August 10th, 2009
Dan Rathers’ Call to Arms
Yesterday’s Washington Post included a column by former CBS newsman Dan Rather, calling on President Obama to form a committee examining the current and “perilous” state of American news media. He is very specific about the fact that he is not calling for a bailout of troubled media companies, but that instead, journalism has been so bastardized by the news industry that it now threatens the core of our democracy: “We need news that breeds understanding, not contempt; news that fosters a healthy skepticism of the workings of power rather than a paralyzing cynicism. We need the basic information that a self-governing people requires. The old news model is crumbling, while the Internet, for all its immense promise, is not yet ready to rise in its place — and won’t be until it can provide the nuts-and-bolts reporting that most people so take for granted that it escapes their notice.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Rather that a standard of poor journalism is both insulting and dangerous. What I’m not sure of, though, is his prescription that the President or any government-appointed commission be tasked with “fixing” the news. Perhaps this is just cynicism on my part, but even with the best intentions, putting the government anywhere near the news industry only invites more trouble. And–now, this is definitely cynicism–I’m tired of commissions making recommendations and putting out reports. If we as news consumers want more honest reporting, more investigative journalism, we have to demand it. The change comes from us.
When the line between news and propaganda becomes increasingly blurred, as it is now, news literacy is our greatest tool. This may sound oversimplified, but when I watch the news on TV I frequently wonder if people understand the difference between a fact and an opinion. Most news shows are really just stretches of editorial content asking you to do little more than sit back and follow their single stream of logic–nevermind the presentation and validation of opposing viewpoints or facts. We have to ask questions. We have to demand better. We have to turn off the snake oil salespeople on both sides of the political spectrum who report from a place of fear that even-handed journalism is not profitable.
One way to do this is to read a variety of media. Back in March, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a great piece called “The Daily Me.” In it, Kristof implies that we as news consumers may be at fault for a poor newsscape, citing a condition where “we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices.” If I’m only going to read what I agree with, if I’m not ready to listen to a plausible and intelligent argument that might change my mind on something, then I’m at fault for not demanding a better product.
Let me add that I don’t know if there ever has been a “golden era” of news, where everything was thoughtful, unbiased and accurate. Tabloids and shock jocks have been around since the beginning of time, and if they’re louder now, then maybe it’s only because there are more ways for them to make their message heard. Whether or not the news industry has worsened or whether its ills have simply become more exposed is difficult to determine, but one thing that remains true is that we are still consumers. We eat what we’re fed, but if we stop ordering the same entree, then, with time and patience, the menu will change.