All Circuses, No Bread

Tim Rutten, the Los Angeles Times’ media critic, got right to the point today:

The most serious problem confronting the American news media today is neither creeping political bias nor the tensions between new and old technologies. Those topics may obsess media critics, but their significance pales alongside the greater issue, which is corporate managers’ growing inability to distinguish between the public’s interest — fascination with entertainment and celebrity — and the public interest — a deference to the common good.

[A]n ever-growing number of those journalists are employed by newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations whose ever-smaller number of corporate owners expect them to function first and foremost as “business units.”

What’s got Rutten going is the same thing that earlier this week got Jim Lehrer, the PBS anchor, going: The stark fact that the three broadcast networks, with a combined audience of almost 30 million, are each providing only three or four hours of coverage of the Democratic convention over four nights.

Rutten cites interviews that the three network anchors gave the New York Times earlier this week. ABC’s Peter Jennings vented his frustration at the network blowing off the convention: “This is clear to my bosses, it’s clear to my colleagues; I think you’ll find the same thing in every [network] newsroom. Could we, should we be doing more than one hour a night in prime time? The answer is yes.”

Dan Rather of CBS recalled a decade of fruitlessly fighting his own network’s steady cutbacks in coverage: “I argued the conventions were part of the dance of democracy and that rituals are important and that they remained an important ritual,” he told the Times. “I found myself increasingly like the Mohicans, forced farther and farther back into the wilderness and eventually eliminated.”

NBC’s Tom Brokaw also put in for more convention coverage from his overseers, and was turned down.

In Rutten’s eyes, “‘the forces that essentially have made smoking ruins of once admirable network news [are] now intruding throughout the news media in subtle — and not-so-subtle — fashion.” He cited USA Today’s hiring of left-wing icon Michael Moore to cover the Republican convention and conservative firebrand Ann Coulter to cover the Democratic convention (and the newspaper’s swift dismissal of Coulter once it got a look at her hair-raising copy):

This is casting, not editing. It is an extension of the noxious talk radio ethos that confuses a provocation with an idea and abuse with entertainment. It makes a mockery of the fundamental journalistic standard of balance, because pitting two utterly predictable writers with a demonstrable disrespect for the truth is not a debate, it’s mud wrestling.

After her dismissal, Coulter said that the paper’s decision “raises the intriguing question of why they hired me to write for them” in the first place.

We think Rutten has the answer:

In the end, it’s not a very intriguing question, because the answer is the same when you ask why the three networks have abandoned genuine coverage of national politics for faux-reality shows. It’s what happens when journalists of whatever stripe forget their obligation to the public interest and allow themselves to become mere agents of avarice.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.