Can the Internet Save News Reporting?

When I began working in the news department at an NBC affiliate in the late 1960s, ratings were never discussed and no one cared about the hair style of reporters. The most important thing was accuracy-getting the facts straight.
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When I began working in the news department at an NBC affiliate in the late 1960s, ratings were never discussed and no one cared about the hair style of reporters. The most important thing was accuracy-getting the facts straight.

Later, when I was hired as an investigative reporter at a Post-Newsweek station near the end of the Watergate era, I received a personal pep talk from publisher Katherine Graham-a gutsy woman who had recently been threatened with a ride through the Nixon Administration's ringer.

Mrs. Graham warned me that the pressure would be great, but I was to tackle stories without fear from inside or outside the company. If anyone tried to interfere with my work, I should call her.

That call was never necessary. We were in the second golden age of television news (after Edward R. Murrow and friends set the early standard). Even when I was sued after exposing some unsavory dealings by a local congressman, Graham's company enthusiastically supported me in court. We won.

Unfortunately, those days came to an end. Television news got profit-conscious, lawsuit-averse, and as a result, much of the programming morphed into fluffy lifestyle pablum. Over time, viewers would come to believe the sugar-coated diversions were actually real news.

We've reached the point where the FCC is investigating almost 80 TV stations for substituting corporate video handouts in place of genuine news stories without telling viewers. How low can television news go?

Just as the new TV season began, David Letterman half-joked, "Here at CBS was Bob Schieffer's last night as the anchor of 'The CBS Evening News.' ...Tremendous man, Bob-brought credibility and ratings to the news. So naturally, they got rid of him."

About the same time Schieffer left the stage, former vice president, Al Gore, a man who has experimented with television interactivity through his Current TV network-added some more harsh words about the quality of television news.

Addressing the International Television Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, Gore observed that increasing media consolidation is a threat against all democratic societies. "Democracy is a conversation, and the most important role of the media is to facilitate that conversation. Now the conversation is more controlled, it is more centralized," he said.

Gore said that questions of fact that threaten those in power are not heard on today's news programs. "...They try to censor the information," he said.

A few business people or politicians are now consolidating global media holdings, Gore went on. In Italy, much of the media is owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has stifled dissent on television, and in South Africa, Gore said, dissent "is disappearing, and free expression is under attack."

In the United States, he said, "the only thing that matters in American politics now is having enough money to put 30-second commercials on the air often enough to convince the voters to elect you or re-elect you. The person who has the most money to run the most ads usually wins."

Though I'll surely be labeled a curmudgeon by some, it's pretty much a no-brainer among thinking people that the television news business is in sorry straits. Veteran reporters continue to leave the business, disgusted with dwindling pay levels, the dumbing down of content, and the outrageous redefinition of what is and is not a legitimate news story.

NEWSLITE

The talented pros who have worked in professional news operations in the past find it hard to play the illusionary corporate game of newslite. Rather than leave the business entirely, hopefully some will embrace the only remaining alternative-the Internet. Of course, the Internet is no more than a distribution system. It begins as an empty vessel. Someone has to create the information.

Just as word processors didn't produce better writers or video cameras better visual storytellers, a cheap distribution platform won't alone create a meaningful alternative for journalistic storytelling.

The whole phenomenon of "citizen journalism" and blogging-while helping break down the corporate walls that have long shielded the news business-does not necessarily result in better reporting or more accurate information. Yes, there is some genuine talent online-people who have broken important stories-but so far it takes a bit of work to find them.

Hopefully, the talent will rise and ways will be found to financially support them without corporate intervention or the toxicity of advertising. Sadly, we still must navigate a sea of politically motivated bloviators who claim to be bringing fairness to the news.

Interestingly, ad slogans have tried to convince audiences that one news show is more fair and competitors have bias. Of course, this is all bunk. Complete objectivity is a myth. All of us are biased, whether through our education, life experiences, age, or otherwise.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

It certainly helps to have some level of objectivity and not approach the news with a hidden agenda. But the holy grail of journalism is accuracy: Getting the story right, regardless of who is offended.

In old school journalism, we learned a simple rule: "Follow the money." In our culture, that has always been the most effective way to get to the truth.

Real reporting requires the guts to stand up and oppose popular conventions. The post-9/11 fear to tackle hard and controversial subjects still permeates too many newsrooms. The idea that "embedded" journalism can ever be legitimate should be abandoned.

Journalism, when practiced by the best, demands an adversarial relationship with those in power. It is the opposite mentality of a White House press corps that waits to be spoon fed the government's prepared theme of the day.

So who still practices this kind of journalism? One example is Seymour Hersh, one of America's finest investigative journalists. His work has long challenged abuses of power. He works independently, the old-fashioned way.

Hersh's chosen medium is still the written word. There is not yet a www.seymourhersh.com. But when the day comes that reporters of Hersh's standards independently report on the Web, we'll know the next golden age of journalism has arrived.