Thursday, July 28, 2011

Meredith and Katy

In my opinion, one example of the decay in American journalism is the fact that the movement of journalists from one program to another has itself become news. When a journalist is fired or resigns or takes a new position, that journalist often makes the rounds on other shows and is interviewed about the move. The journalist is the news.

This phenomenon is part of our current focus on so-called “celebrity news.” The journalists themselves have become celebrities, so events in their lives are considered celebrity news in this day and age. But when a journalist is the news, it detracts from her ability to deliver other news objectively.

This summer two media stories received a lot of attention. One involved Meredith Viera’s departure from the Today show. The other involves Katy Couric’s departure from the CBS Evening News, her initial indecision about the next stage of her career and her eventual decision to host an afternoon talk show. I rarely watch TV, but when I turned it on this summer, I saw an awful lot of attention paid to these two news stories.

I am not even clear why we consider these stories to be newsworthy. Plenty of people make career changes. In modern America, it is indeed a frequent occurrence. When a journalist goes from one employer to another, it should not distract from learning about budget battles on Capitol Hill or the details of the violence in Syria.

But people like Ms. Viera and Ms. Couric are celebrities, so their career changes are lumped in with other celebrity news. To me, people like Ms. Viera and Ms. Couric don’t really seem like journalists any more. The line has been so blurred between journalism and celebrity. These big name “journalists” earn millions of dollars each year. Those big paychecks are not doled out for straight delivery of the news. They are doled out because these “journalists” have become entertainers, and like many entertainers in this country they earn the big bucks.

As fate would have it, on the day that turned out to be Meredith Viera’s last day on the Today show, I was under the weather. Confined to my bed, I turned on the TV and watched a bit. Frankly, I don’t think I watched the Today show the whole time Ms. Viera was co-hosting. On that last day, I caught a montage of what were apparently her finest moments on the show. The montage was accompanied by her on-air colleagues singing her praises. In the montage, she was shown in past appearances making goofy faces, playing jokes, dressing in costumes, and showing compassion to guests. Her on-air colleagues praised her warmth and sense of humor. They gushed at how she brought so much of herself to each interview.

I was horrified. Why are these thought to be laudable attributes of an alleged journalist? How does bringing so much of oneself aid the objectivity that is supposed to be the hallmark of good news programs? I was particularly horrified that the montage included clips of interviews where Ms. Viera was clearly shown sympathizing with a particular guest. This was seen as a good thing because she was being so compassionate. What about the other side? Aren’t there always at least two sides to every news story? How do we know the guests’ position was the best to support?

Even though I was a semi-captive audience due to my illness, I turned off the T.V. I couldn’t bear to watch any more. Despite the wildfires in Arizona, the devastating drug war in Mexico, and the cruelty of Qadhafi’s attempts to retain power, real news was being ignored to celebrate ad nauseum the five years Ms. Viera had been on the Today show.

The attention this summer to Ms. Couric’s next career move was also demoralizing to me. The news stories focused primarily on her ability to attract viewers and the changing realities of attracting ratings in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and internet updates. Even on NPR, real news was ignored and time was spent debating whether Ms. Couric’s talk show will be successful from a ratings perspective.

It is so sad that we allow ourselves to be sidetracked from more pressing matters to focus on such trivialities. The news is frankly now just viewed as another form of entertainment. Moreover, the presentation of the news has become just one segment of the entertainment industry. Thus, we pay attention to how many consumers it will attract because that is what drives the bottom line. We don’t pay attention to how well the news is being delivered and how much information we are getting about what is going on in the world around us.

Proverbs 9:6

Leave off, simple ones [forsake the foolish and simpleminded] and live! And walk in the way of insight and understanding.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Decline of CNN and Hard News

In our country, our news is delivered largely by for-profit media businesses. Their reporting is driven by the need to attract customers, i.e., readers, viewers, listeners. I’ve been worried for a while whether that model is compatible with the need for a well-informed citizenry. We as an electorate need to know what is going on in the world, in our country and in our communities so that we can form prudent opinions about policy and cast our ballots accordingly. But in the current age, we just aren’t getting enough information.

People blame the media, but in a for-profit model, the news outlets give us what we are most inclined to consume. If we prefer reading rumors about Jennifer Anniston’s love life or watching a report on a chain-smoking baby, that is the sort of thing the media will try to give us more frequently. By comparison, if we don’t tune in to learn more about the current humanitarian crisis along the Kenya-Somalia border or the structural issues causing unsustainable increases in our health care costs, then news outlets won’t give us as much of that. They give us what we’ll consume. And besides, it is more expensive to send reporters to remote regions in Africa or to investigate complicated economic issues than it is to pay some paparazzi to stalk celebrities.

I’m not saying that government funded media is the solution. Certainly, that approach has its own set of issues. But the profit-driven media approach we have is problematic and flawed.

I was particularly reminded of that point recently when I listened to an NPR report on the plight of CNN. The report is available at the following link:

Our family canceled cable years ago and we don’t watch much TV except when we travel. I hadn’t realized that CNN’s ratings have become a casualty of the clash of the Fox News and MSNBC echo chambers. Per the report, CNN has tried to stay neutral and focus on actual reporting. Their forte is apparently delivering news. But apparently people aren’t tuning in for that. They would rather opt for the loud, bombastic talking heads of Fox News and MSNBC.

This really depresses me. As consumers of news and as citizens of the world’s oldest modern democracy, we can’t allow this situation to continue. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in our country. With great blessings come great responsibility.

Luke 12:48

“For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

“On The Media” and “Echo Chambers”

Another “On the Media” show recently was really fascinating. It involved the concept of “echo chambers.”

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the World English Dictionary defines the term “echo chamber” as follows:

“Also called: reverberation chamber a room with walls that reflect sound. It is
used to make acoustic measurements and as a source of reverberant sound to be
mixed with direct sound for recording or broadcasting.”

The term “echo chamber” has been used in recent years to describe the concept that in our modern society people have so many choices about where to get information, and they are often choosing to get their information from sources that express beliefs or perspectives that are similar or identical to their own. Per this use of the term “echo chamber,” people who are disgruntled right-wingers listen to Rush or Bill to get their news because those gentlemen will put a conservative spin pleasing to their audience. Alternately, such members of the public may read books by Glenn or Ann for the same reasons. Along the same lines, the concept is that liberals will listen to Steven or Jon, or read a book by Al, or watch a film by Michael to get a spin on world events, with which they agree.

Previous discussions I’ve heard on the “echo chamber” concept essentially blame the news consumer. The standard antidote is that we should consume news from sources that at least try to provide a more objective presentation of events. It is also advocated that we should make a conscious effort to listen to viewpoints with which we do not agree.

However, the recent “On the Media” program on echo chambers explored the possibility that there may be behind-the-scenes efforts via the internet to personalized content such that there may be an echo chamber effect that we do not even realize. Despite our best efforts, we may not be escaping our own echo chamber. It was a fascinating program. The link below will allow you to access the report.

Job 5:3

I have seen the foolish taking root [and outwardly prospering], but suddenly I saw that his dwelling was cursed [for his doom was certain].

Saturday, July 9, 2011

“On the Media” and “Internet Facts”

Recently, “On the Media” examined a sensational, horrifying news story that traveled quickly around the world, but turned out to not be true. The “On the Media” piece explored the increasingly blurry line between television news reporting and social media. In internet-based “news,” fact-checking standards are often much looser or even non-existent. But the public is not always savvy about that. In that context, something that is completely false can become widely recognized as a “fact,” thus the coining of the term “internet fact.”

In listening to the “On the Media” report, it seemed to me that as news consumers we are often too believing. And it seems that is even more the case when the “news” source is one like social media. We need to be less trusting and we need to think critically about the media we consume—regardless of its source. But we need to be particularly skeptical when the source is an informal one where the authority in question may or may not have thoroughly investigated the claims it is making.

The transcript of the “On the Media” report is available below.

Proverbs 14:18

Foolish dreamers live in a world of illusion; wise realists plant their feet on the ground.

Friday, July 1, 2011

“On the Media” Radio Program

I’m usually running around on the weekends, but sometimes when I’m in the car running errands or if I’m cooking in the kitchen, I turn on NPR and catch some of their weekend programming. One of my all-time favorite NPR programs—but one that I catch least frequently due to its afternoon weekend broadcast timing—is the “On the Media” program with Brooke Gladstone.

“On the Media” is an hour long radio program that analyzes how the media report the news. As the show’s website declares:

“On the Media” explores how the media 'sausage' is made, casts an incisive eye
on fluctuations in the marketplace of ideas, and examines threats to the freedom
of information and expression in America and abroad. For one hour a week, the
show tries to lift the veil from the process of "making media," especially news
media, because it's through that lens that we literally see the world and the
world sees us.


I love the way that paragraph sums up the show. Because the media has such a critical role in shaping how we all think about different topics and ultimately the political policies we do or do not support, it is important for us as a society to think critically about the way the media do their job and how news is presented to us.

But the paragraph above is not just a bunch of clever words. The radio pieces are insightful and I often think about them for long periods of time afterwards. The next couple of posts will flag “On the Media” reports that I found particularly thought provoking.

Isaiah 21:6

This is what the Lord says to me:
“Go, post a lookout and have him report what he sees.