Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The newsman is bigger than the news

Peter Jennings died this week. The world mourns his passing; he seemed like the real deal, slightly more intelligent than his peers, definitely more debonair, and also more interested in and cognizant of affairs outside the United States. He was, of course, Canadian, which could explain all these things.

I am writing this not to mourn nor to praise Mr. Jennings, but rather to exhibit my amazement and disgust of how the news networks covered his passing -- in particular, the amount of coverage it gathered. Okay, I know Jennings was one of the big three "voice of God" newsreaders, but come on. Did the death of Peter Jennings really warrant top-of-the-broadcast placement on all three major networks? Did it warrant 5-10 minutes of coverage on the competing CBS and NBC nightly newscasts? Did it warrant a full 20 minutes of coverage (out of 30 total) on ABC? I think not.

There is no way that Jennings' death was more important than the day's typically horrifying news out of Iraq. There is no way that Jennings' death was more important than the ongoing scandals within the Bush administration. There is no way that Jennings' death was more important than the pork-filled highway bill being passed. There is absolutely, positively no fucking way that Jennings' death was more important than the tens of thousands of deaths resulting from the genocide in Darfur. Yeah, Jennings was a very important person, but the world goes on.

So what inspired the orgy of Jennings coverage from the major news organizations? Was it really all about respecting the passing of a valued colleague, or was it simply insider navel gazing? Does the general public care that much about Jennings or is it the networks themselves that have all the interest?

I hope it's the latter, although I don't have to like it. The news networks covering the news networks as news isn't new, but rather a further sign of the deterioration of real journalism in our broadcast media. When the newsmakers become the news, our priorities are seriously warped.

It would be worse if the public actually viewed Jennings' death as a significant news event -- although that wouldn't be surprising, either. It's the cult of celebrity, where Jen and Brad and Angelina are more newsworthy than government corruption, dubious international incursions, and large-scale slaughter. As a public we should be interested in those major events that are truly shaping our world; instead, we just want to hear about what the pretty people are doing. Sad, really.

Peter Jennings' death is important, though, in the way it either signals or reflects an ongoing change in our broadcast media. In the past six months we've seen all three voice-of-God newsreaders either retire or pass away, which causes many pundits to assume that the death of traditional media is close at hand. In reality, the major broadcast networks have been sliding for almost 25 years now; the passing of Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather just draws attention to the trend. And it's not that the network news organizations are dying, it's that they're becoming both less effective and less relevant -- the second one being directly related to the first, of course.

Most people today either don't remember or don't realize that the modern age of responsible, socially conscious journalism didn't start until the 1940s. Before then, yellow journalism and advocacy journalism were the rule; there may have been three newspapers in every city, but each was biased in its own way. World War II was the event that helped to create a less-biased, more objective brand of journalism, as practiced by Edward R. Murrow and other reporters of that generation.

Of course, the Murrow generation couldn't live forever, and the ending of that era coincided with the decline in modern journalism. It all started in the early 1980s, when Walter Cronkite retired. Uncle Walter was the true voice of God, the most respected man in America, and Dan Rather was a pale shadow of -- and a poor replacement for -- the main man. Cronkite's secret was that all he did was report the news; in contrast, Rather and his ilk injected themselves into the story. (In a way Geraldo Rivera is the evil spawn of Dan Rather; can you see the similarities?) When the newsman becomes part of the news, objectivity becomes suspect.

Around the same time, we saw the true journalistic consequence of the Watergate scandal. Instead of inspiring more aggressive investigatory journalism, the Watergate affair actually led to more inexperienced reporters striving for star status. Every young buck out of J-school wanted to be the next Woodward or Bernstein -- not in terms of reporting, but rather in terms of fame. Blame it all on Bob and Carl, or more accurately, on Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Everyone wanted to be a star.

But perhaps the most important factor in the decline of modern journalism was the birth of the 24-hour news channel, in the form of Cable Network News. It was twenty-five years ago that CNN hit viewers' screens, and the need to fill all that time with something led to much of the time being filled with total dreck -- often the same dreck, repeated over and over and over again. (Runaway bride, anyone?) CNN also was in it for the money, where the traditional network news organizations weren't; broadcast journalism used to be about prestige, not about bucks. But twenty-five years later it's all about the bottom line, and how to fill 24 hours a day cheaply and in a way that draws the most viewers for the advertisers. That means lots of celebrity news, the return of yellow/tabloid journalism, and as much inflaming of passions as is necessary to keep the ratings high.

The result of all these changes is more news than we've ever had before, with less coverage of important events. It's both symptomatic of and a contributing factor to the dumbing down of America. We should be ashamed.

So we mourn the passing of Peter Jennings and the big three voice-of-God newscasts, perhaps a little more than we should. If Thomas Jefferson was right that a successful democracy requires an informed populace, then the union is in danger.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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