The news Americans need

Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You don't have to care about media companies or reporters to care about the state of the news, because if it's in trouble - and it surely is - this country is in trouble. That's why, while speaking recently at the Aspen Institute, I called upon President Obama to form a commission to address the perilous state of America's news media.

Some might scoff at the notion that a president and a country occupied by two wars and a recession should add the woes of the news media to an already crowded plate. But the way the news is delivered, and the quality of the information the American public receives about what's going on here and abroad, has and will continue to have a profound effect on these very issues and on the overall quality of government by, for and of the people.

I am not calling for any sort of government bailout for media companies. Nor am I encouraging any form of government control over them. I want the president to convene a nonpartisan, blue-ribbon commission to assess the state of the news as an institution and an industry and to make recommendations for improving and stabilizing both.

Why bring the president into it? Because this is the only way I could think of to generate the sort of attention this subject deserves. Academia and think tanks generate study after study, yet their findings don't reach the people who need to be reached.

We need a real and broad public discussion of the role news is meant to play in our democratic system of government and a better public understanding of the American news infrastructure's fragile condition. We need to know how things got this way and what we need to change.

An intense period of corporate consolidation over the past 25 years, aided and abetted by deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission, has reduced to a mere handful the sources from which most Americans get their news. While independent reporting has been winnowed and homogenized, the news organizations responsible for this reporting have largely fallen under corporate mandates to increase profits quarterly - which has meant a reduction in news-gathering personnel, the shuttering of overseas bureaus and the nearly complete subordination of a public trust to the profit motive.

Moreover, corporate values of risk aversion have increasingly filtered down to newsrooms, supplanting news values. The big conglomerates that own most of America's news media may have, at any given moment, multiple regulatory, procurement and legislative matters before various arms of the federal government; their interests, therefore, can often run contrary to the interests of the citizens whom journalism, at its best, is meant to serve. There is little incentive to report without fear or favoritism on the same government one is trying to lobby. Increasingly, the news we get - and, significantly, the news we don't get - reflects this conflict of interests.

The news infrastructure, weakened from within by this corrosive dynamic, is at risk of toppling altogether because of a separate, though not unrelated development: the coast-to-coast collapse of the newspaper industry, which has lost the key revenue streams of classified and local advertising to the Internet.

For radio, television and, yes, the Internet, newspapers have been and continue to be the foundation on which "hard" news rests. They provide the reporters who are our primary and often our only independent sources in places as close as city zoning hearings and as far away as Indonesia. Anyone who has worked in other media knows that, if newspapers are taken out of the equation, dwindling news resources will be stretched to the breaking point.

You will not turn on your television and hear an anchor admit this. What you will see, instead, is more opinion, commentary and marketing masquerading as news. You will get more in-studio shouting matches between partisans, moderated by openly partisan talking heads.

And so shows that can be produced on the cheap, with little to no real reporting, fan impotent citizen anger at a government whose workings, absent hard-hitting reporting, seem ever-more opaque - and at a world that, absent consistent, contextualized coverage, seems to defy comprehension.

We need news that breeds understanding, not contempt; news that fosters a healthy skepticism of the workings of power rather than a paralyzing cynicism. We need the basic information that a self-governing people requires. The old news model is crumbling, while the Internet, for all its immense promise, is not yet ready to rise in its place - and won't be until it can provide the nuts-and-bolts reporting that most people so take for granted that it escapes their notice.

This is a crisis that, with no exaggeration, threatens our democratic republic at its core. But you won't hear about it on your evening news, unless the message can be delivered in a way that corporate media have little choice but to report - such as, say, the findings of a presidential commission.

• The writer, who was a CBS reporter for 44 years, is global correspondent and managing editor of HDNet's "Dan Rather Reports."



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