Sunday, August 02, 2009

America's news media system is in as much of a crisis as its system of providing and paying for health care is.

Hey! Someone in the media has figured out the real significance of the Cambridge, Mass arrest of Professor Gates in his own home and why it matters to President Barack Obama. The answer is: it doesn't matter to the President in his role as President at all. But the media would rather run a story about Race than one about health care. That demonstrates that the news media system has failed to meet the needs of the American public as thoroughly as has the American health care lack-of-system. Wonder why?

Race is safe, sexy and attracts ratings for the media at a time when newer and less well-developed issues offer only the danger of feeding conflict that will result in losing readers or viewers. The media does not cover news. It works to increase media revenue.

The much more important policy debate debate about health care is frankly boring. Besides, the media has evolved now to cover race. Race has been the key American topic since World War II, so the dangers to media revenue are well known. The newer and generally more contentions issue of national health care financing is a subject with unknown revenue risks and the media is strapped for revenue. The media has few reporters or editors who understand government or policy well enough to write about it generally. They have even fewer people capable of understanding the issues involved in the disaster that is the current health care lack-of-system together with the parasites who use fear of illness and the lack of easy access to health care to get rich. But the biggest problem is that covering the true issues in the national health care financing debate will not increase media revenue at a time when the reliable revenue streams for TV and Newspaper organizations are under heavy attack by competitors.

Then there is the problem of failed journalistic standards. Whether these failed standards are a cause or a result of the general revenue stream problems for the media is not clear. But the fact that the standard method of reporting political conflict does not tell the public what they need to know about the issues. Here's what journalists today do. The sacred and unquestionable journalistic orthodoxy that there are two and only two reportable sides to a political policy debate. Both sides are of equal importance, the the job of the media is simply to give equal weight to each of the two sides. It is up to the readers to determine which of the two sides is accurate or more meaningful. The journalistic community rarely reports anything that would provide readers or reviewers some standards by which they could measure the relative importance of the two sides, nor does the media ever explain how they determined what the two sides would be. The journalistic substitute for reporting on the standards the readers or viewers could use to evaluate the news is to get biased pundits to offer their opinions in a "he said - he said" conflict that is likely to increase ratings but provides no real information.

Finally, the media is supposed to cover only the political and entertainment aspects, never the boring policy aspects themselves and the reasons why the policy itself matters is irrelevant to the media buying public. The only thing that matters is what draws ratings that can be sold to the media advertisers.

The result is that the media generally tells the public little comprehensible about the health care debate since most of the people on both sides of the debate are already locked into fixed positions and do not appreciate it when the media actually tried to inform them of the real facts.

Here is Frank Rich writing in the New York Times:
You can’t blame Obama if he’s perplexed about the recent events. He answers a single, legitimate race-based question at the end of a news conference and is roundly condemned for “stepping on his own message” about health care. It was the noisiest sector of the news media that did much of the stepping. “Health care is bad for ratings,” explained one cable anchor, Dylan Ratigan of MSNBC, with refreshing public candor. What a relief, then, to drop dreary debates about the public option and declare a national conversation about black-white fisticuffs. Especially when this particular incident is truly small beer next to the far more traumatic national sea change on race that will keep sowing conflict and anger long after Henry Louis Gates Jr. finishes his proposed documentary on racial profiling.

I’ll return to the larger picture, but before the battle of Cambridge fades entirely, let’s note that the only crime Obama committed at his news conference was honesty (always impolitic in Washington). He conceded he did not know “all the facts” and so wisely resisted passing judgment on “what role race played” in the incident. He said, accurately, that “separate and apart from this incident” there is “a long history” of “African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately.” And, yes, the police did act “stupidly in arresting” — not to mention shackling — “somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.” If Obama had really wanted to go for the jugular, he might have added that the police may have overstepped the law as well.

The president’s subsequent apology for his news-conference answer was superfluous. But he might have used it to acknowledge the one exemplary player in Cambridge, Lucia Whalen, the white passer-by whose good deed of a 911 phone call did not go unpunished. In his police report, Sgt. James Crowley portrayed Whalen as a racial profiler by saying she had told him that the two men at Gates’s door were black. She denied it, and the audio tape of her original call backs her up: she had told the dispatcher (only when asked) that one of the men “looked kind of Hispanic” and that she couldn’t see the other. Yet Whalen, who was pilloried as a racist because of Crowley’s report, received no apology from him and no White House invitation from Obama. That’s stupid behavior by both men.
The real matter of importance to the American public right now is the extended health care crisis which the forces of status quo do not want corrected. The media itself is facing its own crisis of relevancy which this health care debate highlights. Both the big city newspapers and the TV networks have been centralizing and building local monopoly positions within larger national near monopolies for the last five decades as they have fought to make more money and show up well to Wall Street.

The technological challenges of removing the sunk cost of news distribution has knocked the pins from under the traditional model of news gathering, bundling and distribution as the Internet has replaced the need for local department story and classified advertisements and for the daily distribution of the news on dead trees or over limited TV air time at a few selected times of day.

The result is that what now passes for TV and big city news organizations are reduced to trying to pander to selected niche markets which demand entertainment or selected reporting that supports the market's political beliefs. The commercial market for entertainment "news" provides all the so-called news that is needed to fill the available TV airtime or the newspaper entertainment news holes. The political partisans provide the needed talking points to fill the political opinion pages and TV pundit air time.

This explains what is wrong with the misnamed "News" media. The media is shrinking the entire news gathering process to whatever pays for itself, and it does so without searching for new sources of news because there is no known business model that pays for that kind of journalism any more. That's why so few news organizations maintain foreign bureaus any more. It's also why the editorial decisions about what is important out of a Presidential News Conference is about a trivial and only peripherally racial incident rather than the crisis surrounding the failed methods America has developed to pay for health care for a lot of its citizens.

So why is the media no longer properly a "news" media? That's because it has become a "revenue generation" media and nothing else. Of course, if they were honest and renamed it the revenue generation media then they would lose more revenue. So they will try to maintain the fiction that they are still a "news" media.

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