Commercial journalism can’t die fast enough

May 14, 2016

Friends, North Americans, country men (and women), I come to bury commercial journalism, not to praise it. First of all because there is almost nothing to praise. And unlike Marc Anthony with Caesar, I want to bury it deep in the ground where it belongs. And drive a stake through its heart. And fill its mouth with garlic.

They say we get the government we deserve. The same is true of media. If so, then we are a stupid, shallow people, easily manipulated, poorly informed and a greater danger to democracy that any al-Qaeda or ISIS fighter.

The click-bait story that tells you nothing and is often completely fabricated. The he said-she said interviews that create mountains out of molehills and provide people with a completely false impression of reality. The endless stories about Kardashians – a family that has accomplished little of real value but who are famous for being famous (not to mention their various celebrity clones). Cable networks that create Godzilla-like political candidates or blow up one story into an all-consuming meaningless mess as a way to make money, money, money. The repetition of grossly misreported stories on politics, science, food, medicine, etc., etc.. Websites that exist only to print rumors and lies because they can make money that way. So much dreck, so little substance.

Commercial media – almost all cable TV news networks, most “news” websites and many, many papers – pay little more than lip service to quality journalism in the second decade of the 21 century. There are many reasons why, most of them involving money over quality. Journalism now is a commodity, like shoes, or handbags or dish soap.

Commercial media and their audiences share the blame for this. Media have trained their audiences to expect meaningless, low-quality nonsense. And then when challenged on the inferior quality of their product, their response is often well, that’s what the people want. And they are right – many people want information that entertains, not enlightens, them. The commercial media seldom challenge them with complexity and nuance, as this reduces ratings and advertiser dollars. It is a self-fulfilling loop, both sides feeding off the other. Ignorance blossoms, misinformation spreads, and cunning people like Donald Trump know they can manipulate this system to their benefit.

Trump knows he can lie and lie, and lie about lying, because the commercial media won’t really challenge him on it as long as he keeps helping them make hundreds of millions in profits. He understands the way the game is played better than anyone before him on the GOP side.

There are exceptions in North America. There are still a few quality print newspapers left, and some good magazines. There is almost nothing in the wasteland of TV. And the web has some good options. Radio is largely worse than TV. Not to mention most media is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people or organizations like Disney or General Electric, corporations that make sure the journalism done on their outlets never endangers the bottom line.

But the quality news outlets that remain on TV, radio, and the web in particular have one thing in common – they receive outside support of some kind. Public broadcasters, support by government dollars in Canada, or pledge drives supplementing government dollars in the US, bring us quality radio and TV. Websites like ProPublica do great journalism day after day, but are dependent on support from the public, foundations and donors who want good journalism to survive.

Which brings us to a moment whose time has come, so to speak. Journalism that matters, that makes a difference, that protects democracy and the public (even if they don’t care) can only survive in a non-commercial format. Quality journalism will need to be supported in ways that might seem controversial, but have actually been around for many years, including government supported journalism. Public broadcasters in Canada, the UK and Australia certainly have their problems, but tend to produce the best journalism in their respective countries.

It’s time for the US to look into a similar system. Yes, there will be problems, and no it’s not perfect, and sometimes mistakes will be made. But there will also be a lot of quality journalism done on the left and the right, by reporters who won’t have to worry about their stories being pulled or toned down for fear of what advertisers, or even the government itself, have to say. If more media outlets received government funding, combined with support from the public or foundations, we would have a stronger democracy. I don’t think that better journalism necessarily leads to a better informed public, but it will help reduce the misinformation and manipulation of the system, by unscrupulous vulgarians with small hands, for instance.

But we can’t wait. The problem created by inferior commercial media is dragging down all media. These days journalists rank only higher than child molesters and atheists on public opinion polls. Journalists don’t have to be popular – we’re not the Kardashians. But we should be respected. And until we change the way journalism is done, we won’t win that respect back.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

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