The News: Decline and Resurrection

“The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.” A. J. Liebling

Trouble with the News

What happened to the news? What happened to journalism? Journalists are supposed to


Clownish pundits mistaken for newsmen.

operate by an ethical code; it used to be an honorable profession, it used to provide a public service. The last “news” show I watched was a string of repeated rumors about the infidelity of various celebrities. Who cares? Yet someone must care, because mainstream TV is driven by ratings (i.e. money.)  According to the PBS Frontline documentary, News War, news media have deteriorated because of Government censorship, has been castrated by FCC deregulation, bought out by big corporations, and usurped by the internet.

Government and the News

Nixon wasn’t fond of the news media back when it did operate with some integrity. They weren’t very fond of him, either, and ultimately ended his presidency with Watergate. Nixon tried strong-arming the press with threats of prosecution under the Espionage Act, but they went ahead and printed the Pentagon papers anyway. The Pentagon papers informed the American public that the justification for the War in Vietnam (the Gulf of Tonkin Incident) was a lie. This made the American public angry. Nixon claimed that the N.Y. Times and the Washington Post were providing “aid and comfort to the enemy” by printing the truth; and that they were guilty of treason.

News Wars Continue

The Bush administration confronted the Washington Post and the New York Times when they printed stories about “CIA black sites,” (secret prisons,) and exposed the secret executive order authorizing wiretaps in America without benefit of a court order. He also accused the press of unpatriotic behavior. I don’t know why the American public didn’t rise up this time, but it could be because the people don’t trust either the news media or the government anymore.

FCC Deregulation and the News

What happened to the Code of Ethics? I used to hang our with journalists, and while they weren’t saints, they did have a sense of mission. Journalists used to dig out the truth, cite their sources, and give the other guy a chance to respond. Stories were sometimes held back until these steps had been taken. Here is the preamble to the Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists:  “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.” In the “deregulate everything” mood of the 1980’s, FCC requirements requiring broadcasters to provide public service were kicked to the curb and from that point on,  broadcasting became just another business venture.

Corporate Takeover of the News

With no regulations and the financial success of 60 Minutes, corporate sharks smelled the blood in the water and began buying up news media. Here is who owns the news shows now:  Disney, General Electric, Time-Warner, Microsoft, Westinghouse, and Rupert Murdock. How likely is it that a story critical of big business will be aired? I get my news from Jon Stewart and yes, I know he’s a comedian and the show is on Comedy Central; a satire picking on “real” news shows.  According to News War, TV critics named his show as the best news show on TV-and that says something about the rest of them.

Internet and the News

Let’s face facts: Walter Cronkite isn’t coming back. Big, fat corporations own the news media. And the internet is here to stay. Citizen-journalists who are not beholden to corporations are free to provide all the news they want on blogs and websites. Some of these follow an ethical code and some have never heard the phrase. But Josh Wolf, who posted a video of a protest march online may be the first cyber-journalist to go to jail for protecting his sources. Wolf spent 226 days in a federal prison for refusing to give all his out-takes to the FBI, on the rationale that he is a journalist and not a police informant. The news has been declining for a long time, maybe it’s due for resurrection in cyberspace.

Note: In addition to Jon Stewart, try U.K newspapers like the Guardian (liberal) and the Daily Telegraph (conservative)


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