Before We 'Save' Journalism: The Future of News Reporting Shouldn't Be Its Past

One thing to keep in mind while worrying about the future of journalism is that its past hasn't been all that great either.

One thing to keep in mind while worrying about the future of journalism is that its past hasn't been all that great either.

Journalism ought to be judged not on the profits it makes for stockholders but on the service it provides to democracy. By that measure, the reporting profession has been falling down on the job: Leading us into an aggressive war with evidence based on lies (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/19/07), overlooking an asset bubble whose predictable deflation devastated our economy (Extra!, 11-12/08), failing to raise alarms about the erosion of key civil liberties (Extra!, 5-6/08).

And it's not like these are recent failings: Corporate media did much the same poor job covering the Kosovo War (Extra!, 7-8/99), the Gulf War (Extra!, 1991), the Panama invasion (Extra!, 1-2/90) and Vietnam (Common Dreams, 5/6/01). Financial reporters gave little warning about previous bubbles like the tech boom (Media Beat, 3/15/01) and the savings and loan scandal (Extra!, 3-4/89).

For years, corporate media have been railing against any healthcare reform that doesn't preserve insurance industry profits (Extra!, 6/09) and cheerleading for trade policies (Extra!, 11-12/94) that have produced a cumulative trade deficit of $6 trillion since 1993. On the issue of climate change, major media outlets long presented the clear scientific consensus that humans are warming the Earth as a controversial question deserving of debate (Extra!, 11-12/04).

As for representing the diversity of the United States, corporate media have done a sad job of that too. When Extra! looked at a year's worth of nightly network news (5-6/02), we found that the sources were 85 percent male, 92 percent white--and among partisan sources, 75 percent Republican. Some 12 percent of Americans live in poverty, but less than 0.2 of nightly network news sources are poor people (Extra!, 9-10/07).

To be sure, there have always been journalists doing vital work, both inside and (more frequently) outside the structures of the establishment news outlets (Extra!, 1-2/06). But this is the big picture of the U.S. media system: On the most important issues--questions of war and peace, liberty, social justice, public health and prosperity, and the fate of the planet--it has failed us time and time again.

And that's not surprising, because the system is founded on a couple of very bad ideas: It's a bad idea to have journalism mainly carried out by large corporations whose chief interest in news is how to make the maximum amount of money from it. And it's a bad idea to have as these corporations' main or sole source of revenue advertising from other large corporations, so that the news industry's overwhelming financial incentive is to keep those advertisers happy.

To the extent that this system was chosen and not foisted upon us, it was a Faustian bargain: We wouldn't have to worry about paying for the system by which our society informs itself and debates the decisions it faces, because corporate America would be happy to pick up most of the bill--in exchange for the ability to regularly harangue us about the need to purchase their products.

Aside from the undesirability of having massive doses of propaganda as a routine part of every day, it should be obvious that giant for-profit companies do not have the same interests as the public at large. And if any sort of entity is able to set aside its own interests when reporting the news, it's not going to be institutions that are required by law to seek the highest level of profit in everything they do (Extra!, 11-12/95).
In short, the quality of news we get is about what you'd expect to get from the kind of media structure we have.

So if it turns out that these corporations are finding out that reporting news is no longer such a great way to make money, and if advertisers are thinking that maybe they won't be the major source of funding for the nation's journalism anymore, it's hard to see that as a crisis. It's like learning that foxes have decided to get out of the henhouse protection business: Thanks, and best of luck in your future endeavors.

But if corporate media are really getting out of the information business--and don't get your hopes up too much--it does mean that we're going to have to find other ways to get the job done. Can corporate news outlets reorganize themselves as nonprofits? Will philanthropic foundations step up their funding of investigative reporting? Will the federal government create a National Endowment for Journalism? Can unpaid citizens take on some of the newsgathering roles formerly filled by professionals?

Every alternative model for sustaining journalism has its pitfalls; we discuss a few of them in our current issue of Extra!. But when you consider whether this model or that one would be good for journalism, you have to ask yourself: compared to what? Compared to for-profit, advertiser-financed corporate media, it isn't hard to hope for improvement.

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