Michael D’Antonio discusses some of the changes in the practice of journalism over the past 30 years and reasons journalists have lost public respect. Because we live in an age of soundbites, in which the audience is spared compound and complex sentences in favor of short declarations, caused perhaps by the rapid episodic nature of electronic mediation, those of us who write for public audiences must often summarize trends in short phrases; I’ll do so in a word. The problem could be called “buzz.”
Buzz is the what’s-being-said of current events. Not facts. Not careful observations. Buzz is the “street” of an issue. How did we come to a state of affairs where buzz is treated as news? D’Antonio suggests one starting point could be the Gary Hart affair of 1988, in which mainstream media first reported his affair with Donna Rice based on tabloid reports rather than original, mainstream reporting. That led to a change in journalistic procedure:
Television and newspapers would report what the tabloids were saying if their news executives thought those tabloid reports were affecting their subjects.
If candidate X were discussing proposal Y, the press might downplay that politically useful information in favor of allegation Z coming from a supermarket tabloid or tabloid TV show. Why? Because it was “street,” it was “buzz,” it was affecting the candidate (because the mainstream press reported it, but never mind). D’Antonio continues:
Whether those decisions amounted to good or bad journalism is somewhat beside the point. The issue is how readers interpreted this blurring of the lines. They could hardly be faulted if they found it more difficult to distinguish between reporters for major dailies and those writing in the tabloids about two-headed space aliens.
Something bad happens when these lines are blurred:
Viewing this trend, many serious journalists see something ominous. “The values of entertainment have taken over, replacing public service,” says Richard Reeves, author, columnist and former chief political correspondent for the New York Times. “That makes me worry not just about the press, but about the survival of something as basic as the truth.”
Truth, the journalistic kind anyway, is discovered by a process of objective reporting, i.e. a search truth using proven methods that strive for accuracy and fairness. No one escapes his ideological biases. But a process of objectivity at least makes it possible for journalists to demonstrate fidelity to something greater than their individual opinions or political desires.
When journalists report buzz as news they abandon that process of objectivity and turn the news into politically useless infotainment.
I’ve only touched on one aspect of this worthy essay. Go read the whole thing.