October 17th, 2007 09:39 EST
Why the Media Must Reinvent Themselves
(Trancription of Podcast - Hot Copy No. 34)
Transparency International is an organization that monitors corruption throughout the world. In its latest report the United States ranks Number 22 in corruption, far from the bottom, but much too far from the top. What does this tell us? Well, first of all, did you know we’re considered that corrupt? You probably didn’t. And whose fault is that? Was it a front page story? Did it get as much time on CNN and Fox as O.J. Simpson’s latest squalid enterprise? Did the press bother to tell us how Transparency International decided upon such a ranking? These are not rhetorical questions. We need to know. We need to know why news of such corruption takes us by surprise. We need to know whether we live in a decent and law-abiding capitalist society or a society that winks at corrupt corporate governance, at Tammany politics. We need to know if we have a press we can trust to tell us what kind of society we’re living in, since, after all, our bread and butter and futures depend on it.
I’m not a media theorist or a professor. I’m just a retired working stiff who now has time enough to ponder what I experienced in newsrooms. I don’t get paid by a think tank or a university to explore the questions I’m raising. But I’m like a retired sergeant whose hash marks entitle him to a certain claim of having actually taken part in what the big shots are talking about. And what I see is a huge disconnect between what the press purports itself to be and what it actually is. And I think the Internet has given the citizenry an opportunity to rub the press’s nose in this disconnect, to say, in effect, Maybe you won’t deal with it, but we just want you to know that we see it and it alarms us.
Let me try to explain the nature of this disconnect. If just about everything in a freewheeling capitalist society is a business story, then it seems surreal to quarantine business news in a section of a newspaper or a segment of a radio or television broadcast. But that’s exactly what we do, giving the impression that business is just one of a number of subjects that the media periodically explore. This, in turn, conceals from us the engine that drives our everyday lives, leaving its maintenance to a specialized and privileged few in government and on Wall Street.
Let’s assume for the purpose of envisioning more honest journalism that the media pashas might be willing to do a better job. That’s a big assumption, because their business interests, at least in their minds, seem to dictate that they keep on concealing from us the knowledge that almost everything is business news. If such an idea becomes conventional wisdom, the consequences would be enormous. But let’s assume the great media conglomerates decided it would be a good thing to help people understand business rather than giving them the business.
The media would not be ready for such a transition to high-integrity journalism. I’ll use baseball to try to explain. Baseball commentators assume you know what a breaking ball or a slider or a knuckle ball is. They assume that’s why you watch baseball, because you learned such terms in the Little League and you understand them. But suppose you're an Englishman who knows cricket but not baseball. You’d get some insight into what a breaking ball is by watching a televised game, especially when the camera gives you a slow-motion playback. But the commentator doesn’t say, A breaking ball does such and such and is thrown because the pitcher thinks such and such, or the catcher thinks it. So you have to learn baseball the hard way, by watching and listening intently. The commentator never explains the catcher's finger signals, but the camera catches them.
Your life doesn’t depend on baseball. Your job doesn’t depend on it, unless maybe you’re selling hot dogs at Yankee Stadium. It doesn’t really matter if you get it or not. But your life does depend on business, on how it’s conducted. If a chief executive officer is paid $140 million a year for bilking lenders and banks and a whole range of middlemen, that is your business and it affects your life. But how much do you know about it? Who decided to give this high and mighty bozo so much money? Whose scheme was it to bilk people and rattle the market? And how, in detail, does it affect you? You don’t know, unless you’re one of a handful of insiders or specialized reporters. Most Americans don’t know what a sub-prime mortgage is. They don’t know what derivatives are, or the difference between an equity and a bond. They don’t know the difference between the Dow Industrial Average and the Standard & Poor or Wilshire averages, and yet each of these things directly affects our paychecks, our cost of living, our children’s futures, our health, our military, our foreign policy, our environment. And we know less about them than we know about baseball.
The press simply doesn’t report these matters the way a Stock Market for Dummies book would. This is partly because it would demand more space and time. It’s partly because the press can’t identify its audience. If it writes in a Business-for-Dummies manner, which it is now ill-equipped to do, then it loses the sophisticated audience that already knows such things. In other words, there is no target readership or audience. Nor should there be, because business in the nation’s business. We are not a feudal aristocracy, we are a capitalist society in which politicians ask us to invest our IRAs, our futures, in a market that the press is not explaining very well. We are a capitalist society in which the politicians are asking us to trust an insurance industry that corrupts our government and cheats its customers.
It wouldn’t take much to learn how to explain the arcana, the mysteries of capitalism. But it would take an effort the press is not prepared to mount, even in the face of evidence presented by the Pew Research Center for the Press and the People (see Hot Copy Number 33) that money is second only to disaster in terms of reader and viewer news preferences. Such a disconnect must raise suspicions. There are members of the media who will argue that the press is doing the job I claim it isn’t doing. I don’t give a hoot about them. They’re sucking up to somebody. I know perfectly well the press isn’t doing the job. But I also know that segments of the press are trying mightily to do this job and to do it well, and I know it isn’t easy, because they have to find a level of language that is acceptable both to the knowledgeable reader and to the uninitiated, and they have to try to make it interesting. This is an extremely difficult job. I can’t claim to read all the major newspapers, but I’ve spent a lifetime in the newspaper industry. What I’m doing here isn’t scholarship, it’s rabble rousing.
I see that under its executive editor Bill Keller The New York Times has increasingly moved in the direction of reporting business as the nation’s business. The Times is an international newspaper with a sophisticated readership, so in some ways it’s ideally suited to lead the way to this new dispensation, if we are to have one. But in other ways it’s handicapped by the very nature of its readership, because it can’t afford to be seen as condescending to college graduate readers in order to explain the ABCs of business. So the task of The Times is somewhat Florentine, and that's what makes it so intriguing.
The way The Times usually handles the challenge is to do what Gretchen Morgenson did recently. Writing about sub-prime mortgages, she led off her story by describing the plight of a borrower in New Jersey. In other words, she humanized the story and then tried to introduce the more difficult technical specifics as she followed the plight of her borrower. This is a familiar and reputable technique: reduce a huge story to its impact on a single human being. The Times has a lot of clout and resources, so it isn’t as vulnerable to business pressure as your average hometown newspaper or television outlet. For example, if a small-town newspaper contemplated the same kind of story and the predatory lender happened to be a major advertiser, the story probably wouldn't be written in the first place. And that’s a problem for the electorate, because it means that money buys silence, and silence corrupts voting. That’s one reason why it would be catastrophic for us if the telecommunications corporations were to be given the right to limit access to the Internet by establishing a multi-tiered pricing system. It would cut off our last and best chance to redress the deficiencies of our over-concentrated and increasingly corrupt media. You should be following this story. Just use the search words, net neutrality, and the whole sordid campaign of the giants to throttle a promising medium in its crib will appear.
Newspapers are fond of publishing weather and quotations of the day on the front page. What they should be doing is publishing the daily scam. For example, they could point out that every day online retailers are cheating buyers by promising to send them products by next day’s mail for an extra charge. Three days later the product arrives. Try to get your extra charge back. The retailer will blame the carrier. But both of them know you have been cheated. And this is just one instance of the thousands of squalid ways consumers are being treated with contempt by the very corporations who are at the same time diminishing customers' buying power by freezing their wages, reducing their benefits and exporting their jobs to cheap labor markets. Do the newspapers really believe readers wouldn’t be interested in a scam-of-the-day feature?
At the same time that corporate chief executive officers are making mind-boggling salaries we have been treated to widespread collapse of corporate governance. Chief executives have lied to shareholders about their so-called successes, cooked their books and told us that what’s good for them is good for the country. We have very few safeguards against this contempt for the common good, because our politicians are being bought by the corruptors and so have become corruptors themselves, And our media are owned, for the most part, by members of the same privileged establishment.
The ways in which corporate America shows its contempt for consumers are many, but the press doesn’t give voice to consumer anguish because corporate America is the source of its advertising. Who has not wandered around a discount barn looking for sales help only to finally find someone who knows nothing about anything, not even where products are stored? Who hasn’t gotten the run-around from medical insurers with their fruitless telephone trees and endless requests for irrelevant documents? Sadly, I can answer that question: the medically uninsured. Who hasn’t gotten a telephone information operator who couldn’t find the nearest restroom, much less a business number downtown? It’s not the fault of these exasperating employees that they’re underpaid and ill-trained, it’s the fault of their greedy employers. But why isn’t this story, which touches our lives every day and makes them harder, deemed suitable for coverage by the media? The answer is that the media depend on the perpetrators of these offenses against the rest of us for advertising income, and they don't have the guts or the integrity to live up to their First Amendment obligations to inform the citizenry well enough to make intelligent choices about the issues we all face. The press, in other words, has decided that it knows what’s good for us and we don’t need to make choices; they’ll be made for us.
But even projecting ourselves into a desirable future where the media will have decided not to sacrifice responsibility at the altar of ever-increasing shareholder profit and executive salary, journalism would still not be able to do the job, simply because, as a profession, it doesn’t know how to report on a society in which money underlies decision-making. Hence it reports a make-believe society in which some stories are related to money but not others. I can hear some journalists asking if I think the ongoing story about, say, the influence of the Christian Right on government is about money. My answer is a resolute yes. Look at the war machine required to carry out the Christian Right’s apocalyptic world view. Look at the churches and campuses being built, the professions being influenced. Of course it’s about money. It’s also about ideology and many other things as well, but money cannot be divorced from it. Or take the many instances in which politicians have claimed to clean up crime and sometimes even have the statistics to prove it—do the stories reporting such claims ever talk about prisons as our fastest-growing industry? Do they ever talk about the cost to taxpayers of this slap-them-in-the-slammer approach to crime? Do they ever talk about the countries that take different approaches and how they work or don't work? Do they ever remind us that it takes about as much to maintain a prisoner as it does to send a student to Harvard?
To do the job I claim the media must do to restore the electorate’s ability to make intelligent decisions, the media will have to reinvent themselves. They will have to find ways to chart the money trail in their stories. They will have to find the integrity to report on their own role in capitalist decision-making. They will have to accept the premise that they often presume a level of familiarity with capitalist ideas that the general public simply doesn’t possess, and they will have to take steps to redress this. For starters, they should ask themselves why the black and yellow Dummies books that are so ubiquitous in bookstores are also so popular. It’s because people thirst for understanding and unashamedly buy manuals that assume they know nothing. Compare that proven thirst for knowledge, even at the cost of admitting ignorance, to the make-believe world the media would have us accept in which the general citizenry understands Wall Street, understands what brought on the mortgage crisis, understands who the rogues are who brought it on, understands why their behavior was encouraged, understands what the Iraq war is doing to our economy, understands the nature of the national debt and the trade imbalance.
And when the great print behemoths of the last century ask themselves why they are losing ground every day to the Internet, they should examine this make-believe readership and make-believe world they have posited and start reporting what people really need to know, and have said they want to know. What they are doing instead is trying to capture the Internet in order to perpetuate the myths they have conjured.
I said earlier it’s clear to me that The New York Times has been giving this issue some hard thought. On September 29th, for example, Stephanie Strom wrote a startling and disquieting report about how the express wishes of deceased philanthropists are often ignored and thwarted by the lawyers and bankers in whose care their fortunes were left. This story profoundly concerns all of us, as it raises questions about ethics, about philanthropy, about the rights of citizens to have their wills properly executed, about the integrity of lawyers and bankers. The New York Times wisely understood it was a front page story. The Times understood it was the kind of story people have told Pew Research they are interested in. If The Times continues down this road it will permeate its other coverage and eventually its newsroom will reflect the very idea that money is a component in almost every story.
I am not by any means arguing for a kind of crass, and even ugly obsession about money. I am merely arguing that we live in a capitalist society. We live in it by choice. This society is now confronted with its most serious challenge: how to behave compassionately, humanely toward each and every member and yet not undermine the underlying profit motive. Ask yourselves how many times you have seen the media encourage a discourse about this. Ask yourselves if you agree that it is an issue, and if it is, how big an issue? Doesn’t it impact on education, health care, insurance, cost of living, immigration, wages, voting rights, quality of life, and so much more?
This then is the task ahead of us: to offer readers and viewers the ABCs of a money society and a transparent view of how money is involved in so many of the issues that we now report as if money is not involved or as if money is only a minor aspect. Let me bring the conundrum closer for you journalism students. Who pays your professors? The university? Yes, but where do their endowments come from? Who sits on their boards? What they’re teaching you is a money issue. How they teach you is a money issue. Let me ask you another question. At the beginning of the Iraq war the government resisted releasing information about casualties. Over time the press began to report the names of casualties. Television even dramatizes the list with solemn music. But why aren't we getting daily lists of who is making money off this war, how many contracts are being let, how much money is being spent where and when and on what? There is no transparency and there is no media will to press for it. And yet the casualty list is a direct result of the decision to go to Iraq and to profiteer under the guise of delivering Western democracy to a people who have shown little enthusiasm for it.
If I have summoned the media to a hopelessly utopian challenge, what is a society worth that will not perfect itself, that declines to live up to the highest expression of its own ideals?
(You've been listening to Hot Copy. I'm Del Marbrook. If you'd like to hear more of what I have to say, please come visit at DelMarbrook.com).