Talking about the News Media Again

Public solutions to thorny problems require accurate, unbiased, accessible and timely information. Unfortunately, our current media markets aren’t finding that the production and distribution of this kind of information is profitable. Because the companies that have provided us with first-class news and commentary are seeing too much red ink in their balance sheets, the business pressure that drives program decisions toward ‘news-based entertainment’ is growing. I’ll just share a couple reflections and my own comment on this topic today, but I hope this can be a conversation that generates some interest among people who believe that good information is essential, especially when we’re at a turning point in public decisions…like now.

A couple nights ago, we attended a town hall meeting with Rep. George Miller (D-CA) with about 150 other people. About half of the questions (at least…maybe more) were posed with fear-based information from talk radio, TV ‘commentary panels’ or conspiracy-theory weblogs. It was disconcerting to hear the genuine concern and anger in the voices of people who were repeating the wild rumors they’d heard, and how they wanted action on these issues as Congress’ top-priority. I came away from that meeting with a feeling that one prevalent mission of the news media is the creation of fear and suspicion…and they seem to be succeeding.

Okay, I’m back to Jon Stewart. As I thought about the town hall meeting experience, I pondered again what I saw was the most important point of Stewart’s comments that brought Crossfire down and that were the foundation for the Jim Cramer conversation. There is a difference between ‘news reporting’ and ‘news-based entertainment’…and this difference is increasingly blurred these days. Stewart wasn’t critical of Cramer’s right to say what he says…he was critical of what he saw as ‘news-based entertainment’ calling itself ‘news reporting.’ He readily said that his show on Comedy Central is “a comedy show” with the clear intention to be a ‘news-based entertainment’ program. Stewart obviously believes his role in the news marketplace is legitimate, but he also appears to believe that role needs to be clearly identified for consumers. Another prevalent mission of the news media seems to be the co-opting of the news as an on-going and cheap source of material so corporations can make more money than if they paid investigative reporters or script writers and actors.

A few years ago, an NIF issue guide opened a conversation about the news media, News Media and Society. I think it’s time to revisit that framework for conversation, or perhaps to create a new issue guide to talk about how we distinguish between ‘news coverage’ and ‘news-based entertainment’ in our daily routine. It troubles me that so many people get their news for the day from either Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart. It troubles me that CNN spends so much effort in advertising their ‘reporters’ and ‘interviewers’ as celebrities. It troubles me also that Fox and MSNBC fill so much of their prime airtime with completely biased ‘entertainers’ who from my vantage point appear to distort the news in some segments while doing good reporting in others…and by doing so, they make it hard to trust anything they say.

Selling these days appears to be less about the product and more about the packaging of the product. Unfortunately, this trend in commerce seems to have taken over in our media markets, most troubling in the news media market. We’re fortunate that we still have truly committed and talented journalists working around the country, but it appears that their financial stability is increasingly in jeopardy. How do we keep our news professionals employed? How do we help consumers distinguish between ‘news coverage’ and ‘news-based entertainment?’ How do we fulfill our need for accurate, unbiased, accessible and timely information? How do we engage journalists in this conversation? This appears to me to be one of those pivotal issues where the outcomes affect our ability to solve the problems in some very thorny, long-term and life-and-death issues.

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