In case you didn't see PBS Frontline's incredible 4-part piece on the current state of the news media, go check out their website. I watched it this weekend, and the one quote that perfectly encapsulated what's wrong with the news today is the one from Charles Bobrinskoy - a guy who works at an investment fund that owns the Los Angeles Times and has been pressuring the paper to weaken its news coverage. He criticized the paper for covering issues like Iraq, saying:
"[The LA Times] has got these 22 foreign bureaus...That's not what readers want. Readers care about the local entertainment industry...They care about things like fashion...Where the problem is, is that the people who are writing the L.A. Times, they want to be writing about international events. They want to be writing long-term pieces about why Bush went to war in Iraq. And we're saying, and the people at Tribune are saying, there are other people writing those stories...Do we really need the L.A. Times devoting the resources it has to that story?"
It's undoubtedly true that "other people" are also covering Iraq. But the L.A. Times is one of the largest papers in America, and its owners are now out there saying that the paper should prioritize entertainment and fashion over those other minor issues like war, globalization and the general future of the planet. Bobrinskoy claims this is because that's "what readers' want" - but that begs a chicken before the egg question: Do readers really want that? Or is it the news executives who really want that, because covering Hollywood and fashion is so much easier and less expensive than reporting real news?
I'd say more the latter than the former - and it's particularly nauseating that such cost-cutting methods are being employed in a business that is making 20 percent profit margins, while somehow still pleading poverty.
Justifying the wholesale destruction of news coverage by making blanket statements that the media is "just giving readers what they want" is a particularly hollow argument in an age where the entire media marketing industry is centered around creating mass public desires. The most successful marketing executives understand that the media is not a mirror held up to the public merely reflecting "what readers want." Instead, the media today imparts what it wants readers and viewers to want - most often in order to maximize profit. This ain't conspiracy theory - this is Advertising 101.
What's the answer? I'm not sure anyone knows just yet. But it's fair to say that when one of democracy's lifeblood like basic news and information is deliberately manipulated by Big Money interests to ignore the most pressing issues, we've got a huge problem. News executives can give us as many Anna Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton stories they want, but you can rest assured that behavior will do nothing other than destroy American journalism and undermine newspapers as a viable business.