The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, January 12, 2004

A C- for the LA Times piece on the media quality debate...

There's been another survey from the good people at Pew Internet, hung on the hook of the start of the 2004 presidential campaign finally getting underway.

It's all over: but an article from Reed Johnson at the LA Times has piggybacked a curate's egg of a general piece on media quality - with one or two mildly interesting points, but drifting off into incoherence.

The opening graf does not bode well:
You dislike us. You really dislike us. Or maybe the harsher truth is, we've begun to dislike ourselves.

It's a commonplace that one of the flaws of US foreign policy over the years has been a need to be loved. Surely, the horde of hard-boiled hacks aren't similarly sentimental?

Johnson runs down the (extensive) media rap-sheet for the last year or so (Jayson, Jessica, Jayson on Jessica...) but takes comfort from the self-contradictory Pew stats that the Great Unwashed don't know what they want in any case.

The right-left thing, he suggests, is not the issue. What is the problem (he doesn't say, it's just what he goes on to talk about after he says that right-left isn't the issue) is media concentration [1]. He even says
Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register and teacher at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, listed the FCC rules change saga as one of her top two nominees for "missed" stories of 2003. "Happily, the public got word of this issue despite the media, and Congress responded," Overholser wrote in a recent column for Poynteronline, a Web publication of the Poynter Institute, the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based nonprofit center for the study of journalism. It was "impossible not to see a connection between corporate support for the changes, and newsroom failure to cover them," she added.

I'm not sure I make the connection: there must be room for quantitative study here. For instance, media consolidation in print media has gone on for decades, reducing many local markets to monopolies, or close: has that involved a narrowing of effective choice in news?

In TV, local news is provided (as I understand it) by stations with quite a spread of owners. Yet, in look and agenda, they mostly tend to resemble each other.

He also quotes a writer who
thinks it's important to make more foreign reporting and a wider range of world views available to Americans. "Our press is very provincial," she says. "There is not sufficient reporting on what we do in other countries, what we do and how it can affect us."

Plain economics dictate that, in every media outlet wherever it's based, foreign coverage will tend to be generally weak, given the need to accommodate the budget-busting splurges that arise on image-rich, gut-grabbing stories of war and disaster. (The Sac Bee ombud, in the article noted in the earlier piece, confessing to reliance on wires for foreign news.) There, the net is indispensable.

(If I read a WaPo piece on Bolivia, say, it's more because I want an American angle on the country, rather than using it as an uncoloured source of news [2].)

Besides, on foreign stories, perhaps even more than on domestic [3], it's vital not to get trapped in single-source hell. Triangulation is vital. Etc, etc.

Under the heading of what's to be done, there's something of a mass debate: one says news should be treated as a utility, like electricity; another (one Mark Danner, an academic) talks about
institutional forces that are much too large for any individual reporters or group of reporters to deal with.

He also says
the press is uniquely terrible at self-scrutiny
(ain't that the truth!)

The final paragraph, supplied by Danner, is, so far as I can make out, complete bollocks, and worthy of nomination in the Bad Writing Contest I mentioned last Friday: referring to 2003's warning bells for journalism, he said
The alarms went off loud and clear, but we should be looking not necessarily to the houses where the alarms went off. It would be salutary if the alarms sent us in a different direction, which is toward these broader trends in polarization, in corporatization, in tabloidization - to use a lot of ugly words - that really do have the underlying effect on what we see and what we read.

I'm glad he cleared that up!

  1. The issue of the FCC's ruling increasing the amount of audience reach that any one group could own cropped up in connection with the CBS miniseries on Reagan. For links to the ruling, legislation and related stuff, trace back from November 26 piece.

    I have a feeling that, when Johnson talks about owned, he's confusing O&O stations with the total, including affiliates. But, not wishing to risk further confusion, I'll leave the thought right there!

  2. Which, for the avoidance of doubt, does not exist except, perhaps, as a theoretical asymptote, which real-life stories may approach - usually not getting terribly close - but never touch.

  3. I'm not sure about this - will take under advisement!

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