News-Consumers Starve on Gossip DietFebruary 10th, 2008

With the presidential election just a few (38) short weeks away, the embedded mass media can’t seem to focus on anything else. Just over the past couple of days, it wasn’t news when the executive branch announced to the legislative branch that torture is legal, notwithstanding laws prohibiting such practices. It wasn’t news that at least five American kids died in the occupation of Iraq. It wasn’t news when a sugar refinery blew up and killed some workers. It wasn’t news that the nation’s nervous allies in the Afghan adventure were expressing misgivings over all their dead boys. It wasn’t news that Russia is beefing up its army. Bleak, even dire economic indicators emerging from a hundred different sources weren’t news, but like the other items, were given only passing mention by the embedded mass media. Extended discussion of Romney’s political liabilities and Huckabee’s political assets left no time for journalism.

People now debate whether the news is censored to keep us from knowing what’s going on or is merely edited to appeal to us as an audience. The truth may be simply that political discussion, like all gossip, is cheap. Talking about real issues requires work, and work is money, and if you can sell blather as news, you make more money. Start talking about why people are getting killed at work, and by the time you get finished paying for research and actual journalism, you’re in the hole.

And who cares about this stuff anyway? People would just as soon hear a roundtable discussion of Hillary’s couture as an account of how five kids got killed for Bush. Reporters used to tell us stuff we didn’t want to hear, and the public just got mad at them. Blamed them for losing this war and that war. Blamed them for bringing down this leader and that leader. Blamed them for demorallzing ordinary folk and for killing God. “Put a stop to all this bad news!” consumers seemed to be shouting, and so the publishers and broadcasters just cut the news off altogether to concentrate exclusively on gossip.

Not all journalists are corrupt, but there’s no way for the news-consumer to tell the good from the bad, the ones who should be believed from the ones who shouldn’t. That’s why this profession needs an ethic. Russert knows he’s scamming the public when he neglects important events to focus on politics, but he thinks it’s OK, because there’s no standard to bind him.

Like all professional standards, a journalistic ethic must be adopted by the consensus of the practitioners and not imposed from without. What might be the consensus of reporters and editors? Would they be willing to refrain from reporting on the personal lives of entertainers? Would they be willing to give up anonymous sources? Would they be willing to forego prognostication, prediction, and speculation? Would they be willing to accord due attention to complicated or unpopular or unexciting events of importance? Would they be willing to abide by an objective standard of what’s newsworthy and what isn’t?

As one of the few occupations that enjoy constitutional protection, journalism owes its public some standard of conduct, but it never has had one. In fact, reporters are notorious for their abuse of the protections they have. They intrude on grief, and they invade privacy. They engage in character assassination, and they often rush to judgment. Sometimes they misinform, and sometimes they disinform. They’ve been doing this since before the revolution, and there’s been no reason to think they will ever change.

Until now. Now we have this medium. In about a dozen years, we’ve circulated more news and more discussion here than we could have imagined possible when men walked on the moon. I get at least five times as much information today as I ever got from a daily newspaper, radio, and TV. It’s not all reliable, and it’s not all easily digestible, and it often contradicts what I get from other sources, but it supplies me with some of the tools of citizenship that I need to do my duty to the republic. As the information that comes over this medium becomes more and more accessible, TV and newspapers, lacking an ethic, will gradually cease to be dispensers of news and will function solely as distractions.