Journalism is Dead
There was no one thing that killed journalism. There was no singular tragic moment. No literary or poetic climax. This is real life, not Hollywood.
When I was a kid, I remember hearing “old folks” complain about how the young had no respect for their elders—just a bunch of goddammed hippies singing about love and marijuana—and how the country was going to hell in a handbasket. Now that I’m the age of those old folks, I find myself thinking (and sometimes saying) scarily similar things—and I do sometimes wonder if the world really is coming apart at the seams.
But, thinking back to those old folks and their pessimism, I wonder if there’s not some sort of “half-century filter” that envelopes our minds when we pass our fiftieth birthdays and makes it seem as though the young are not made of the same stuff that we were, that politics has gone off the rails, and that America and the rest of civilization is in decline.
The last few years politically have been a low-point, at least in my limited fifty-year experience of politics. Our most recent presidential election was and continues to be marred by doubts about Russian or other outside influence. What happened, how much influence there was, and whether it affected the outcome is uncertain. What is pretty apparent to any objective person is that neither side—Democrats nor Republicans—had clean hands.
As with our political parties, the American people are also divided—about half the populace has been dead set on “resisting” the President since his election, the latest manifestation of which is the current impeachment proceedings. The other half believes he can do no wrong, even when he obviously makes mistakes and speaks in ways that demean the office.
History will remember our current President for many things. One will no doubt be his gift for labelling—taking a name and adding a pejorative adjective. This is not high science. But, credit where it is due—the man has effectively labeled many of his opponents—I say effectively in the sense that the nicknames he chooses stick, they get repeated, and as anyone who has studied language and philosophy knows, there is power in naming: Crooked Hillary; Sleepy Joe; Nervous Nancy; Little Marco.
But, the most powerful name Trump has given, the christening that I know will be studied in history books, is “Fake News.” Because “News” used to stand for journalism—and “journalism” meant ethics, objectivity, impartiality, integrity. But what gets published and broadcast today via news channels—television, radio, print—is not journalism. Those standards have been abandoned.
Journalism is dead.
There were numerous contributors to the death of journalism.
The twenty-four hour new cycle contributed—media channels had to find stories to fill all those hours, and if there wasn’t enough news—or it wasn’t interesting enough or engaging enough—reporters began to make what little “news” there might be seem more important and relevant. Inflate, escalate, exacerbate.
The concentration of media ownership contributed as well. It is naïve to believe that skewing and bias in the news by owners of media companies is something new. In the past there were both media moguls and ideologues pushing their agendas. But, fewer owners and outlets with broader reach means fewer points of view—and fewer counterpoints—reaching more and more of the masses.
Social media and the internet stuck their steely knives into the heart of journalism as well. Never in history have so many underinformed people, had so much access, to publish so much crap, to so many listeners seeking confirmation of their own opinions. The blame should not fall (entirely) on the social media companies or their platforms. That would be like blaming the soapbox in the town square for the opinions of a speaker. The soapbox is simply a facilitator. It has no responsibility for filtering information. But, thousands of idiots standing on thousands of soapboxes definitely make it more difficult to distinguish signal from noise.
And, the last, the final and guiltiest contributors to the death of journalism were journalists themselves—professional journalists.
Journalism is dead because journalists let it die.
One can forgive the unwashed masses for voicing biased opinions on FaceBook and Twitter—for failing to check sources (Snopes please!) and for selective “reporting”. They are, after all, the un- and under-informed. The Antifa left. The deplorables.
But, journalists are in theory trained in objectivity, in ethics, in a level professionalism that earned them the title of the fourth estate. Rather than fighting to live up to those ideals, journalists focused on all of the new voices in the marketplace of ideas—and saw them as competitors. Rather than raise the level of debate, journalists jumped into the muck with the un- and under-informed.
I cannot tell you with specificity the day the music died.
Journalism died a little when journalists began reporting on and calling “news” what other journalists (or late-night show hosts) say.
It died a little when editorial ramblings on FOX, MSNBC, CNN aired under the title of “News” and not “Opinion.”
It died a little when news outlets buried stories about immigrant children under the Obama administration but made them headlines under Trump—this and countless other instances of selective reporting hacked away at the fourth estate.
It died a little when the press killed stories about Jeffrey Epstein due to pressure from the Royal Family but published every comment and innuendo that bubbled up about Brett Kavanaugh.
There was no one thing that killed journalism. There was no singular tragic moment. No literary or poetic climax. This is real life, not Hollywood. Or maybe, better said, this was real life that slowly morphed into Hollywood.
What we can say is that journalism is dead because “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Journalism is dead. It died, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”