Why Journalists Can't Be Like Murrow Anymore

This post, written by Michael Winship, originally appeared on MyDD

It's a fact: Media conglomerates' labor practices are harming the quality of TV and radio news.

A CBS television newswriter says: "We take a lot of stuff from 'Entertainment Tonight.' We watch it at 6:30 and decide what to use."

Most Americans still get their news from "old media" like newspapers, TV and radio. There's concern about how Rupert Murdoch will gut the Wall St. Journal when he gets his hands on it. MSNBC Anchor Mika Brzezinski recently tried to burn a script on air in frustration over being asked to lead the day's news with a story about Paris Hilton rather than Richard Lugar's declaration that Bush's Iraq strategy is failing. Who can we trust to tell us what's really going on? Now, a new study of broadcast journalists from the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) gives an inside look at how the media conglomerates are destroying broadcast news quality with the same tactics other big companies are using against their workers. Replacing full-time newswriters with part-timers and temps, cutting staff and resources, and requiring more and more "multi-tasking" in the newsroom, equals bad news for the public. Literally.

The question to ask is "Can you believe what you see on CBS?" A recent article in New York Magazine about Katie Couric noted that CBS' Evening News budget was cut almost in half from 1991 to 2000 ($65 million to $35 million). CBS has cut the number of full-time news staff by about 60% since 1980, replacing many of them with temps and part-timers. In 1989, CBS network television news employed 28 researchers; by 1999, those positions were all gone. But what do these staff cuts mean to the public? Half the WGA members reported that at least several times a week, they use no more than a single website to check the accuracy of stories. I wonder how often that single website is Wikipedia. Some WGA members work "off the clock" to ensure that they are up-to-date on news developments and that facts are properly checked. Members tell lots of stories about how management pressures them for more fluff, more often. In fact 49% of all WGA members responding to the survey said that hard news stories were bumped for fluff or puff at least once a day. For local news outlets, that number went up to 57%.

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