Friday, November 19, 2010

Gene Lyons on the continuing decay of American journalism

I quote Gene Lyons all the time because he understands the major dysfunction of our national media so well:

With precious few exceptions, big-time journalism has literally become a subdivision of the entertainment industry. Cable TV networks in particular treat national politics as an ongoing melodrama whose protagonists -- Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin -- are basically celebrities, symbolic figures to be loved or hated by millions according to how they are caricatured. Reality retreats as fantasy advances.

Conservatives lead the way. It's no small development that several presidential candidates -- Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, etc. -- are now employed by Fox News. Nor that Palin's getting paid a million bucks an episode by TLC for what amount to half-hour campaign commercials. It's a fundamental change in the relationship between journalism and power. [my emphasis]
These sorts of changes don't happen from one day to the next. They accumulate over time. The philosopher Hegel called that process the transformation of quantity into quality. Which may sound exotic, but it isn't really. One person getting sick is an illness; many people getting sick with the same disease at the same time is an epidemic.

That quote is from Who will smack down all the lies? Salon 11/17/2010. Gene Lyons himself realized earlier than anyone else I know of who went to print in a national publication just what a disastrous turn the national media had taken in 1992 with the New York Times' flogging of the Whitewater pseudoscandal. Things have continued to deteriorate since then.

One of the most professionally decadent practices of present-day US journalism is the Goldilocks Syndrome. Gene gives an example of it in Ted Koppel's recent and much-noted lament about the rise of partisan journalism:

One can definitely take issue with the false equivalence Koppel draws between Olbermann and Fox luminaries. Compared to the conservative network's overt political activism, Olbermann's contributions to Democratic candidates, while improper, don't amount to much. Also, for all his grandiosity, MSNBC's resident blowhard doesn't actually make things up -- the most fundamental distinction in journalism.

A realist, Koppel is surely correct to say there's "not much of a chance that 21st-century journalism will be adapted to conform with the old rules." However, with all due respect -- and a viewer [an English-only one anyway!] seeking international news apart from natural disasters and terror strikes is pretty much limited to BBC World News America, where Koppel's a contributing analyst -- his seemingly reflexive need to position himself as the mean between two extremes demonstrates precisely how "mainstream" thinking fails.

Sometimes, see, Goldilocks can't find the porridge that's just right. Sometimes, when two sources tell very different stories, the truth doesn't lie somewhere between them. Often, somebody's lying. Over the past couple of decades, moreover, America's vaunted mainstream media has found itself hornswoggled by one big falsehood after another. [my emphasis]
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