Post-Monica Media Slump

"This isn't a story ," quipped a producer I met outside the White House press room at the height of Monica madness, "It's an industry." I had arrived just as the lights went on at the scores of "stand up" positions spaced in a long line to the right of the building, and off to one side. Virtually at the same moment, TV reporters began "feeding" their live reports to early news programs. Each looked almost identical, each sounded virtually the same.What happens to this press corps now, now that the scandal is over, now that the impeachment trial fizzled in the Senate? Where will the media turn next? At least one cameraman I met at the White House I am sure is disappointed. "I hope it never ends" he told me last fall after bragging about all the overtime he had earned. "I put one daughter through college already," he confided, "and if this lasts long enough, I'll earn enough for the other one." There have even been newspapers reporting fears inside the beltway that Washington news may not never make air, now that this year long intensively sit-com like drama that some called "oralgate" is no more. It sounds as if a post partum depression has enveloped the National Press Club.Higher up the news food chain, in the suites of the news managers, there is even more anxiety given the overall fall-off in network ratings, including a decline in news watching. As one media trade magazine puts it, the "nets (are) in a sweat." That's because, even as media moguls insist that they were 'only giving the people what they wanted," a large disconnect grew between an American public which supported the President throughout his travail and a media which most decidedly did not. Since last September at least 6 percent of the network news audience tuned out and turned off, according to the man who tracks these numbers for CBS.A trade publication says there were actually two million viewer defections after this story was given the flog it to death treatment. Even as some channels profited -- after all viewers had little to watch besides Monica news -- few viewers seemed thrilled. The news media may have deceived some to believe that this was the most important story in the history of the world, but mostly, they deceived themselves.Electronic Media, the TV programming publication, for example, published a survey indicating that a majority of viewers felt that much of the coverage was insulting and exploitative. An earlier poll concluded that 69 percent believed that the Monica story was being over covered. (Interestingly 70 percent of the news managers then agreed -- but went right on covering it even more.) Will media mavens now hear the reasons for this disaffection -- and recallibrate their direction? Will they go back to the patterns of coverage prevailing before saturation coverage of this scandal began, before the O.J.-ization of news became a permanent part of the mediascape, focusing all attention, by design, on one sensational on-going story at a time.Not likely!There are several reasons deeply grounded in the new business "logic" of media practices that help explain why:First, the news business has gone show business. This has been a steady process over the last two decades, accelerating in recent years as entertainment companies bought up networks. News divisions are increasingly accountable to entertainment executives; they utilize entertainment formulas in their programming, e.g. three acts, character conflict, and narrative arcs. In his new book, "Life: The Movie," Neil Gabler argues that entertainment has "stealthily' conquered reality throughout our culture but especially in TV news where it has "polished, packaged, and processed reality into news...integrating life and entertainment more thoroughly and inextricably than any previous news vendor ever had or could."Second, the mudstream of tabloid TV values is now embedded in the journalistic mainstream. The meteoric rise of internet agitator Matt Drudge from a two room LA apartment to his own show on Fox and constant media exposure is a metaphor for this process. A young journalist told me that he and other "thinking" colleagues were fired from The Fox News Channel because they challenged a producer's obsession with "naked and dead" genre stories on the network's news magazine. On the day after the Senate vote, Fox announced four new specials on the Jan Benet Ramsey case. Meanwhile, the proliferation of look alike 'news lite' magazines on all the channels, with a few worthy exceptions, is more evidence of this trend towards infotainment uber alles.Third, profit pressures are perverting journalism according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Temporary employees are the fastest going category of new hires at all news organizations as bottom line pressures increase, in part to pay off merger costs, in part. because of more competition These economically insecure temps get along by going along. They are not likely to fight for better programming. While less money is being invested into investigations or hard-hitting whistle blowing; more goes into hyped up storytelling. Foreign bureaus are closed; story counts go up while the time allotted for soundbites goes down. As more channels come on line, news organizations compete with each other too see who can pack the most into their fast paced newscasts. Stations actually brag that they are offering 'more news in less time' or carrying features like the "world in a minute."Finally, executives have convinced themselves that information has to be segmented or suppressed, So we have-business news for business, rock and roll news for music fans and dumbed down news for the rest of us. All one has to do is turn to an English newspaper like the Observer to see important stories that are not being covered amidst all the talk of the how great the American economy is doing. "The world is facing an economic crisis" that no one denies, reports Ben Laurance from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "A third of the world is in recession....some 1.3 billion people have to try to live on less than $1 a day." This scandal is apparently not worthy of daily coverage.So what will the professional Clinton haters and their right wing media echo chamber do now? Despite their setbacks, they are unlikely to restrain the attack politics so deeply engrained in their personalities and political culture. Perhaps that's why Rupert Murdoch's man in DC, William Kristol, editor of the rabid Weekly Standard vows, "It ain't over, not by a long shot." Perhaps that's why Oliver North was just added to the line up on MSNBC along with more shows from fomer Nixon booster John McLaughlin and his army of fast spieling pundits. With Republicans obsessed by perjury, at least these guys know something about it.Monica, the queen of the news scene, is dead. Long Live Monica. On to the next scandal.


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