You Claim to Think the News Is Important -- I Don't Believe You

A lot of the core institutions of public oversight are being eroded today, the checks and balances going out of whack. This, right now, is the point at which we must either stand up for a strong news media or admit openly that we do not actually care about it as much as we pretend to.
10/21/2014 08:52 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

In some ways, this is a very good time for the news media. Sure, almost nobody is turning a particular profit, and sure most of those companies that do make money share virtually none of it with writers and content creators, but media's fortunes are looking up in one respect: importance. Never before has the public been more acutely or more vocally aware of the importance of a strong news media, of sober and insightful probing into government, society, and the world. Yet this understanding has brought with it derision for the fact that the modern news media is incapable of truly meeting those goals. These days, the western world is dominated by people who actually believe that the decay of the fourth estate is anyone's fault but their own.

There's a self-serving use of recursive chicken-egg logic on this issue, the rather incoherent argument that lowered standards in reporting both cause and are caused by lowered revenue. This ignores the fact that journalism tanked economically due to technological progress, not declining consumer satisfaction -- lowering quality no doubt enhanced the effect and hastened the decline of the newspaper, but this is not some post-modern quandary lost to the sands of time. Journalism has been struck a series of mortal blows by technology and consumer attitudes, and we are all just watching it die, apathetic, standing with folded arms. This is near-suicidal stubbornness based on fuzzy, or entirely absent, thinking.

The fact is that, when setting up our Western nations, we generally identified some key pillars of society: law enforcement, public education, emergency services, etc. We put the maintenance of those pillars under the control of the government via taxes, because that was easier than asking every citizen to specifically shell out for school. More to the point, on some level we knew those donations would be unlikely to actually come in without coercion, even from the wild-eyed windbags who have the most to say about the importance of teachers.

The one and only pillar that could not, by definition, be put under the umbrella of government was the media. Being as it is a check on government power, the media (in particular the news media) could not be subject to that power in any way. Reporting was the one crucial civil service the public had to take care of itself, and when given the opportunity the public abandoned that obligation without a moment's thought. Indeed, not only will people loudly refuse to pay for news content, they'll go on to actually brag about the effectiveness of their ad-blocking software in denying journalists even the chance of compensation for their important work.

We have to remember that when we pay to read the news, we are not paying for the stories in that paper or broadcast, nor even for those the day after. We're paying for the news that will exist in a year, two years, five years. We're paying for a situation in which reporters have the luxury of doing protracted research into topics that might not produce a Facebook-rending viral hit. We're paying so that a reporter can spend several hours per day learning a beat, collecting knowledge that might not end up being crucial to our democracy for months or even years -- but if we don't pay someone to know such things, that knowledge fundamentally does not exist.

There's a valid argument to be made that the market simply needs to figure out how to make free Internet journalism much more profitable, but that's only internally consistent if society can meaningfully survive the quality-trough such a tough-love capitalist approach will create. It also assumes that the eventual solution will, thanks to some as-yet-unnamed physical force, naturally produce top-quality journalism once again -- but that's not even close to assured. The fact is that advertising alone cannot generate enough revenue to perform the sort of robust oversight the public claims to want -- that's been true for a long time, and it really isn't changing.

Nobody wants to deal with the implications of their supposed belief in the news media. Liberals argue vehemently that their money should be taken forcibly by the government to support important social programs, but balk at the idea of providing that same support voluntarily and of their own accord. Conservatives harp never-endingly on about the virtues of the free market but refuse to take this opportunity to prove that free markets can lead to social justice by freely giving their own money to the cause. This is ultimately a very easy problem to fix but it continues unabated because, on some level, the public doesn't think it should have to fix this problem.

There seems to be an idea that withholding funding for publications that struggle to provide such high-cost, low-reward content will somehow incentivize more in-depth journalism -- which is based on the rather hilarious idea that the public rewards quality with monetary support. As much as the media must collectively cop to having declined in quality over the past few decades, the public must also cop to not actually being nearly as interested in erudite journalism as it pretends to be. This was content that was hard to justify even when the media could afford it; the fact that such journalism still exists at all, to any extent, speaks to the thankless work ethic of the writers and publishers who take their responsibilities seriously.

Much as the Kinsey report revealed the public's love for cheap and dirty sex, Google Analytics has revealed our basic love of cheap and dirty writing. The pressure of the public's genuine proclivities creates a situation where over-educated and under-trained young writers are saddled with two, four, six assignments in a given shift. This headline-chasing public then expresses shock that much of the content they receive is shallow.

Think about something like the Watergate investigation, which took months of full-time work by experienced reporters who were, for that period, producing far less than their peak monetary value per day. They did this without even the guarantee of a story at the end -- that's virtually unimaginable in the modern media climate. If another Watergate occurred tomorrow, we would have virtually no way of detecting it, and that means that another Watergate will happen tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after. And that's our fault.

A lot of the core institutions of public oversight are being eroded today, the checks and balances going out of whack. The media is one of the only public weapons that can't be undermined by a lopsided court or corrupt congress -- so long as free speech is protected. More to the point, this is one of the only times that the public can voluntarily strengthen a social pillar directly -- there are no gatekeepers controlling the form or volume of that support. Just buy a newspaper, or subscribe to a weekly news magazine or order a news channel to donate to your very own anti-corruption Super-PAC -- they'll even throw in a newspaper, or magazine subscription, or news channel along with that generous donation to the future of democracy.

High-level financial crime is essentially legal at this point, the CIA is spying on its own Senate oversight committee without even an investigation of that fact, and foreign policy has never been more obscured from the people whose will is supposed to direct it. With Obama and the NSA cribbing from J. Edgar Hoover, and everyone from Putin to Netanyahu from old Soviet propaganda campaigns, it's harder than ever to discern fact from fiction. This, right now, is the point at which we must either stand up for a strong news media or admit openly that we do not actually care about it as much as we pretend to.

I work in the media. Call this article self-serving if you wish -- but if you do, don't then go on to lecture people on the importance of the news, or the fundamental weakness of modern democracy, while laughing at the idea of paying the price of a dinner for a month of a national news publication. We can say we care about democracy all day long, but actually proving it?

Frankly, I just don't think we're equal to the task.