September 21st, 2007 08:58 EST
Are we getting the news we want? Hot Copy #32
(Transcript of Del Marbrook`s Hot Copy #32, a weekly podcast)
Note to media: if you snooze you lose
We`re in a strange place in American journalism. The great print behemoths seem to be slouching slowly and arthritically towards some secret burial ground. The worldwide web sizzles with experiments in participatory journalism. The television networks are more about Viagra, ratings and entertainment than news. And yet we keep hearing the executives of the media giants saying news is shallow and fatheaded because that`s what people want.
The trouble is the media panjandrums seem to be lying. We`re not getting what we want, we`re getting what they`ve decided to give us, which is basically a raw deal. Radio and television have been granted precious rights of access to the people`s airwaves to give us such a trans fat diet of entertainment idiocy, celebrity worship and sound-bite news that a democracy will inevitably die of heart congestion.
The print journals and newspapers respond to shrinking readerships by shrinking news operations and shoveling the flackery at us that flacks get paid to shovel at them. This isn`t journalism, it`s spin. So when the media in mock high dudgeon complain of presidential spin, remember that they know spin when they see it because it`s what they give us every day. They`re giving us more instant punditry than any sentient human being can stand without puking, and this steady diet of ideology, and facts and statistics bent to serve ideology, is helping to polarize the nation. They`re giving us shiploads of celebrity trivia because they say we want it. Not that it`s big business, not that they don`t have to dig for celebrity news, but that we want it, because we, the most churchgoing people in the world, worship celebrities.
What is the truth about all this? Well, as usual, it isn`t hard to find if you really want to find it. It seems the media conglomerates are even bigger spinners than the president, and that`s saying something, seeing as how he spun us a war that`s bankrupting us.
Last month the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reviewed our news preferences over the last two decades. Pew found that our preferences haven`t changed very much, while the media have changed profoundly. Pew focused hard on two indices: our overall interest in the news and our preferences for various types of news. Neither have changed much, but our preferences remain markedly static. We`re still interested in disaster news and money news. Not Britney Spears, not O.J. Simpson, not Janet Jackson`s onstage mishaps, not talking heads, all of which we get too much. Tabloid news and foreign news remain least interesting to us.
Pew didn`t explore the nature of money news, so let me try to shed some light. Iraq is first of all a human tragedy. A patchwork quilt of a country has been destroyed by our intervention and thousands of lives have been lost, perhaps more than a million. But Iraq is also a money story, and that`s precisely the aspect of the Iraq story the press hasn`t been covering very well. Even in the wake of suicides that seem related to corruption in high places, the story remains poorly covered. Even when we know that cronies of the White House are profiting from the catastrophe, the story gets ho-hum treatment. And yet Pew Research finds that Americans are interested first and foremost in disaster and money stories. Is the press giving us what we want? No, that case simply can`t be made. The press is giving us what it wants to give us. Why? Because the media are owned by corporations which one way or another interact with the corporations profiteering in Iraq, perhaps because they`re advertisers, perhaps because their directors sit on the boards of media conglomerates, perhaps because they bank in the same places. But if you look deeply enough into the interlocking directorates that tie businesses together, you will see that the media simply don`t think it`s in their own best interests to report money stories too well. Speaking of interlocking directorates, there`s another ongoing story the press routinely ignores.
Pew finds that the overall levels of interest in news have changed somewhat in the last twenty years, but no clear pattern of lesser or greater interest has emerged. Reports about catastrophes, man-made (which would include war) or natural, still draw the most interest. Stories about money are a close second. They include stories about gasoline prices, employment, inflation, taxes, prices. They would include more stories about tax policy, war, and even foreign policy if the media were doing their job, explaining to people why these matters are actually money matters. For example, does immigration show up as a money story? No,. but it should, because it is about corporations seeking cheap labor, meaning that it holds American wages down. Are stories about trade agreements seen as money stories? Not usually, but they should be, because trade agreements affect jobs, for us and for other nations. But the media do a very poor job tying these things together. One reason, as we have said, is that it`s not in their owners` interests to do so, but another reason is that such stories are labor-intensive. They require a great deal of time and research. They require well educated specialists to cover them. And all this requires money which the media doesn`t want to spend when it can give us Britney, Paris and O.J. on the cheap.
And here is another Pew finding that flies in the face of the argument the media have been making about Americans` preferences for news. Tabloid news-stories about entertainers, celebrities, people famous for being famous-is disfavored almost as much as foreign news, and yet we know we`re getting a bigger and bigger diet of tabloid news all the time-and sappier and sappier asides from so-called news anchors. Conflict news-stories about war, terrorism and social violence-consistently attract more interest than tabloid or even political news.
So why don`t these facts parse? What`s wrong is that the media panjandrums are lying to us. They`re telling us we don`t want what we do want and that`s why they`re feeding us a trash diet. It`s like telling us how nutritious fast food is.
Taking the period between 1986, the year of the great space shuttle Challenger disaster, and 20006, Americans were closely following disasters by an average of 39 percent. Money drew 34 percent of readers` interest, followed by conflict at 33 percent, politics at 22 percent, tabloid news at 18 percent, and foreign news at 17 percent.
I would argue that if the media had been properly informing Americans about the ways in which foreign news actually affects the amount of money Americans make as well as what they have to spend to maintain decent life styles, there would be much more interest in foreign news because it would be seen as closely tied to money news.
Pew finds scant evidence, if any, that during the last quarter century Americans have moved towards a preference for softer news. So why are they getting much softer news? They`re getting it because it`s cheaper to give it to them than hard news. Pew concludes that in last twenty years our preferences have become neither more or less serious, in spite of the interesting fact that our demographics have changed markedly.
Can Pew be trusted? I think so. Go on line and read the Pew findings yourselves. Pew`s conclusions are based on data from 165 separate national surveys conducted by the center since 1986 and involving nearly 200,000 interviews with adult Americans. That is a very broad survey segment.
Pew found that interest in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, always very high, best illustrates the constancy of our interest in news over the last twenty years. Pew`s News Interest Index began in the wake of the January 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. Fully 80 percent of the adult population closely followed news about the disaster. That level of interest is similar to that evoked by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Twenty years later a very different NASA story attracted only about 10 percent interest when Navy Captain and astronaut Lisa Nowak became involved in a love triangle with other NASA employees. This scandal, a tabloid story, attracted a mere one eighth the attention paid to the Challenger disaster. The conclusion? Disaster news in 1986 and now rivets audiences, while tabloid news fails to gain much attention. And yet we all remember how saturated with the sorrowful Nowak story television was.
We`re drowning in snooze. Between the endless pharmaceutical advertisements with their almost laughable litanies of contraindications and celebrity nonstarters on cable we are smothered in exactly what Pew says we don`t care about.
A similar disconnect arose in our national life during the impeachment proceedings against then President Bill Clinton. Day after day the media shoveled he- said -she-said stories at us about how outraged various impeccably moral politicians were and week after week polls showed that Americans didn`t care and approved of the president by more than 63 percent, an approval rating the present resident in the White House would be wiping our noses in. So here were the media saying, We know you like this president and we know you don`t care very much about his indiscretion in the Oval Office, and we know you know his accusers are full of it, but we`re going to force-feed you these proceedings and all the stagey hues and cries because we think it`s good for you. We think you need to have all this.
Well then, taking the media at their word, why don`t they think it`s good for us to have the money news we say we`re interested in? Why don`t they think it`s good for us to know day after day just who is stealing our money in Iraq and stuffing it in their pockets? Makes you wonder, doesn`t it?
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