1998 -- Year-End Review
A Critical Year for the American News Media (12/98)
By Ted Marks
Some day, fifty years from now, when historians have the chance to analyze American history at the turn of the 21st century, the year of 1998 may turn out to be a pivotal one in their analysis of how the Americans made the transition into a new millennium. Unlike today's historians who have to search for every scrap of historical information, future historians will have our 20th century electronic newspaper archives to ponder, not to mention video tapes of public officials as they preside over the "business of the people" (as the politicians never fail to remind us).
Phil Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post, said that journalism is the process of recording the first rough draft of history. His point was that the day-to-day news gathering process was, by its nature, imperfect. Deadlines require some hard decisions on what to print (or broadcast) and what not to. As such, mistakes are inevitable.
But as 1998 draws to a close, it’s become apparent that the American news industry is struggling to cope as never before. In the first place, the public views the news media's role in our society with increasing skepticism, if not outright cynicism. Clearly, journalism is not quite as simple as it used to be when cub reporters were taught that the five W’s (Who, What, When, Where and Why) were at the heart of the business of reporting and editing the news. Now we barely get the first four W’s, while suffering endless spin about why the news is important -- as if the public isn't capable of forming its own judgements on the events of the day.
In fact, the "Spin" factor has become the dominant force in the operation of many of today’s news institutions. In the old days when a young reporter turned in a long, tiresome "thumbsucker," a crusty, senior editor would toss it back with the admonition: "Cut the crap." Today, such crusty editors are for the most part gone. Instead we get editorial managers who are encouraging spin in order to boost circulation and ratings.
But we shouldn’t be too harsh on management of today’s news industry. There have been some significant changes in the news business -- and our society -- that have heralded the "Information Age" -- which in turn has become one of the driving forces in the ongoing growth and expansion of our national economy.
And, of course, the newsmakers themselves have become far more sophisticated in their management of the media. Bill Clinton and his administration’s spinmeisters have stretched the public credulity to its utmost over such issues as the budget (is it or isn’t it balanced?), Social Security, foreign affairs, international trade, public health policy and politics in general (particularly campaign finance issues). Some marvel at President Clinton’s ability to bounce back from his personal crises (the Lewinsky affair, White House fund raising, etc.). Others cite Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s theory of defining deviancy down in explaining Clinton’s ability to maintain his approval ratings in the face of all his woes. The President’s tendency to obfuscate the issues and his own behavior has led the American public to expect less lofty standards from political leadership in general.
The Information Revolution and Its Effect on the News Business
There’s no question that the information/technological revolution is transforming both our society and the news profession. As information technology continues to evolve – especially the advent of cheap, high-speed communications – we can expect the Internet to continue its own evolution as a truly technological phenomenon. Newspapers, magazines, television, the telephone – all the traditional means of 20th century communications – will very likely morph into a generic communications system which will make gargantuan amounts of information available to all -- in a truly useable format.
The almost breathtaking development of information technology has had an equally powerful impact on how the media operates. From the 1950’s until the early 1980’s, newspapers, radio broadcasts and network television were the principal distribution channels by which the public was kept informed of the news. To be sure, during that period, network TV had a devastating effect on PM newspapers, but in general the newspaper industry kept a lock on its AM readership, while the network evening news shows kept the public informed of what happened during the day.
But then came the Personal Computer, Cable TV, satellite communications, T1 circuits, digital data feeds and finally the Internet, and the media industry exploded. As Americans became more comfortable with the new technology, they embraced the new distribution networks that vastly expanded the flow of information available to them.
Driven in part by Wall Street pressures, the competition for market share turned ferocious, and as it did, we again run into the phenomenon of defining deviancy down. There used to be reasonably strict editorial standards maintained by newspaper editors, magazine editors, and broadcast news directors. But as the pressure for market share increased, we have begun to see a lapse in editorial standards. One of the broadcast news gurus, Jeff Greenfield, wrote a fascinating Op-Ed piece in the New York Times recently in which he noted just how far those standards have lapsed as desperate TV News producers fought for audience share. Alas, Greenfield did not paint a very pretty picture. The worst offenders have been the cable talk shows (CNN, Fox and MSNBC) which have spent the last five years, literally day in and day out, cramming stories like O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky down our throats.
As the stakes grow larger, the news industry has coalesced with similar industries, particularly the entertainment sector. Newspaper empires started to acquire broadcast outlets; Disney now controls ABC and ESPN; the Time Magazine empire merged first with Warner Studios and then with CNN. All the news institutions insist that there is no interference on their news gathering practices by the entertainment moguls who control them. While that may be true in the strictest sense, there is no question that there are huge, if subtle, influences on the traditionally independent news operations which are now part of the entertainment industry.
The implications of the evolving corporate ownership of the news industry are enormous, and in the future we plan to use this space to delve into editorial and management issues which arise as the information revolution unfolds. We hope that you will bookmark MFAMedia.com, and check in on us to see whether our view (spin?) of the news industry is on target.
How Much Information Do We Need?
With each new technological advance, we see an expansion in the unrestricted flow of information within our society. Is this bad? Certainly, one of the biggest news stories of 1998 first broke on Jan. 17, with the disclosure of Monica Lewinsky’s relationship with President Clinton, who denied the affair for nearly eight long months. In September, the Clinton Administration bewailed the fact that Congress released nearly all the contents of the Starr report on the Lewinsky affair without any prior review. The administration said the virtually unrestricted release of the information was reckless and unfair. Was it?
In fact, in a free society such as ours where the chief executive officer of the country lies to the public and grand juries, and probably obstructs justice, it would probably be reckless not to release the information. After all, American democracy was founded on the principal of the free flow of information. During the American revolution, the flow of information was crude by today’s standards. But the publication and distribution of the Federalist Papers and regional newspapers in the colonies were a crucial part of the birth of American democracy as we know it today.
We’ve come a long way since then, but as even more distribution channels become available to the public, it makes no sense (unless there are privacy or national security concerns) to limit access to information involving the public performance of our elected officials. One of our strongest strengths is that we are an open society and we ought to lift restrictions on the flow of information, rather than limit them. Every case is different, of course, but in general, the bias should be in favor of a free flow of information.
(Having said that, however, we should also acknowledge that the Internet presents its own unique set of concerns. When some sort of a screening process is needed, how do we filter information? Who sets the parameters of the screening process? Heretofore, newspaper editors and television producers have provided that function, but the use of the Internet so far largely dispenses with that function. Or does it? Or should it? But we digress -- these are issues that will be addressed at another time.)
And, as it happened, President Clinton did benefit from the release of his Grand Jury testimony on videotape inasmuch as his poll numbers rebounded in his favor – which allows us to segue into the final segment of this review of the year: the phenomenon known as spin.
Spin: Has It Spiraled Out of Control?
How is the American press coping with the huge amounts of "spin" that have engulfed our discourse on national issues?
So far the jury is out. In some cases the press has been able to stick with essential facts of the story. In other cases, it has succumbed to the spin. We’ve already touched on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, but there are other, often more important issues which have been lost in the spin cycle. One of the most important issues is the budget. For nearly three decades the federal government has run deficits, building up an enormous national debt. In 1998 came the discovery that the budget was in balance, and our deficit woes were over. But was it? There are a large number of economists who scoff at the notion that the federal budget is running a surplus. But has the news media addressed this contrary view? Hardly at all. There has been an occasional article questioning the claims of a balanced budget, but conventional wisdom in the media, nearly across the board, is that the budget is in balance, and now that we have a surplus to spend, we should "save" social security. That has opened a whole new spin cycle involving Social Security an issue which the politicians beat each other up over in the November elections.
The spin, of course, comes from all sides -- but it’s clear that the Democrats hold the upper hand in their ability to spin public opinion and the media. The Republicans tried to spin their own analysis of the Clinton scandals but with dismal results. Within the press, the conventional wisdom about the spin describing Clinton’s behavior before Starr’s Grand Jury (losing his temper, purple face, stomping out, etc.) came from the Republicans. If so, it was pretty poor spin which ultimately worked in Clinton’s favor when the video tape showed the President to be an earnest (if sometimes disingenuous) defender of his case. (True skeptics suggest that the spin may have been coming from the White House in a neat reverse-reverse spin maneuver).
For the most part, the Republicans are simply not very good spinners. They have a tendency to use a club on any given issue that only reinforces their perception as extremists. From almost the beginning of his ill-fated Speakership, when he complained about having to sit in the back of Air Force one, Newt Gingrich turned out to be a ripe target for the Democrats. Gingrich did, in fact, prevail over the resurgence of the Republican party in Congress, but you would never have known that by reading the newspapers or listening to news broadcasts. Gingrich became the poster boy for Republican extremism, and in the end he suffered the consequences.
The Republicans are simply not very sophisticated about the process. In the 1998 mid-term elections, the Republicans were snookered by projections that forecast huge Republican gains in both the House and the Senate. In the end, the Republicans lost seats in the House and broke even in the Senate. The post-election consensus, then, was that the Republics suffered a huge defeat by failing to meet the projected gains. The result is that the election results are no longer evaluated by vote counts; rather the results are being judged by spin. (What the Republicans probably should have done was to project minimum gains so that no matter what the outcome, they could have spun a victory for themselves.)
But it’s not just the politicians who have mastered spin at the expense of the news media. Perhaps the granddaddy of all spinmeisters is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When NASA sent John Glenn up on a routine shuttle mission, they were able to attract thousands of journalists, all the major anchors, the President, and almost half the Congress down to Cape Kennedy for the launch. Where was the story? At the risk of being called a curmudgeon, there was none. The coverage was overkill. At best it was pure sentiment; at worst it was entertainment. The real story is the huge amount of money NASA spends to keep itself in the headlines – and its Congressional funding up as high as possible.
All spin is part of a partisan effort and that means that the press should keep itself well enough informed to discount the inevitable spin on the stories it covers. In fact, some spin may be helpful in clarifying issues as the press proceeds to gather the facts on any given issue. But all too frequently the spin becomes the story, thereby further obscuring an already complicated issue. The goal of the press should be to clear up confusion; not add to it.
Some segments of the press have even joined in the "spin" frenzy. A disturbing development in recent years is the growing trend of legitimate reporters appearing on radio and TV talk shows issuing their own spin on the events they cover. In doing so, these reporters display their own bias on any given issue, which does not help build a sense of public trust in the Fourth Estate.
One has to wonder whether management in the news industry has lost control of this situation. Editors at newspapers and news directors at broadcast stations might do well to clamp down on the appearance of their reporters on the talk shows. It may be entertainment for the viewer, good publicity for news organizations and/or self-gratification for the talking heads themselves -- but the bottom line is that all the journalistic opinionating on talk shows has a negative impact on the credibility of the news media. Credibility, after all, is the news media’s most important asset, and it should be protected at all costs.
Ted Marks is president of Marks & Frederick Associates
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