A journalism-free news media

You don't need reporting skills to thrive in the news today. All you need is a big mouth or a famous parent

Topics: Media Criticism, ,

A journalism-free news mediaClockwise from upper left: Joe Scarborough, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Al Sharpton

For those who still believe a democracy needs traditional journalism, this is a harrowing time, to say the least. Local newspapers, for a century the foundation of real reporting, continue laying off the reporters doing the scratch-and-claw work of covering communities. At the same time, more media resources than ever are somehow being plowed into media coverage of the media — an unself-consciously narcissistic “never forget, we’re the real story” phenomenon most recently glorified in the documentary “Page One,” a retch-inducing heroization of the media desk at the New York Times. Meanwhile, a new push is on to distort what journalism actually is, from editors and reporters being paid by and/or investing in the industries they cover, to journalism schools changing their missions to include corporate marketing. The very definition of “journalist” is being reimagined by those aiming to enrich themselves. And, of course, all this is happening as the relatively few genuine journalists left in America are periodically lambasted for the horrific crime of actually reporting real news and questioning power.

But for all of these trends, none is more disturbing than recent moves to challenge the the basic assumption that journalism is even necessary anymore. In an economy that fetishizes synthetic derivatives rather than tangible products and in a political cauldron that periodically manufactures notions of “post-partisan,” “post-racial” and “post-industrial” utopias, the ascendant notion in the media industry is that news organizations and American democracy can survive and thrive in a “post-journalism” era — one that wholly removes journalism from the news media.

This is the revelation in the American Journalism Review’s new must-read, headlined “No Experience Necessary?.” The piece looks at how most political talk shows are now hosted by personalities with absolutely no grounding or training in actual journalism. That fact alone is not news — anyone who has turned on a television in the last few years knows that, in terms of journalism, professional bluster machines like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly are the opposite of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. What is revelatory, though, is the article’s look at how “many experienced journalists don’t see any reason to worry about the trend” of news media being unmoored from journalism. That’s right, the idea that journalism is even necessary is now controversial if not outright appalling to many in the media.

Explaining recent decisions by his news organization to hire people like Ed Schultz, Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry, Joe Scarborough and others with zero experience in journalism, MSNBC’s Phil Griffin summed up the new zeitgeist in a quote that could be the epitaph on journalism’s tombstone (emphasis added):

“I’m sorry, I don’t care about journalists…I want fair-minded, smart people who understand the world and can interpret it…If they’re journalists, great. This notion that you somehow you have to have done something to earn so-called journalists’ credentials? Stop.”

Griffin deserves some credit for at least being brutally honest about his animus toward journalism (and no doubt, when it comes to sheer hatred of journalism, he’s not even close to proud propagandists like Roger Ailes — after all, Griffin does employ Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes who anchor some portions of their programs in journalistic inquiry). But that’s about where the accolades should stop, because while he’s being honest — his message that we shouldn’t “care about” experience in, or basic devotion to, journalism is appalling, as is his scoffing at the idea that “somehow you have to have done something to earn” journalistic credibility. Summarizing a growing sentiment throughout the media industry, Griffin’s declaration doesn’t merely offer up a flippant middle finger to notions of meritocracy, nor does it just insult an entire profession. It proudly elucidates the fantasy that news media outlets can and should avoid the unglamorous work of news gathering — i.e. “journalism.”

This fantasy, of course, has been the unspoken business model of cut-and-paste blogging, aggregation and cable-TV punditry. The media equivalent of Wall Street derivatives, these cannibalistic forms are built on top of fewer and fewer journalism products — only instead of creating CDOs and tranches out of shaky mortgages, media companies create websites, blog posts and television shows out of commenting, riffing and snarking on the decreasing amount of content from the few outlets that still bother to report real news.

For the lazy and ill-informed, the trend is a huge boon — it allows people who have never done the work to report anything and never bothered to educate themselves to now realistically hope for news-media celebrity. Similarly, for the well-connected but untrained, it’s a fabulous development — if you have zero experience in journalism but, for example, happen to be Chelsea Clinton or Luke Russert, then you have every reason to expect a cherished spot in the news media.

And, no doubt, for media executives, the idea of news media sans journalism makes sense as a business strategy. As I am reminded every time I start writing an investigative column, magazine story or book, real journalism is about interviewing sources, digging through reams of data, questioning assumptions and challenging statements from the powerful — all grindingly difficult processes that require serious training, time and labor. By contrast, the ascendant journalism-free news media model is all about aggregating, pontificating and transcribing — endeavors that can be done as “cheaply, easily and superficially” as possible, as “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart recently noted. Thus, bean-counting executives looking at the next quarter’s earnings report no longer see a choice between journalism and journalism-free media as much of a choice at all — they increasingly select the lowest-cost content, the kind that even the most lazy, least-skilled of the media labor market’s population can manufacture.

Clearly, this decision is why a disproportionate amount of “news” today isn’t actually about expensive-to-report events and stories happening in the real world. It’s more often than not the cheap-to-report reaction (or reaction-to-a-reaction) to some outburst uttered by a non-journalists in the media bubble. Think: Geraldo Rivera on Trayvon Martin, Rush Limbaugh on Sandra Fluke, and Bill Maher on Limbaugh on Fluke. In other words, in a journalism-free news media, news is most often what Daniel Boorstin famously called a “spectacle” — events, controversies and scandals almost wholly conjured by the media itself.

The long-term problem for the industry is that events in the real world will inevitably command the audience’s attention. Sure, for now it may seem like there will always be a business model for journalism-free media, but when the truly painful effects of, say, global climate change, permanent war, mass poverty and financial meltdown start really shocking large swaths of the American middle class, it will be much more difficult for opinion-only “news” outlets to retain an audience by pretending the incoherent rantings of a talk-radio or cable-TV rodeo clown are a global scandal worthy of 24-7 coverage. At that point, we can legitimately hope that true journalism outlets able to report what’s going on will find a huge market — but that assumes there will be any such outlets left.

Hence, we arrive at the societal emergency. No, it’s not that already wealthy media corporations might see big losses from their gamble on journalism-free media – that’s an “emergency” only for the 1 percenters in the executive suites. For the rest of us, the real crisis presented by journalism-free news media is the now-imminent potential for a total information vacuum devoid of any authentic journalism outlet. If that happens, we will be deprived of an ability to make informed, preemptive decisions about our world either before crises get worse or during those crises when they happen. Indeed, if “news” is allowed to become pure opinion and manufactured controversy rather than reporting on tangible events — if journalism is completely snuffed out of the news business — then we will barely know about the huge happenings that will affect us all.

Yes, we will certainly know why we should love or hate Rush Limbaugh’s latest screed, because we will have plenty of opinion-mongers masquerading as reporters telling us what we should think – but we won’t know that our city is about to run out of water because the media no longer employs real journalists who can report that story. For the very same reason, we will know how great or how awful we are supposed to think Fox News or MSNBC is, but we won’t know of serious economic crises within our midst; we will know why to laugh at a presidential candidate’s idiotic gaffe, but we won’t know of environmental catastrophes in our backyard; we will know which inane YouTube video has gone most viral, but won’t know how many of our fellow countrymen are dying for lack of healthcare.

In short, we will become the “bewildered herd” that Walter Lippmann predicted: We will know only what the journalism-free business model tells us to focus on, without knowing what we should be most worried about.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>