Looking for news? Real news? Good luck.
It's ironic that in this era of the world-wide web, global telecommunications and 24-7 cable "news" networks, Americans are no better informed than they were just one generation ago. That's a particularly difficult assessment from one who spent the better part of his adult life working in the news business, especially since most of the blame goes to those in the news business who have largely abandoned their responsibility to deliver relevant, accurate news in a clear and timely fashion.
The news business in recent years has lost its focus, gotten sloppy and veered seamlessly into entertainment mode. Most newspapers have scaled back to the point where their hollow promises of "doing more with less" have inevitably yielded to the reality of simply "doing less." "iReporters" and "citizen journalists" have replaced professional, trained journalists. Unpaid (or poorly paid) bloggers fill newspaper columns once occupied by columnists who most likely cut their journalistic teeth on police or local government beats. At least one major daily has dismissed its entire staff of photographers.
When I was a young reporter at a daily newspaper in the 1970s, we saw television as our primary competitor. We rejoiced every time we beat the competition on a story, something that my wife insists is only of interest to journalists themselves. She's probably right, but the race to be first still drives most news organizations. This exposes the fundamental flaw in covering actual breaking news: early reporting is always fragmentary and frequently wrong. It takes time to sort out most stories and when the sorting happens on-air, it can get messy and confusing.
Covering actual breaking news - that which is happening as it is being reported - should be cable television news' greatest strength. Unfortunately, television has stretched its definition of breaking news to such a point that what cable news calls breaking news often describes something far different. That is just one of the reasons why cable news is a huge disappointment for people seeking balanced, in-depth reporting.
With a 24-hour news cycle, it's a challenge to keep "feeding the beast." Global coverage is expensive. So is investigative reporting. Instead, cable news has adopted a format that favors style over substance and quantity over quality. That's why so many news blocks are personality driven, like disc jockeys at the Top 40 stations of my youth. That's why you get more feature stories than hard news. That's why you get more analysis and opinion than reporting. And that's why you get variations of the same story over and over and over again. Do you think the George Zimmerman trial or Royal baby watch were under-reported? Me neither.
Local TV, at least in my area, is marginally better. You can count on the local stations giving you around a half-dozen real news stories in a 30-minute newscast. But local newscasts are also personality driven and have much too much "happy talk" among their on-air stars and way too many "junket stories," that are more reporter reward than viewer enlightenment.
But American media's biggest failing is in what it doesn't cover. What is going on that we don't know about? We may never know what stories have been missed, but there are at least four major areas that have been seriously under-reported in recent years:
1. Climate change. This will affect just about every human endeavor in the decades ahead: the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the way we build and maintain our homes and the way we transport people. We should be doing more to mitigate the changes ahead. Getting factual information would help.
2. Income inequality. We're truly becoming "two Americas." If we're to re-establish a viable middle class in America, we need to make sound decisions that restore the promise of a brighter future for those who are sliding in the wrong direction. We need accurate information to make those deciions.
3. Our crumbling infrastructure. How long can we expect our roads, sewers, water systems, electrical grids and buildings to last without proper maintenance?
4. Our corporate government. Virtually unregulated campaign contributions. ALEC. Revolving doors. Lobbyists. Corporate personhood. Is there any doubt who really runs this country?
Part of the problem lies with us, the consumers of news. Generally speaking, we're not discriminating enough. That feeds into the notion that the media are simply giving us what we want. Most of us only absorb "news" that is in alignment with our beliefs. Rather, we should be seeking out contrary views and challenging those beliefs. Where does this "news" come from? Is it credible?
I'm of the generation that still reads a daily newspaper on newsprint and it's the paper where I worked for a quarter century, The Des Moines Register. It's still a fine paper, but it operates with about half the number of employees it had when I started there, has outsourced its business and circulation operations (as far as its customers are concerned) to Wisconsin and Oklahoma, continues a decades-long trend of declining circulation and siphons its profits out-of-state. Like most newspapers, it continues its delusional drive to attract young readers and still hasn't figured out how to make money with its on-line product.
The only other print publication I read with regularity is Rolling Stone, which offers an eclectic coverage blend of the contemporary music and entertainment scenes and cultural issues while offering in-depth reporting on the environment, politics, business and social justice. Matt Taibbi's coverage of Wall Street and its perverse relationship with the federal government and Bill McKibben's environmental reporting stand out.
On TV, I prefer the PBS News Hour, Bill Moyers and many other PBS programs, like Frontline. Bob Shieffer does a good job on CBS on Sunday mornings and Charlie Rose heads a solid crew on CBS news on weekday mornings. I'm fond of Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC and look forward to seeing what media critic Howard Kurtz comes up with on Fox News now that he's bolted from CNN's Reliable Sources.
There are too many time-critical issues in these modern times to be bogged down by the mundane. You owe it to yourself and future generations to be well-informed. Unfortunately, that's a much more difficult task than it should be. Good luck.