8.25.2009

'Losing the News'

Dear DemWit reader:

What follows, in my opinion, is the most informed argument for the preservation of real news – facts, not opinion – made today. It very well might constitute the last stronghold of real news in this country. And, it is as impassioned a plea as John Milton made for a free press in “Aeropagitica.”

I can make it no clearer than this: this is a post which demands your attention and your time. Arguably, it will be the most important information you will find online today, or any day.

Two eseential elements of this post are an NPR interview, available to you on video or transcript, and the Chapter One excerpt from the featured book.

The post will be here at the top of DemWit. Come back to it, if you must, but you will not want to miss any part of it.

If factual news feeds democracy, there is today a very great threat that our democracy is in trouble.

Enlighten yourself on all aspects of that fact presented here.

Thank you for reading and thinking for yourself.

B. J. Trotter

THE POST:

“After reporting for small newspapers, a big metro paper, radio, TV, books, magazines, and the Internet, Alex S. Jones fears that the kind of news he believes in is in trouble.”

-Terry Gross, FRESH AIR, National Public Radio, 18 August 2009.

***

My recent post, “News at Noon,” focused on my concern over my own news dearth – and that of the United States.

I am very grateful to my friend Katherine for calling my attention to a new book:

Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, Alex S. Jones, Oxford University Press, 2009.

From my research – all 37 pages of notes - it is apparent this book will be a bestseller. It is at once a book which will be snapped up by news professionals, will grace the college classroom and will enthrall consumers of news.

The top-rated reader review on amazon.com (LINK) had this to say:

“But, most of all, Losing the News is for people who love good books. Written by a master storyteller, the prose is gorgeous. Jones' style empowers the reader to enjoy the book from his or her unique experience.”

THE BOOK

Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy enlightens the reader on what constitutes “accountability news,” which is essential to a democracy, and how everything else perceived as “news” evolves from that central core of news.

THE AUTHOR

Let me hurriedly point out that the author is NOT radio host and right-wing conspiracy nutcase Alex Jones.

Alex S. Jones is a Pultizer Prize-winning reporter and of the fourth generation of a Tennessee publishing family – its newspaper begun in 1916 and pioneered by his great-grandmother and his grandmother. This from National Public Radio (NPR):

“Alex S. Jones has been the host of NPR's On The Media, and host and executive editor of PBS's Media Matters. He is the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.”

THE NPR INTERVIEW:

This is one of the two essential elements of this post - as plain and as riveting a discussion as you will ever hear about what constitutes “news” in the United States today.

“Now, you said that you were brought up to believe in fairness, objectivity and accuracy. How do you see that approach to journalism changing as Web sites, blogs and cable news channels take on a bigger role, and opinion journalism becomes much more popular?”

- Terry Gross, host of FRESH AIR, NPR, questions Jones.

Mr. Gross’ interview with Alex S. Jones on “Losing the News and Why It Matters:”

Watch the video HERE.
Read the transcript HERE.

FROM CHAPTER ONE, “THE IRON CORE:”

The opening words of Jones’ book are the second essential part of this post, for herein lies – and I’m not exaggerating – both the threat to our democracy and the opportunity for informed citizens to preserve it.

Excerpt (LINK):

"Unfortunately, that meant we had to offer buyouts to some very talented people."

— Brian Kelley, editor of U.S. News & World Report, quoted by Washington.com after the magazine eliminated its investigative unit for economic reasons.

Imagine a sphere of pitted iron, grey and imperfect like a large cannonball. Think of this dense, heavy ball as the total mass of each day's serious reported news, the iron core of information that is at the center of a functioning democracy. This iron core is big and unwieldy, reflecting each day's combined output of all the professional journalism done by news organizations — newspapers, radio and television news, news services such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and a few magazines. Some of its content is now created by new media, nonprofits, and even, occasionally, the supermarket tabloids, but the overwhelming majority still comes from the traditional news media.

This iron core does not include Paris Hilton's latest escapade or an account of the Yankees game or the U.S. Open. It has no comics or crossword puzzle. No ads. It has no stories of puppies or weekend getaways or recipes for cooking great chili. Nor does it include advice on buying real estate, investing in an IRA, movie reviews, or diet advice. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. Indeed, pleasant and diverting stories are far more appealing to most people than the contents of the core, which some find grim, boring, or riddled with bias.

It has no editorials and does not include the opinions of columnists or op-ed writers or political bloggers. These things are derived from the core. They are made possible because there is a core. Their point of departure is almost always information gleaned from the reporting that gives the core its weight, and they serve to spread awareness of the information that is in the core, to analyze it and interpret it and challenge it. Opinion writers pick and choose among what the core provides to find facts that will further an argument or advance a policy agenda. But they are outside the core, because they almost always offer commentary and personal observation, not original reporting.

Inside the core is news from abroad, from coverage of the war in Iraq to articles describing the effort to save national parks in Mozambique. There is news of politics, from the White House to the mayor's office. There is an account of a public hearing on a proposal to build new ball fields and an explanation of a regional zoning concept that might affect property values. There is policy news about Medicare reform and science news about global warming. There is news of business, both innovation and scandal, and even sporting news of such things as the abuse of steroids. An account of the battle within the local school board about dress codes is there, along with the debate in the state legislature over whether intelligent design should be taught as science. The iron sphere is given extra weight by investigative reports ranging from revelations that prisoners at the county jail are being used to paint the sheriff's house to the disclosure that the government is tapping phones without warrants as part of the war on terror.

What goes into this cannonball is the daily aggregation of what is sometimes called "accountability news," because it is the form of news whose purpose is to hold government and those with power accountable. This is fact-based news, sometimes called "news of verification" as opposed to the "news of assertion" that is mostly on display these days in prime time on cable news channels and in blogs.

Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail.

For more than a century, this core of reported news has been the starting place for a raucous national conversation about who we are as a people and a country. Just as the Earth is surrounded by a blanket of atmosphere, so too is this core enveloped by a thick layer of talk and opinion. The conversation — which seems more like an endless family squabble — takes place on editorial pages and in letters to the editor, in opinion columns and on Sunday morning talk shows, on The O'Reilly Factor and the radio programs of Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus, in blogs on the Internet and press releases, over dining-room tables, beside water coolers and in barrooms, in political cartoons and on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

And in-jokes. In his first ten years as host of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno told over 18,000 political jokes, almost 4,000 of them about Bill Clinton. But for each of Leno's political jokes, the starting point was something from the core. The core also feeds the entertainment industry, which has its own powerful voice in the national conversation. The quasi-news programs on television, such as Today and 20/20, look to the core for ideas and inspiration. Some pure entertainment programs, such as The West Wing, come directly from the core, and even the silliest of sitcoms and nastiest of hip-hop lyrics are often linked to it in some murky way. No matter where the conversation about public affairs takes place, it is almost always an outgrowth of that daily iron cannonball.

The biggest worry of those concerned about news is that this iron core is in jeopardy, largely because of the troubles plaguing the newspaper business. It is the nation's newspapers that provide the vast majority of iron core news. My own estimate is that 85 percent of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95 percent. While people may think they get their news from television or the Web, when it comes to this kind of news, it is almost always newspapers that have done the actual reporting. Everything else is usually just a delivery system, and while resources for television news have plunged and news on commercial radio has all but disappeared, the real impact on iron core news has been from the economic ravaging of newspapers.

Until now, the iron core of news has been somewhat sheltered by an economic model that was able to provide extra resources beyond what readers — and advertisers — would financially support. This kind of news is expensive to produce, especially investigative reporting. And there are indications that a lot of people aren't really interested. In the media economy of the future, cold metrics will largely determine what is spent on news. The size and quality of the iron core will be a direct reflection of what the audience for it will economically support. Demand will rule, and that may well mean that, as a nation, we will be losing a lot of news. There will be a bounty of talk — the news of assertion — but serious news, reported by professional journalists, is running scared. –End of excerpt-

APATHY AND TEARS

"For over a century," Jones writes, "Americans have had as a birthright a remarkably good — though far from perfect — core of reported news that is as essential to our freedom as the Constitution itself. But the times we live in trigger an unsettling cascade of questions about journalism and news."

I saw a comment on a blog which read:

“THUMP …THUMP ... THUMP. That’s the sound of my head hitting the keyboard.”

Very apropos to my feelings about the absolute apathy which exists in this country over an issue of such extreme importance to the very existence of our democracy.

Just makes you want to cry.

8 comments:

Andrew said...

I'm not worried about the state of news. After a century of so-called "objective news" we are getting news the way our ancestors got it in the 19th century.

We are not losing the news. News is as vibrant as ever. People are more and more politically engaged, more so than in decades. It's the "mainstream news" that has gotten flabby, self-satisfied and extremely cozy with the powers-that-be. People know that now and are rightfully canceling their subscriptions and seeking news elsewhere.
As journalist who is a paid, working online journalist and freelancer, I am digging up stories our major papers in Oklahoma aren't covering.

As for Alex Jones being a nutcase, have you ever listened to his show and looked at the facts presented? I get a helluva lot more news and information from Alex Jones than I ever had on this leftist egghead Alex S. Jones.

joe galloway said...

BJ:
helluva blog post.
all i can say is that journalism sure as hell isn't what it was when i took my first job on a newspaper in November of 1959....a half century ago.
i believe that i had the very best of it all at the very best time to be a reporter. for that am grateful. and i am saddened beyond words that the young ones just starting out have little hope of having such an opportunity.

am busy wth varous projects, and travelling/speaking. leave tomorrow for 4 days in seattle & fort lewis wash. speech and a book signing.

best
joe galloway

Katherine said...

Today, I was thrilled to discover a new little book by Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University and author of four scholarly books. I greatly enjoyed his 2005 essay, 'On Bullshit', which did a remarkable job of defining bullshit! It also distinguished bullshit from lies and pointed out that bullshitters are fakers, phonies and manipulators "who are more or less indifferent to whether what they say is true or false."

In 2006, Frankfurt wrote a sequel to bullshit which I discovered today. It's titled, 'On Truth'. This sequel delves into the risky or dangerous 'indifference' to truth and why that's so bad for us. Alhough I haven't finished reading and digesting it yet, I've been quickly impressed.

Frankfurt underscores the importance of truth to civil society. "After all," Frankfurt says, "how could a society that cared too little for truth make sufficiently well-informed judgments and decisions concerning the most suitable disposition of its public business? How could it possibly flourish, or even survive, without knowing enough about relevant facts...? No one in his right mind would rely on a builder, or submit to the care of a physician, who does not care about the truth...there is a clear difference between getting things right and getting them wrong, and thus a clear difference between the true and the false...To establish and to sustain an advanced culture, we need to avoid being debilitated either by error or by ignorance. We need to know--and, of course, we must also understand how to make productive use of--a great many truths...We really cannot live without truth. We need truth not only in order to understand how to live well, but in order to know how to survive at all."

Regarding news reporting and the stuff of truth and honesty, I strongly question the veracity and authenticity of any news story that inspires an emotional reaction or results in a particular belief. I don't call that story 'news'.

In my view, democracy might depend on the value citizens place on truth and honesty. If citizens prefer self-deception or self-righteousness to truth and honesty, this spells major
trouble for us. To prefer denial, fiction, closemindedness, or outright lies instead of honesty are indicators of pronounced sickness and weakness, not wholesomeness and strength. A wise individual said (from memory), "Without honesty, there can be no dignity."

Thanks for your terrific blog, BJ. Clearly, a whole lot could be said about the 'news'. Alex S. Jones' book might be an excellent choice for bookclub reading and discussion.

Tiny said...

BJ, another great post full of very relevant information for those who care about getting truth and facts concerning world events and affairs that pertain to our daily lives. Unfortunately, little is offered now days.

Tiny read Harry G. Frankfurt's essay on "Bullshit" several years ago, but was unaware of his
"On Truth" sequel.

Two more books for Tiny's shoppong cart: Jones and Frankfurt

Will we see "truth in reporting" return to our media outlets? We can only hope and pray that we do, for it seems so illusive when we tune into main stream media venues.

Anonymous said...

P.S.
One last thing. A perfect example of why the mainstream media is one fat joke worthy of shelving is the Sibel Edmonds case. You have an ex-FBI agent making some explosive allegations under oath - involving members of Congress, a NATO ally and some serious breaches of national security - and not even the New York Times can bother to mention it. Who will be the next Woodward and Bernstein? And why are we still talking about those two guys all these years later. There should be plenty of people willing to break the big stories, of Watergate proportions, and you just don't hear about them. Why?

B.J. said...

In keeping with the premise of this post, here is an item from the PROGRESS REPORT, Center for American Progress, 25 August 2009:

MILITARY -- PENTAGON HIRES CONTROVERSIAL FIRM TO SCREEN WHETHER EMBEDDED REPORTERS WROTE 'POSITIVE' STORIES: Stars and Stripes reported yesterday that the Pentagon has hired The Rendon Group to screen journalists seeking to embed with U.S. forces. As part of a $1.5 million "news analysis and media assessment" contract, Rendon examines "individual reporters' recent work and determines whether the coverage was 'positive,' 'negative' or 'neutral' compared to mission objectives," officials from the contractor said. Public affairs officer Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias insists that the military has "not denied access to anyone because of what may or may not come out of their biography." However, last month, the military barred a Stars and Stripes reporter from embedding with a unit in Iraq because he had "refused to highlight" good news. The military was also unhappy that the reporter "would not answer questions about stories he was writing." Rendon has received millions from the U.S. government since 9/11 (at one point, taxpayers were paying CEO John Rendon $311.26/hour). The "secretive" firm personally set up the Iraqi National Congress and helped install Ahmad Chalabi as the group's leader, whose main goal -- "pressure the United States to attack Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein" -- Rendon helped facilitate.

BJ

Sue said...

wonderful post BJ, One I will read and reread!!
I saw Toms comment at Mats too, made me run right over and compliment him. He sent me a personal email of thanks! Great writer he is!
Hope you are feeling your old/ young self again!! xo

Frodo, "They are Here" said...

Frodo remembers a continuing story in a now defunct newspaper in New Orleans about the pending demise of the Black Rhinocerous. It was a chilling and thought-provoking story about the challenges human beings face in an increasingly threatened eco-system. Despite the merit of the story, Frodo remembers because of what one individual submitted as a "Letter to the Editor." He wrote that he did not care what happened in Algeria, he was concerned only with what happened in "Algiers" (a suburb of New Orleans). As Frodo mentioned, the newspaper is now a part of history, and the writer, who knows, but Frodo is willing to wager he has an e-mail address.

Frodo also cannot resist a response to the response to the representative from the freelancers. Sir, Agent Mulder (retired) requests that you stop submitting articles for publication. The shows you are watching are reruns on TV LAND.