Stop the Presses
Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic).
The lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists, by contrast, were near despondency.
They had entered the profession "armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the significance of stories and the manner in which they should be presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits" focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned" profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.
Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet in crisis mode recently in Northern California, in hopes of figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with a bunch of them, they're not really sure. I was attending a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center, addressing a similar set of issues. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on TV?
As much as the media like to report on themselves -- I'd use the obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation -- few observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.) Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news; swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless task.
Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its almost-certain end."
Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives. The New Yorker, under David Remnick, in many ways has never been better than it is right now. But its articles, with a few significant exceptions, have never been shorter. That's perhaps a necessary concession to people's much busier lives and may in some cases reflect the imposition of some badly needed discipline. But it comes at the cost of the kind of luxurious journalism that once gave us the ground-breaking work of Lillian Ross, Rachel Carson, Michael J. Arlen, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm. The jewel in Si Newhouse's crown bears roughly the same relationship to literary journalism that the New York Times bears to newspapers and that CBS, under Larry Tisch, abdicated to television news: It's the gold standard. If The New Yorker has given up on such lofty aspirations, everybody else can fairly ask, What can you possibly expect from us?
With broadcast television, the relevant journalistic question is one of survival. Despite Ted Koppel's $8 million or so a year, Nightline was a significant profit center for ABC when its executives stabbed its news division in the back by trying to cut a secret deal with Letterman, which would almost certainly have lost the network millions. What could they have been thinking? Perhaps it was a whiff of grapeshot to the division, just as Peter Jennings's rumored $11.5 million a year is coming up again. Perhaps the suits needed to send a message to their corporate body and to Wall Street that they're serious about improving Disney's horrific stock performance. If that required the public humiliation of the most admired voice in commercial news, along with the entire news division, well, this is one mean Mouse. Get used to it.
Nightline's near-death experience may ultimately signal the death of serious news reporting anywhere on network television, leaving us with only the tabloid swamp of cable. The news departments produce morning and magazine shows that contain virtually no traditional news. The evening news broadcasts are increasingly given over to tabloid fluff as well, even post-September 11. When the current generation of anchors goes, the 6:30 time slot will likely be given back to the local affiliates with their 40 to 60 percent profit margins for "If It Bleeds, It Leads" local news broadcasts. Meanwhile, the nation's alleged public watchdog, the FCC, is headed by giddy cheerleader Michael Powell, who has yet to meet a media merger he didn't like or a public-service regulation he didn't loathe. (Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein Center, rather optimistically proposes an Economist-like rescue operation of serious news by the BBC, having apparently given up on US corporations.)
Where will it all end knows God! But must our billion-dollar babies really go this gently into their good night? Dan, Peter, Tom, Walter, Ted, the calling that made you rich and famous beyond any young man's dreams is headed for the network chopping block. How about a little noise, boys, on the way to the gallows?
Eric Alterman is currently the media columnist for The Nation and MSNBC.com.