The most serious problem confronting the American news media today is neither creeping political bias nor the tensions between new and old technologies. Those topics may obsess media critics, but their significance pales alongside the greater issue, which is corporate managers' growing inability to distinguish between the public's interest -- fascination with entertainment and celebrity -- and the public interest -- a deference to the common good.
The situation withlast week's Democratic National Convention in Boston is a window on what this failure of discernment may imply for the future of the mainstream media. It is difficult, of course, to argue that any event attended by 15,000 journalists is in any sense under-covered. But an ever-growing number of those journalists are employed by newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations whose ever-smaller number of corporate owners expect them to function first and foremost as "business units."
This process of acculturation is most advanced among the three broadcast networks -- ABC, a Disney property; CBS, which belongs to Viacom; and NBC, a division of General Electric. Their combined audience of almost 30 million is vastly larger than that of any other broadcast outlet, and, unlike cable subscribers, they receive their broadcasts free.
How much convention coverage are they providing?
An hour a night -- over three of four nights.
Jim Lehrer, the public television anchor, put the situation precisely at a preconvention panel at Harvard on Sunday. "We're about to elect a president of the United States at a time when we have young people dying in our name overseas," he said. "We just had a report from the 9/11 commission which says we are not safe as a nation, and one of these two groups of people (Democrats or Republicans) is going to run our country. The fact that you three networks decided it was not important enough to run in prime time, the message that gives the American people is huge."
So too were the sentiments conveyed by the three network anchors in an extraordinary series of interviews with The New York Times.
ABC's Peter Jennings spoke of his frustration with his network's truncated broadcasts. "This is clear to my bosses, it's clear to my colleagues; I think you'll find the same thing in every (network) newsroom. Could we, should we be doing more than one hour a night in prime time? The answer is yes."
Dan Rather of CBS wearily recalled how his opposition to network cutbacks began a decade ago, when management began scaling back the coverage. "I argued the conventions were part of the dance of democracy and that rituals are important and that they remained an important ritual," he told The Times. "I found myself increasingly like the Mohicans, forced farther and farther back into the wilderness and eventually eliminated."
NBC's Tom Brokaw requested more time from his overseers and was turned down. "This is why God invented cable," he said. "People who want to watch long-form convention coverage have got a place to do it."
That assumes, of course, that they have access to cable or the money to afford it, if they do.
That sort of consideration is lost on Jennings' boss, ABC News President David Westin, who didn't even bother to ask headquarters back in Burbank, Calif., for more time. He told The Times: "What we've been given (at the conventions) is not something I can take to the West Coast in good conscience and say this is something we need to cover on the broadcast television network."
Not when there are sitcoms and -- pardon the expression -- reality shows to air. Why give it all away when you can get bread for your circuses?
Which brings us back to that pesky notion of the public interest. Unlike newspapers, magazines or cable channels, the networks -- and all local television stations, for that matter -- transmit their signals over airwaves owned by the people of the United States. Their licenses, in fact, require them to operate in the public interest. In recent years, timid federal regulators have more or less construed that requirement as a tedious formality. But it remains on the books, and flouting it in so flagrant a fashion is, at the very least, in poor taste. Taste, as we know, is very much on the networks' minds these days, though the corporate conscience to which Westin alluded clearly does not extend to questions of responsibility.
All of this would be merely sad if the forces that essentially have made smoking ruins of once admirable network news were not now intruding throughout the news media in subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- fashion.
Take, for example, the controversy over right-wing media columnist Ann Coulter's dismissal from an assignment to cover the convention for Gannett's USA Today, the country's largest newspaper.
The editors there thought it would be amusing to ask Coulter to write about the Democrats and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore to analyze the Republican National Convention in New York.
This is casting, not editing. It is an extension of the noxious talk radio ethos that confuses a provocation with an idea and abuse with entertainment. It makes a mockery of the fundamental journalistic standard of balance, because pitting two utterly predictable writers with a demonstrable disrespect for the truth is not a debate, it's mud wrestling.
Can the editors at USA Today really have been surprised when Coulter's first column began like this: "Here at the Spawn of Satan convention in Boston, conservatives are deploying a series of covert signals to identify one another, much like gay men do. My allies are the ones wearing crosses or American flags. The people sporting shirts emblazoned with the 'F-word' are my opponents. Also, as always, the pretty girls and cops are on my side, most of them barely able to conceal their eye-rolling."
Coulter went on to note that her "pretty-girl allies stick out like a sore thumb amongst the corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons they call 'women' at the Democratic National Convention."
USA Today's editorial page editor told his readers that Coulter's column contained "basic weaknesses in clarity and readability that we found unacceptable."
Actually, Coulter seems pretty clear, which is probably why she said that the paper's decision "raises the intriguing question of why they hired me to write for them."
In the end, it's not a very intriguing question, because the answer is the same when you ask why the three networks have abandoned genuine coverage of national politics for faux-reality shows. It's what happens when journalists of whatever stripe forget their obligation to the public interest and allow themselves to become mere agents of avarice.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.