy of, by and for the comfortable.

Two years before the Washington Post’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Watergate scandal, Lewis F. Powell Jr., then a corporate lawyer from Richmond, sent a confidential memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging an all-out attack on anti-corporate elements in society that dominated the times. The targets he identified included the college campus, politicians and the media.

Powell, whom Richard Nixon would nominate to the Supreme Court two months later, titled the memo Attack on American Free Enterprise System and singled out television news for enabling progressive icons like Ralph Nader and William Kunstler.

“Much of the media … either voluntarily accords unique publicity to these ‘attackers’ or at least allows them to exploit the media for their purposes,” he wrote. “This is especially true of television, which now plays such a predominant role in shaping the thinking, attitudes and emotions of our people.”

Most of the media, specifically national TV systems, Powell continued, were owned and theoretically controlled by corporations. While businessmen “have not been trained or equipped to conduct guerrilla warfare” with their opponents, he said, such a counterattack was necessary to ensure the survival of the capitalist system.

***

By the late 1980s, corporations were nearing the final stages of implementing Powell’s advice to exert their ownership muscle on the news media. They were institutionalizing corporatism within their organizations and on their pages and programs.

At the Indiana University School of Journalism, the Orange County Register publisher told students his paper no longer viewed their audiences as readers or subscribers. They were customers. The Register’s mission was no longer public service. It had become a commodity.

Pseudo-academic programs emerged to re-educate working journalists into the corporate mindset. In seminars paid for by media companies reporters were told to forget everything they knew about journalism and write down lists of stories that teenage girls, senior citizens or other demographic groups would like to see on their front pages.

The presentations were riddled with bogeymen, especially the Internet – it was going to spell the end of the newspaper as historically known – as well as a dumbed-down audience – reporters were told to write stories for people who didn’t read.

One program that carried the corporate paradigm to the Bloomington Herald-Times and newsrooms across the nation was the Missouri School of Journalism’s New Directions in News (NDN). Claims that NDN was designed to create better newspapers and not to sell more newspapers were as ludicrous when they were uttered then as they seem looking back now.

On July 15, 1990, columnist Paul Greenberg from the Los Angeles Times Syndicate penned a piece on NDN titled Let’s See A U-turn Back To Solid News And Strong Opinion.

“It’s time for some shop talk, specifically about the craze for new directions in news,” he wrote. “Just what are these new directions in journalism? An outfit called New Directions in News sponsored a seminar out in California not long ago, and here are some of the suggestions it garnered from members of the Fourth Estate.”

* Titillating photos of interest to busy males and females

* A newspaper that comes with eggs and a muffin

* A travel section a day, more contests and a Far Side cartoon on every page

* Good and bad news segregated into different pages or sections

* One heartbreak story a day

* Stories that reveal “who’s having an affair with whom”

* Rumors 

One such gem that emerged from the Bloomington Herald-Times’ venture into the new directions was called Funday Sunday.

Don’t ask.

***

The end result of news media corporatization – TV, radio, print and now online – has been a cheapened product that no one respects and does not serve the public interest. Corporate media presents its customers not with news that impacts the afflicted, which represents 99 percent of their audience, but with narratives designed to sell the comfortable.

A running river discovered under the Antarctic this past January, for example, was not more evidence of climate change for the journalists at CBS Evening News, if that’s what they are still or can be called. It was more “fuel” for the “climate change debate.” That’s not news; that’s a teaser.

Few observers of American journalism’s decline have explained it more accurately or succinctly than former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of HBO’s The Wire and Treme David Simon did in a 2009 interview with PBS journalist Bill Moyers.

“This is not all the Internet,” he said. “A lot of the general tone in journalism right now is that of martyrology: ‘We were doing our job, making the world safe for democracy, and all of a sudden terra firma shifted [with] new technology. Who knew that the internet was gonna overwhelm us?’

“I would buy that if I wasn’t in journalism for the years that immediately preceded the Internet. … The guys who are running newspapers over the last 20 or 30 years have to be singular in the manner in which they destroyed their own industry. … They had contempt for their own product.”

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.

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Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

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