Scenes from the Media Meltdown

The most obvious velleities of the major mainstream media today are, first, a hatred of Fox News, and second, a primal scream at the fact that over the last 25 years old fashioned print and broadcast media have shrunk more than coal mining.

Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s famed journalism school, took to the pages of the New York Review of Books in a recent issue to lament the sorry state of journalism and wondering if the “broken media” can be “saved,” but offering a perfect expression of how out of touch the media is today.

Employment in newspaper newsrooms decreased by 45 percent from 2008 to 2017—and by 60 percent from 1990 to 2016. . .  Newspapers’ paid circulation has declined from 62.5 million in 1968 to 34.7 million in 2016, while the country’s population was increasing by 50 percent. Just between 2007 and 2016, newspapers’ advertising revenue, their major source of income, declined from $45.4 billion to $18.3 billion (by 2016 Google was making about four times the advertising revenue of the entire American newspaper industry). Almost 1,800 newspapers, most of them local weeklies, have closed since 2004. This collapse is especially significant because newspapers were traditionally where most American journalists worked, and where most original reporting was done. . .

The Baltimore Sun has reduced its editorial staff from a peak of 400 in the late 1990s to 80 today. The Boston Globe has reduced its staff of full-time journalists from more than 500 to fewer than 285. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is down from more than 530 to fewer than 150. Formerly big papers like the Rocky Mountain News, The Tampa Tribune, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans no longer exist.

Yes, of course that’s the good news, and it is understandable if you decided to file this data under “Feel Good Story of the Day.”

But Lemann unwittingly puts his finger on one large reason for the decline of the mainstream media later in the article:

In this era [before the 1960s], newspaper journalists were becoming white-collar: paid better than they had been before, and more likely to be college educated and to think of themselves as independent professionals with the stature to question government officials and other institutional authority figures. The big newspapers’ enhanced profitability financed this status upgrade. Television and radio had eroded their ability to be the prime deliverers of basic facts about daily events; newspapers responded by turning to what Pressman calls “interpretive journalism” and Schudson calls “contextual journalism.” Look at the front page of a first-rate American newspaper, and you’ll probably see that only a minority of the stories are summaries of events from the previous day and that several of them entail the reporters gathering information on their own and using it to present a conclusion they have drawn. That represented a big change from the newspaper tradition before the 1960s, which was more neutral, stenographic, and focused on official events.

This is an entirely cogent explanation of how the media lurched to the left and thereby steadily alienated millions of Americans to the point that esteem for the media is about on par with trial lawyers and used car salesmen today. Journalists became puffed up celebrities, often part of the story themselves (Exhibit 1: CNN’s Jim Acosta), believing that they have specialized professional expertise on part with the specialized training of a lawyer or doctor. Lemann admits that reporting consists less and less of reporting what happened in favor of thinking it is the job of the journalist to interpret events for you. It is demonstrably the case today that you can’t tell the difference between a “news analysis” article (the precious term for “opinion piece on the news page”) and a supposedly straight news piece, which, curiously, almost always take the same line in every major media outlet except Fox, which is why they all hate Fox. The media today “spin” the news every bit as much as politicians do, but they have no self awareness of this basic fact.

Journalism was better back in the old days when it was a working class occupation open to anyone who could write cogent sentences. There was more “diversity” in newsrooms then, and less ego-puffery. The idea that you need to have a professional degree from a prestige university in order to have the stature to “question government officials and other institutional authority figures” is absurd. I can just imagine what H.L. Mencken would say in response to this pretension.

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