Traditional Media: Survival?

Widespread concern now regarding the state of media and journalism in the United States.

There is, first of all, the basic economic problem: Daily newspapers, once the cornerstone of reliable media reporting in the United States, gradually are dying. Online versions exist but still have not made the papers sufficiently profitable to sustain excellence and independence in their news coverage. The problem is acute outside NY and DC. Once proud metro-area dailies are cutting back to less than daily publication and, at the same time, devoting more space to photo art and feature stories—thinking apparently that readers prefer this to traditional hard news.

Network and cable-network news coverage increasingly reflects a commercial orientation—fashioned for targeted demographic audiences bringing desired ratings and revenues. I personally have difficulty watching these channels anymore.

I was shocked when, a few years back, I attended a seminar at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where I was class of 1956. I found a large number of J-School alums and others, some still in their 40s, who had been dumped by their employers to be replaced by younger, lower-paid types not requiring traditional health and retirement benefits. Some of the displaced had well known faces and bylines.

There has been another disturbing trend in recent years. As a respected, veteran editor wrote recently: Editors once sent reporters out to gather pieces of information, determine those which were facts, and to let the facts lead them to conclusions. Now, he said, a narrative is chosen and reporters instructed to find material which will fit the narrative.

We see this everywhere, including at the venerated NY Times, which notably has been pursuing the 1619 Project, which asserts that slavery and racism underlay initial impulses behind the American Revolution. The lead piece in today’s Times magazine, entitled Who Lives? Who Dies? attributes the comparatively high coronavirus mortality rate among minorities largely to “societal policies, driven by institutional racism, that are producing the results that they were intended to produce.” What? Everything is no more due to racism than it is due to Trump. The high minority mortality rate, any knowledgeable health expert will tell us, is due to a destructive convergence of social, economic, health, nutrition and other big problems in those communities—not because white folk willed it that way. We are long past due in renewing once focused efforts to address those problems together, not as members of a race or ethnic group.

If the NYT, WaPost and other traditional media leaders cannot be trusted to get it and tell it straight, whom can we trust? Tweeters? A fed up electorate elected Trump in 2016, and enabled Bernie’s strong run, because of its rejection not only of establishmentarian politicians of both parties but of, among others, the media establishment, now shown as down with trial lawyers and Members of Congress in “trust” rankings. Low.

Journalism is the only profession without an internal policing body. It will never accept an external one. Voters and consumers will keep voting “no” on current media performance until they see media as professional, unbiased, and concerned with the vital rather than the frivolous and trivial. The best path to traditional media’s economic survival, if it is possible, lies not with proposed public subsidies—which would compromise media independence—but with a return to traditional reporting standards.

Ted Van Dyk