Media Matters

MSM Waterloo?

The mainstream media has nowhere to go but in retreat.

By 1.10.06

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QUESTION: One of the things we've seen this year is the reduction in your approval ratings. And I know how you feel about polls, but it appears to be taking something out of your political clout, as evidenced by the Patriot Act vote.

What do you attribute your lowered polls to? And are you worried that independents are losing confidence in your leadership?

The question above gets my vote for the single most obnoxious utterance of the major media last year. The CNN transcript of the press conference President Bush held on December 19 does not identify the questioner. In the President's astonishingly restrained and polite answer, he addresses his interlocutor as "David," so I assume it was David Gregory of NBC.

The press did some truly awful things last year. The flying falsehoods in the reporting on hurricane Katrina. The spill-the-secrets betrayals of the New York Times's stories on CIA airplane flights to foreign holding centers. The mythic "outing" of Valerie Plame. And the relentless ongoing negativity of the coverage from Iraq.

But the concentrated blank-faced hypocrisy of those four sentences from Gregory takes the prize.

Let's imagine that President Bush could have answered that question the way it deserved.

"Oh, I don't know, Stretch. I suppose when the greatest image- and opinion-making machine the world has ever seen devotes five years to making me look bad, it might have some effect."

STORIED NEWSPAPERMAN BEN HECHT, in his out-of-print autobio, A Child of the Century, told how he and a photographer from a Chicago newspaper made news when there wasn't much of anything happening for real. They went to the shores of Lake Michigan, dug a jagged ditch, took a picture, and wrote up a story about an earthquake. Then they went out and filled up the ditch. It worked so well and created such a furor that they did it again.

That was back in the Roaring Twenties, and it was all quite innocent. Hecht and his photographer didn't bear anybody any ill will. They just wanted to stir up some excitement and have some laughs.

By contrast, I visited my sister a few years back and was struck by reading the Washington Post in person and on paper. Far more evident than on the web, the newsprint Post struck me as, well, sick. The Post created news, too, just like Ben Hecht, but it did so self-righteously, as a matter of policy -- not just some reporter's prank. For example, one day while I was in Virginia, the paper ran a front-page story about something, maybe it was radon contamination in Maryland schools. And then the next day, it ran a story based on results of a poll -- its own -- testing how upset Marylanders were about radon contamination in the schools.

The Washington Post, in other words, felt perfectly justified in trying to run a local school board.

I'VE BEEN AROUND NEWSPAPERS all my life -- they're a family business, in a humble way. I go back long before the word "media" came to be applied to the news business. I've never had any illusions about the elevated virtues of news reporting. My Dad, who took to the advertising side of the business, made it very clear to me that newspapering was "writing on the backs of advertisements," as George Bernard Shaw once described it. If you don't sell enough space, the reporters don't get room to write. And papers do display favoritism. My first editor was a bigshot in the Lion's Club. The Lion's Club got a lot of ink. Big deal.

I have seen newspapers go through two big, wrenching transformations. Today, we take for granted that newspapers print lovely color pictures and tight, sharp type. That's a product of the first transformation, a technical one, from letterpress printing to offset. In letterpress, ink is applied to a raised lead surface and applied to paper by presses as big and heavy as locomotives. In offset, a mixture of ink and water is applied to a far more delicate engraved surface, then transferred to a rubber blanket, thence applied to paper.

That change, an enormously expensive one involving a big new capital investment, drove marginal newspapers out of business in the late '50s and early '60s.

The second transforming influence came from national TV network news. When the latest news could be obtained from the tube at dinner time, the afternoon daily paper became obsolete. Seemingly overnight, cities with two newspapers were reduced to one, and big cities with half a dozen or more papers fell to three or two or one.

TODAY, THE CONVERGENCE AND TRANSFORMATION has grown more complicated. Watergate started it all, giving newspapers a shot of arrogance from which they have never recovered. Then came the Internet and Clinton and talk radio at about the same time. The major media took sides, and the Internet and radio fought back.

Major news media today has become an image-making enterprise, much more like the advertising agencies of classic Madison Avenue in the 1950s. And, just as with old-time Madison Avenue, people tell pollsters they don't trust reporters, "the media," as it is said now.

I used to watch cable TV news shows during the Clinton impeachment and think, "Can't people see what's going on?" Of course, people did, and people do, and major media nowadays, while not quite in its death throes -- it still controls the national hearthbeat, television -- is obviously fighting a desperate rearguard battle.

There may, indeed, come a media Waterloo, the ultimate convergence of declining TV news viewership, splintering audiences scattered across too many channels, and falling newspaper circulation and ad revenues. It may have begun already, in the coverage of the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito (I write this over the weekend of January 7-8). It should offer myriad opportunities for over-the-top outrage.

Because, in response to today's multi-element convergence, the media has not responded rationally. Offset printing was a technical revolution, resulting in capital re-investment. Television caused print consolidation. Today's competition, more like a death of a thousand cuts, has seen the media retreat into siege-like ideological solidarity. That just can't work, especially as the news product gets ever more predictable, and -- face it -- ever more dull.

The old fashioned "news triangle" was "facts -- interest -- readers" -- facts of interest to your readers. If you ignore facts, and the readers aren't interested anymore, there's simply nowhere to go.

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.