Editor’s note: This is an opinion column written by George Salamon.
The reports from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism remain relentlessly glum. There is no need to “do the numbers” one more depressing time. They’re still going down, with an increase in digital subscriptions for some newspapers the exceptional bright spot.
The latest report, “The State of the News Media 2013,” lists the usual suspects for the continuing decline: fewer people enjoy following the news; half of all Americans get their news digitally; only 23 percent of Americans read a newspaper daily; only 34 percent of Americans under 30 watch TV news. Same old, same old.
But there is one sentence in the report that ought to make practicing and prospective journalists sit up and pay attention: “Nearly a third of U.S. adults, 31 percent, have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided the news they were accustomed to getting.” Yow! The news junkies are abandoning the news. These are the people who are hoping for information and insight to help them understand local, national and international events. They’re telling us that they’re not getting that understanding any longer. So what’s going on here?
Take the answer to that question from my cable guy here in St. Louis. As he was installing the service, I asked him where he got his news.
“I turn on Fox News occasionally,” he said, “and most of the time they’re shouting at me or each other. But I can find out what the rich people are thinking, and if I should worry about my job, or where to look for the next one.”
I followed up by asking why he’s not watching a labor-friendly network, like MSNBC.
“What can they do for me?” he shot back.
Well, what are all of them – on the TV or computer screen, on radio or in print – doing and not doing that has driven many Americans away from the news? They’re not giving their audiences what is still called “explanatory journalism,” information within context or history. They rarely connect the dots, or ask the questions that might reveal who benefits and who loses from what’s going on economically, politically and culturally. Sure, explanatory journalism can be found regularly in the papers with sufficient resources to practice it, such as the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and a few others.
But, how many middle-class and blue-collar workers have the time or money to subscribe to the New York Times? When I arrived in New York in 1948 from Europe, the paper cost 5 cents; today’s newsstand price is $2.50. The math is easy: Have salaries gone up since to keep pace with the price increases of the paper? (End of joke question.) But that’s not the only reason that thoughtful (or thought-provoking) journalism is hard to find – and expensive to buy.
It’s the TV screen itself that discourages the kind of reporting the mostly older news junkies crave. Now, why is that? In his splendid book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” culture critic Neil Postman wrote: “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.”
Postman got no less a deity of TV news as Robert MacNeil, then executive editor and co-anchor of the esteemed “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour” on PBS, to explain how that works: “The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone, but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement. You are required … to pay attention to no concept, no character and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”
Check out how that works on Chris Matthew’s “Hardball,” for example, where two opposing strategists, one Democrat the other Republican, shout at (or over) or each other briefly, with the match ending as the two and their host burst into a chorus of self-congratulatory chuckles. Or recall the 2012 presidential debates. What sticks in memory: the content of a debate itself, or the yelling and laughter of the network’s panel afterward? That’s why one wag said a long time ago that “the referee always wins.”
Now, it’s not that some of the cable “personalities” couldn’t do good reporting and provide some meaning on the subject for their listeners or viewers. I’ve seen Rachel Maddow do just that on MSNBC, occasionally. But most of the time her “analysis” is like the one she offered for the book written by her MSNBC fellow host Chris Hayes, “Twilight of the Elites,” (in the “failed decade 1999-2010” with its financial meltdown of 2008): “I guess,” she said, “we need a better elite.”
America is likely to discover a better mousetrap before it develops a “better elite,” something Maddow, a member of the elite herself, probably knows. But you have to stick to the quick and shallow, or the old MacNeil formula.
That, as my cable guy realized, doesn’t do much for him. Or, apparently, for that “nearly one-third” of Americans turning away from news outlets entirely. Anyone willing to change and bring them back to the news?
George Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.