Monthly Archives: December 2016

News For Sale

David Halberstam’s 1979 book, The Powers That Be, focuses on the evolution of four of the twentieth century’s largest and most powerful media companies and their most prominent figures, many of whom rose to inclusion in mainstream culture:

The approach taken by the era’s best publishers, editors and reporters to the craft of news gathering and production earned the respect not only of their readers, listeners and viewers, but also many of their subjects. They were an important part of the dialogue between citizens and government, between business and customers, and between educators and students.

About 50 years ago, however, a tug of war arose between the professional journalists and the companies’ investors. The result was the subordination of newsworthiness and public service to the pursuit of increased television ratings, stock prices and profit.

“It was the local [television] stations that first discovered, late in the 1960s, that news could make money—lots of money,” said communications professor David Hallin in 1990. By the end of the ’70s, news was frequently producing 60 percent of a station’s profits. With numbers like that, news was much ‘too important’ to leave to journalists, and a heavily entertainment-oriented form of programming began to evolve.”

According to Halberstam, “Greater profits did not mean, as some company altruists had hoped, greater experimentation, more money invested in higher-quality programming. On the contrary, profits brought merely the expectation of more profits, and policies designed to create them. The impulse to take risks in quality programming, to serve the national interest in public affairs, became weaker all the time…the ratings had a morality of their own, they dictated their own reality and their own truth.” [emphasis added]

By the late 1960s television had already changed the market for news enough that, according to Halberstam, when the media did attempt to address serious issues—including the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal—”much of the audience watching the evening news show was composed of people who had never been serious newspaper readers and who were thus unprepared to deal with such charged material.” [emphasis added]

Was it inevitable that television’s immediacy and power—exacerbated now by the lowest common denominator of social media—and the submission to profit as a primary goal would push aside competence in government and business and replace it with myopic and reckless self-interest? If so, Newton Minow’s vast wasteland was just a precursor.

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A Work in Progress

pedestrian-detour_sidewalk-closed

Acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving it. Many times, however, defensiveness and insecurity lead to intentional blindness and denial instead:

  • In 1965, CBS News aired a story of war atrocities committed during a raid by US soldiers on the Vietnamese village of Cam Ne. David Halberstam wrote that many viewers “called in to scream their anger at CBS for [broadcasting the story], portraying our boys as killers.” While “the reality itself was uglier than [reporter Morley Safer] had said,” callers insisted, “American boys didn’t do things like that.”
  • When Ford introduced the 2002 Explorer SUV, rather than emphasizing the many changes that Ford had made “to reduce the risks that the Explorer will roll over or kill other motorists in crashes,” the company chose not to mention the changes. The company was dealing with the safety issue by largely ignoring it. Jose Rosa, an assistant professor of marketing at Case Western Reserve University who specializes in auto advertising, explained, “To emphasize safety is going to come across as an admission that the previous vehicle was unsafe.”
  • In a 2014 Fox News story on the release of a Senate Intelligence Committee report describing torture performed by the US, the anchor said, “The United States of America is awesome. We are awesome. But we’ve had this discussion. We’ve closed the book on it. The reason they want the discussion is not to show how awesome we are. It’s to show us how we’re not awesome. They apologized for something.”

If you don’t consider yourself, your company or your country a work in progress, the only direction to go is backwards.

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Filed under History, People, Policy, The Book I Read