by Bruce Dunlavy

       (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

Journalism is something you can study in school, something universities award degrees in.  But it is a bit different from most other fields of study.  Like Education, Journalism does not center its study on ideas, but rather on the way ideas are presented.  In the Colleges of Education, what is taught is considered less important than the structure or form through which it is taught.  The Lesson Plan is superior to the lesson itself.

In Journalism, from the first day students are introduced to the Inverted Pyramid, they are schooled in the manner in which information must be presented.  Most of the time this means news media focus not on elucidating, but selling.  Their aim is not to inform but to affirm, not to educate but to excite.

We have seen it all year in the presidential election contest.  Donald Trump is more exciting than other politicians because he can be unpredictable and often outrageous, which attracts more attention.  Thus Trump has received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of publicity from the broadcast and cable networks just by being who he is.  For most of the campaign, Trump has not been challenged so much as given a platform from which to speak.

Journalism, it is often said, consists of asking the questions that people don’t want to be asked; anything else is just free public relations.  There was a time when Journalism was indeed free PR.  Well into the Twentieth Century, advocacy journalism was standard operating procedure.  Newspapers and other print media were the extent of journalistic reach until the advent of broadcast radio, which did not become commonly available until the late 1920s.  Most of the newspapers of that time did not bother to disguise their slanted reportage.

The political and economic propaganda came from dozens of newspapers representing Republican, Democratic, and other parties, as well as the philosophies of socialists, communists, populists, and prohibitionists.  The biggest newspapers and newspaper chains represented the interests of big business and big money, with smaller local journals playing to particular demographics.  The names of daily papers often told the story.  Only in recent years have many newspapers dropped these identifiers from their mastheads.  There are now few like the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, which folded in 1986, and most are small-town operations such as the Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Republican-Herald or the Cambridge, Ohio, Daily Jeffersonian.

Image credit: pcsc180days of learning

The “yellow journalism” that marked the late 1800s and early 1900s is best known for staging the run-up to the Spanish-American War.  The competition to sell newspapers was fierce, inasmuch as there were so many competitors trying to outdo one another in sensational reporting.  As recently as 1963, New York City alone had seven major daily newspapers, as well as niche publications such as the Communist Daily Worker and The Jewish Daily Forward, among others.  Nationwide there were newspapers targeting specific demographic communities.  Every large city had an African-American newspaper; Detroit and Chicago had The Polish Daily News.

With the advent of radio, and later television, journalism changed.  Broadcast networks were created, each with a news department having a national reporting base and a national reputation to promote.  Gradually newspapers became fewer in number and less audience-specific.  The decline of competition led to less sensationalism in mass-market print (although tabloids such as The National Enquirer, originally an outlet for lurid crime stories, remained).

Broadcast journalism, especially during and after World War II, acquired a much more professional and responsible outlook.  Accuracy was prized above attention-grabbing, and competition took the form of getting the right story out first.  The networks valued their news departments as “loss leaders” which did not make money but brought prestige.  Newspapers became less important for national news because they could not keep up with the speed of broadcasters.  They saw the future in local, regional, and investigative reporting and cut their national and international staffs, instead relying on services such as Associated Press and Reuters.  Major news reporting in print acquired a cookie-cutter similarity, and readers bought their local dailies more for regional stories, features, and sports.

By toning down the sensationalism and sleaze, journalism achieved a professionalism and dignity it had largely lacked before. The new seriousness of journalism, although it brought blandness and conformity, also brought more of a sense of trustworthiness. However, bold and shocking reports from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal provoked then-president Richard Nixon to look for someone to blame for the failure of his administration, and he chose “the media” as his target.  “The media are all liberal and thus they’re all against me” became his mantra, and he repeated it often enough that his supporters came to believe it.  Soon it was accepted faith among conservatives. Journalism’s response was to place “balanced reporting” ahead of accuracy.

Shortly thereafter, the explosion of cable networks brought the opportunity for reporting and opinion-marketing targeted at specific audiences.  Although Cable News Network (now CNN) was originally conceived as a straight 24-hour news outlet, it quickly became apparent that there was not enough breaking news to justify an all-day news format.  Personalities replaced information as individual reporters got their own shows to focus on particular issues, with Nancy Grace a prime example.  With radio news in decline after the growth of television, talk radio “news” shows such as that of Rush Limbaugh became prominent.  In the confusion, some people thought of these propagandists as real journalists (ABC News even brought Limbaugh on as a commentator for a short time).

The internet surge of the 1990s brought another outlet for slanted journalism, as exploitative, twisted, or fabricated stories could be shared worldwide in an instant.  Websites devoted to single issues, specific points of view, or shrieking opposition to perceived conspiracies now abound.  Listeners and readers now seek news outlets to gain not information but affirmation.  They do not desire to learn, but only to have their beliefs reinforced.  The formats found on cable news, talk radio, and internet sites provide exactly that.

Was the period from roughly 1930 to 1980 a five-decade anomaly? Have we reverted to the yellow journalism of 120 years ago?  It would seem so.  Instead of a plethora of newspapers, each pushing its own agenda, we have hundreds of variations of Fox News – voices calling themselves “fair and balanced” when they clearly are not, and repeating bogus stories so often and in such convoluted Gish gallops that they cannot be refuted in the same cavalier sound bites with which they are expressed.

Journalism’s job is not to cheer the candidate or office-holder on, nor to tell the reader/listener that s/he is right, nor to reiterate a litany of whining, negative complaints and grievances.  Nor is it to seek out some deranged individual who will defend the indefensible just so they can show “balance.” Journalism’s job is to find out the real story and to shine light into the dark places.  In short, it is to be the eyes and ears of the public.  Would that we could see that charge re-instituted as the center of news gathering and reporting.