Hope for the Mainstream Media
It must be hard NOT to be suicidal if you are reporter these days.
It's bad enough to feel that no matter what you write, it's just gonna be filler between the ad for the Macy's weekend sale or BIG SAVINGS at a local used car lot. But these days, if you are a reporter, your employer is more likely to be a corporation rather than a more attentive local or regional news-gathering operation -- a much altered landscape for reportage than the glory days of Woodward and Bernstein when journalism schools filled up with idealists and glory-seekers.
Eventually, those ever-shrinking news rooms filled up with folks who really thought they'd make a difference -- or at least get some attention -- and a malaise inevitably set in as the bottom line began to dictate bylines.
Mr./Ms. "Anonymous" made a smart comment on my blog the other day that snapped me out some of my media idealism. Let's face it, nothing moves cultural change faster than the desires of the pocketbook (the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins come to mind) and today's media operations have come under the same pressure.
Here's what he/she said:
Let's just fact facts that the [mainstream media] is just not up to the task of actually doing investigations justice any more. They (newspapers, TV, radio, etc.)by-and-large, with few exceptions, are merely commercial enterprises and have nothing to do with the romantic versions so many people have of the media. PR is now part of the "reporters" job. Being invited to sit in the liars gallery in the White House, or report out RNC talking points, this is all they do anymore, with the occaional storm or disaster... [sic]
That's it...in a nutshell. If you are a reporter and you have resigned yourself to this shitty role -- and let's face it, no matter what job we do, we all have a choice to keep humpin' or succumb to the path of least resistance -- the future looks pretty fuckin' bleak for you (the writer) and even worse for us (the readers).
Recently, I found myself harkening back to one of those "romantic versions" Mr./Ms. Anonymous described: a time here in Seattle when KING Broadcasting had one of the best news teams EVER assembled. Aaron Brown was a reporter and anchor, Charles Royer was a reporter/anchor who eventually became the Mayor of Seattle, then a teacher at Harvard's School of Government. And several other reporters eventually moved to the networks and CNN including Hattie Kaufman and James Hattori. For a "brief shining moment," they were a bunch of rabble rousers who performed the closest thing to "gonzo" journalism in local news those days (wearing disguises, going undercover without permission, facing off with politics on camera, etc.). One of the most notorious practioners was reporter Don McGaffin, a fearless investigator who once gave me a ride to a press conference on the back of his motorcyle.
Those were the days when the station was owned and run by the Bullitts, a politically liberal family who was filthy rich and had the balls (and the estrogen) to stand behind their reporters. The Bullitt family was nationally known for having high expectations of journalists and their news staff rose to meet them. KING's team was free of the burden of a corporate mentality, staying agile, sharp, and curious. And their viewers reacted in kind. We were challenged and much better informed about our world, not just the most recent, bloody car accident on I-5.
In the mid-1990s, the family members aged and moved on. The station was sold to a chain and, although it remains strong, it will never show the courage and substance it did in the 1970s and 80s.
But there may still be hope. If you haven't read it, Eric Alterman co-authored a terrific call to arms for reporters entitled "Wake Up Time," published in The American Prospect last March. It's not just for reporters looking for some inspiration, it's also for us news consumers who should know what to demand of journalists. Corporations might want to feed us crap, but we don't have to watch unless they demonstrate some of the ideas Alterman presents.
Maybe we can become like our own verson of the Bullitts. We can raise our expectations, put our money where our mouths are, and inspire today's journalists to meet them.