By Peter Toll
Our radio and television news and newspapers are always good targets. They’re designed to please everybody and therefore often offend most people one way or another. They’re bland, shallow and often downright trivial.
It wasn’t always this way. News media changes clearly reflect our changing culture. Going along to get along.
At the local level, we tend to get the pablum, the mush. In order for reporters to survive at the Lake Oswego Review or the Sandy Post or any other community paper, they must stay on good terms with their sources. Coziness is rewarded; criticism is not. It’s human nature.
And where newspapers were once the main source of information for a people clamoring for it, that was overtaken by radio during World War II. National radio networks were new and fresh in the late 1930s. Edward R. Murrow’s dramatic reports from London during the blitzkrieg were the epitome of on-the-spot “this is what’s really happening now, and it’s scary as hell” credible. Murrow’s television work in calmer times focused on both personalities and corruption. It wasn’t afraid in a lot of cases. Watergate is a good example.
This used to be called “in-depth” reporting. Hard news was defined as probing, insightful, challenging and, of course, a tad entertaining or it wouldn’t sell papers which attracts advertisers who pay the bills.
As television is the most pervasive and tends to require little or no thought, it wants to attract the Twitter crowd (which cruises merrily along in a limited world of 140 characters at a time) and those who want action, i.e., “if it bleeds it leads.”
No where is this more prevalent than at the local level. Our Portland stations all used to have full-time bureaus in the capitol when the Legislature met, for example. No more. Too expensive. Not enough flash. Making laws? Boring.
Lead stories are fires (always a grabber for TV news directors), car crashes, shootings, knifings and other assorted murder, mayhem and scandal. In-depth stories which really dig into how our culture and government work and how they could work better are few and far between. No surprises there.
What is surprising is how the high budget national news shows are more and more trivializing what they’re reporting on. We’ve all seen it so much, we’re starting to get used to it. And I’m talking news, not Rachel Maddow or our lefty friends at MSNBC. The networks are so shallow and impressed with their own false sense of gravitas or so slanted that they’ve become practically meaningless in our lives. Fox News is so ridiculously absurd as to not even count as a legitimate news medium.
For the past thirty years or so, CNN has been the stand out exception. Day or night, it would tell you about stuff going on in the world right now. Lots of bureaus, lots of educated and intelligent reporters, and straight-ahead reporting; no angles, no jive, just the straight stuff.
Well, as Jon Stewart revealed so well this week on his television show, no more. The decision-makers at CNN have network founder Ted Turner kicking the buffalo cowpies at his Montana ranch. They’ve now fallen into the “to compete we’ve got to make it simpler for our Twitter types to want to watch us” syndrome. Dumb it down. CNN once was able to rise above the ugly retinue of crowd-pleasers and scandal mongers with thoughtful reporting encouraging viewers to think. But apparently that’s over now.
This is a sad and sorry downfall from the colonial roots of Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin who purveyed news and information for the greater good. No doubt they would call it an abuse of a wonderful privilege by those with the ability to know much, much better.
And we’re all the worse for it.
Peter Toll is a 25-year Clackamas County resident with a wide background ranging from journalism to corporate p.r. to having his own financial advisory business for the past 15 years. He has been active in Democratic politics all of his life and spent six years as Bill Bradbury’s chief of staff in the Senate Majority office in Salem. He lives in West Linn.