This morning Whirl and I concluded watching the PBS public affairs program, Frontline, turn a critical eye on its own world: modern American journalism. “News War” is a four-part in-depth series about a myriad of issues facing journalism today. Employed as I am by a large media company saddled with debt and riding into an uncertain economic horizon, the topics of this series were near and dear to my heart.
In the first two hours of the series, “Secrets, Sources & Spin,” Frontline talked to the major players in the debates over the role of media in U.S. society. They examined the relationship between the Bush administration and the press, the use of anonymous sources. The centerpiece of this discussion was the use of anonymous sources and their consequences in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. In the second hour, the series followed this discussion into another area of journalism to highlight unnerving similarities and concerns: sports journalism. We saw interviews of the journalists facing jail for refusing to reveal their sources in relation to the BALCO investigation. San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. Their investigative reporting of BALCO made national headlines exposing steroid abuse in professional baseball.
President Bush praised their stories and commended the reporters for their public service. But in May 2006, his own Justice Department authorized the issuance of subpoenas that would compel the reporters to appear in court and to identify the source of the leak. The reporters fought the subpoenas. But this week, the leaker came forward and publicly identified himself, thus releasing the reporters from their promise of confidentiality.
Control of the message is a critical issue. And that issue can often be at odds with the public service mission of the free press. Frontline’s discussion of the development of the legal concept of privileged communication between reporter and source fascinated me. The erosion of that concept terrified me.
The third part of the series, “What’s Happening to the News” examined the mounting pressures facing America’s news divisions: demands for corporate profits, erosion of traditional sources of income like classified advertising, increased competition from cable television and the Internet. One of the biggest challenges facing the traditional news media is the aging core audience. The average age of a newspaper reader is 55 according to a Carnegie Corporation study. The average age of television newscast audience is less than that, but still significantly over the age of 30. According to a study by New York University, a majority of Americans under age 25 get their news online. If they are watching news on television they are watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. David Javerbaum, executive producer of The Daily Show reacted, “To the extent that people look to us as a source of news that is 100 percent indicative of other people’s failure and not our success.” The Daily Show’s success is on the strength of its satire of traditional media– the farce and irrelevance traditional media appears to have today. And while I laugh along with the jokes like the rest of Generation X, I am troubled by exactly why I am laughing.
The changes television network executives are making to try and halt the slide in ratings do not seem to make sense to me either. Ted Koppel was quoted in the third segment saying something I must agree with: “To the extent that we are now judging journalism by the same standards that we apply to entertainment, that may prove to be one of the greatest tragedies in the history of American journalism.” Koppel was not talking about The Daily Show here, but rather the decisions made to production within his own news room: dramatic cuts in the budget, a move away from investigative journalism to soft features, news without a real sense of public service.
The second part of “What’s Happening to the News” went inside the embattled newsroom of the Los Angeles Times. In 2000, Tribune Company aquired the Los Angeles Times from the Chandler Family for almost $9 billion. The relationship between Tribune Company and the Los Angeles Times has been a strained one for its entire tenure. This segment related in graphic detail the leadership changes and subsequent choices presented to the Los Angeles Times by corporate executives in Chicago. Frontline’s probing investigation highlighted a number of the brutal conflicts newspapers — as a business — face. Former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times Dean Baquet observed, “The people who own newspapers … are beholden to shareholders. They want for the paper to be highly profitable, and sometimes that view of what a newspaper is supposed to be and my view, which is that a newspaper is a public trust, sometimes they come into conflict.”
The Los Angeles Times toils to remain one of the few U.S. newspapers still covering major national and international stories. In the past year I have gotten to work with a number of editorial and support personnel from the Los Angeles Times. I watched them work during both political conventions — and my respect for them as a news organization grew tremendously. More recently, in the final days before the presidential election, John McCain and Sarah Palin sharply criticized the Los Angeles Times for refusing to make public a video of a 2003 event at which Barack Obama paid tribute to a Palestinian scholar. Editors at The Times and the reporter who wrote an article in April about Obama’s connection to the Palestinian scholar, Rashid Khalidi, said they were ethically bound to abide by a promise to a confidential source not to share the video. And they stuck to their guns. Our switchboard and networks were flooded with calls and messages.
How long can our bright hopes for serious investigative journalism remain tenable under such myriad pressures? When we continue to try and cut our way out of debt, doing more with less. Faced with this can the Internet really save us?
Former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll estimated, “85 percent of the original reporting that’s done in the United States is done by newspapers. They’re the people who are going out and knocking on doors and rummaging through records and covering events and so on. And most of the other media that provide news to people are really recycling news that’s gathered by newspapers.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt agreed, saying, “We’re critically dependent upon the success of newspapers. … We don’t write the content. We’re not in the content business. So anything that screws up their economics, that causes them to get rid of reporters, is a really bad thing.”
Blogs, Facebook, citizen journalism, Twitter, not-for-profit media outlets like NPR and the St. Petersburg Times— is this what awaits us? Is this journalism?
Thoroughly dejected — after watching part three I felt like I did after finishing Season Five of “The Wire” — I plodded on to the fourth hour: “Stories from a Small Planet”. This segment was further broken into two smaller pieces: one focused on the rise of Al Jazeera, the other on 2006 as one of the deadliest years on record for journalists around the world.
I am concerned about the challenges facing news media today. It appears we are assaulted on all fronts: socially we are not relevant, economically we are not feasible, legally our position is being weakened if not altogether undermined. And yet, I can’t help but believe that now — as in previous times of social and economic crisis — that the need for a strong, vibrant and effective fourth estate is paramount.