Critics of contemporary media often — and with erroneous nostalgia — point to an earlier age when newspapers and television anchors delivered a daily report of news that was a fairer, more objective, and balanced account of their communities and the larger world.
Such a moment never existed.
For all of the well-earned criticism of today’s mainstream media, which seems to be crumbling at a critical point of political turbulence, the collective American public has never before had such ready access to the best possible information, provided by the broadest and most democratic array of daily news sources, than at any time in this nation’s history. With a cell phone in her purse or a computer on his desktop, the average American has finger-tip access to the same facts, data, and information that once were the near-exclusive tools used by a handful of reporters and editors to produce their daily accounts.
However, as a consequence of all these lowered barriers to information, reporters and editors the mainstream and digital news industries are finding themselves out of jobs at an alarming rate. Last week, for example, more than 1,000 people lost their jobs at BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and Gannett News. With access to their various outlets, journalists loudly lamented the demise of their comrades-in-communication, taking to social media to seek new jobs, buy drinks for dismissed colleagues, and denounce corporate bosses who would get rid of watchdogs at a time when public awareness of political hijinks is at fever pitch.
Meanwhile, I’d wager a guess that a vastly larger number of Americans spent last week more consumed with the plight of some 800,000 federal workers who were entering a second month of a partial federal government shutdown, which ended late Friday after President Trump agreed to Democratic demands to reopen the government without funding for his promised wall along the U.S./Mexico border. I’d also bet most Americans first learned of the president’s caving on the issue via some form of social media. And if the public spent more energy following that story than the travails of laid-off journalists, that’s probably as it should be in a country with a discerning and informed citizenry.
Progress often arrives alongside a swirl of paradoxes. And this seems to sum up the current state of our contemporary mass media, which is breaking up and being reborn — democratizing itself and disintegrating — at the same tempestuous time.
This enigmatic state of flux was seen on stark display within the sturm und drang that erupted on social media following former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw’s comments about race relations in America, specifically his stated belief that Hispanics should “speak English” and work harder to assimilate into the mainstream. Those comments came during an appearance on Sunday morning‘s broadcast of “Meet the Press,” sparking an immediate firestorm of criticism during the show’s broadcast and afterward on social media.
PBS Newshour correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, who was on the Meet the Press panel with Brokaw, challenged his comments. “You’re talking about assimilation,” Alcindor said, pushing back on Brokaw. “And the idea that we think Americans can only speak English, as if Spanish and other languages wasn’t always part of America, is, in some ways, troubling.”
By Sunday evening, Brokaw tweeted his regrets, saying he regretted making the comments. “I feel terrible a part of my comments on Hispanics offended some members of that proud culture,” he said at the start of a series of apologies. All in all, it was a sorry scene.
And yet, there was nevertheless something to be glad about in this dust-up. In days gone by, glorified as a more objective and fairer epoch of journalism practiced by men like Brokaw, a black woman like Alcindor wouldn’t have been on the Meet the Press panel in the first place — and she certainly wouldn’t have been permitted to refute an esteemed and veteran newsman on the air. Which means it is unlikely Brokaw would have ever been compelled to apologize for comments that reflected the views of so many in his viewing audience.
When people romanticize journalism of the past as being without bias, I think of the prominent voices in journalism of that time and the stories they told, the stories they did not tell and their (sometimes hidden) views of the communities they covered. https://t.co/rC8oeIBbsF
— Eugene Scott (@Eugene_Scott) January 28, 2019
And that, too, is very critical aspect of what’s changed in the media landscape. The audience for news is a broader, more diverse and less subservient to privileged white male authority than it ever was in the past. By employing Twitter or Facebook, black people, Latinos, women, members of the LGBTQ community, as well as other traditionally marginalized — or, to be more blunt, excluded — Americans have a way to confront the offenses and prejudices that previously were hidden under a cloak of objective journalism.
Of course, there are no absolutes in the news business. News operations struggle to compete with the social media palaver produced by people who replace reportorial training and tradecraft with celebrity and credibility in pocketed communities. Indeed, any popular bozo with a Twitter/Facebook/Instagram account and a smart phone has a better chance than green-eye-shaded newsmen of yore at seizing an entire news cycle, spawning trends and disseminating information, albeit sometimes of questionable quality.
Indeed, more often than widely credited, social media drives the daily report of mainstream journalism. As Steve Cavendish, president of Nashville Public Media, a nonprofit news start-up, noted in a recent Washington Post column, local newspapers such as the Nashville Tennessean have trimmed their staffs so bare that it can no longer cover public meetings or other vital community events.
“On the print side, Gannett is actively alienating its core readership — still its most valuable source of revenue — by reducing pages, cutting features and moving up deadlines so that virtually nothing that happens after 6 p.m. makes the next day’s paper,” wrote Cavendish, a former editor of the Nashville Scene and Washington City Paper. “That includes sports scores, city council meetings and major news: When Nashville holds local elections this year, those results won’t make it into print for two days.”
In place of seeking out news where it happens, he said the beleaguered, surviving reporters and editors admit to covering their communities by scanning the internet. “On the digital side, Tennessean managers say they don’t measure employee performance based on page views, yet staff members tell me they are instructed to scan Twitter and Facebook trends and write stories that capture traffic from social media,” Cavendish wrote.
On balance, the tectonic forces at work in the media landscape blend positive and negative developments to create a sense of total disruption. On one hand, the nation is currently more immediately informed about a broader array of issues and topics, and by a more diverse and empowered set of voices — no longer is it the case that it’s exclusively white men of unchallenged authority who enter American homes with a daily digest of stories they deem to have mattered. On the other hand, there now exists such multiplicity of “news,” that no single or accepted group commands the exclusive authority to declare what is and isn’t fit for public consumption. Here, fakers and frauds flourish alongside the studied and trustworthy.
But while the current state of our media seem strange, contradictory, and bewildering, maybe it’s not new at all. It has always been the case that truly excellent journalism doesn’t emerge from some narrow and homogenized set of ideas. Rather, it’s the product of a rough-and-tumble confrontation of competing thoughts and opinions that are, hopefully, grounded by facts and well-articulated experiences. The judge of what is considered good and valuable news has always rested with the daily decisions made by an informed citizenry. No matter the storm and stress in this industry, we must continue to try to give the public a fighting chance to know the truth and act on it — hopefully to the benefit of all.