Monday, October 25, 2010

The death of newspapers

It's funny (not in the ha ha sense of the word) that we are discussing the news media on the week that story of NPR firing Juan Williams has led to widespread calls for cutting NPR's government funding. Especially so, given the gist of Nichols and McChesney's article, calling for a variety of government interventions and public subsidies in effort to save the newspaper business. While strategies such as, eliminating postal rates for certain periodicals and tax credits for individuals to subscribe to newspapers may help to shore up the newspaper business, this approach also has its dangers. Government is often hostile towards journalism and at times even towards individual journalists. And as such, it seems to me that a business model where newspapers are dependent on direct or indirect government subsidies may place newspapers on even more precarious ground; subject to the capriciousness of the political climate in Washington.

As a lifelong listener to public radio (to be honest as a child I felt as if I was being subjected to it) I remember the threats during the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 to zero out the CPB's budget. The budget cuts passed the House, but were restored after public outcry. A more recent example, is that of Kenneth Tomlinson, appointed chairman of the board of the CPB, by President George W. Bush. Tomlinson was forced to resign after he was found to have misappropriated funds in trying to shape the political coverage on PBS and make it more favorable to conservatives.

I agree with Nichols' and McChesney's overall point that having quality journalism is a matter of public interest. But for the reasons I cited above, I'm just not sure I agree with their solutions to save a profession that is under considerable duress. The independence of the 4th Estate is absolutely essential to democracy and making it in any way beholden to government for funding, be it directly or indirectly, threatens that independence.

Unfortunately, as the Schiller chapter outlines, journalistic independence is also being threatened by increasing corporate control and focus on the bottom line. Corporations have agendas too and it is easy to see that a newspaper or news program may not want to report on a story that is unfavorable to their parent corporation. The focus on the bottom line, rather than the public service of reporting the news has lead to slashing of staff, less in depth reporting and sensationalized ratings driven coverage. All of which have had a deleterious effect on our public discourse.

Previous posters are right, this is depressing. Between corporate control or occasionally arbitrary or meddlesome government support, I feel that our news media is trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. Here's hoping that the up and coming generation of news reporters and journalists are able to safely navigate some choppy waters.

On that note, here's a somewhat hopeful take on students in Journalism school from NPR's Morning Edition last week: What's the Point of Journalism School, Anyway?

1 comment:

  1. David, excellent post!

    The article “What’s the Point of Journalism School, Anyway?” is a mixed bag. For one, the students are excited about creating a much needed revolution in journalism. Yet, at the same time, they are not ignorant of the challenges. Each student quoted, I believe, is playing it smart and on the right path to beginning such a revolution. Yet, will they?

    Their opposition is intense. They have corporations to fight, internet users to persuade, and the giant task of earning a government’s trust.

    Can they do it? Who knows? But I sure hope they will try.