It is death by a thousand cuts. Slowly but surely, year by year, the kind of aggressive and unbiased journalism that generations of Americans have come to rely upon to help decide public policy matters and to assist them in electing public officials has been disappearing. These trends have been quite troubling to Alex S. Jones. What is even more disturbing is that a significant number of Americans don’t even seem to care. Alex Jones is an award-winning journalist whose family has been in the newspaper business for four generations. He is also Director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. In his new 2009 book “Losing The News: The Future of The News That Feeds Democracy” Jones argues for a return to the exacting journalistic standards of the past. The book examines the sorry state of the media in America and the reasons the author feels that things have gone awry.
I found that one of the most salient points made in “Losing The News” was that even in their heyday “hard” or “accountability” news really only accounted for about 15% of the content in a daily newspaper. I guess here has always been lots of “fluff” in newspapers. This surprised me as I was under the impression that the percentage of hard news would have been somewhat higher in years gone by. “Accountabilty” news can be defined as coverage of local city council and school board meetings, the state legislature and Congress and the Administration in Washington. As is the case today, the balance of the newspaper consisted of such “soft” news items as sports, comics, advice columns as well as display advertising from both local and national companies and of course the highly profitable classified ads. The reality was that the revenue generated by the rest of the paper essentially subsidized the newsroom. It was a formula that worked to perfection for decades. But hard economic times have befallen many news organizations. Newspapers and broadcast media have had to slash their budgets. Many veteran reporters have been let go and as a result of these draconian cuts newsrooms have been forced to make do with a lot less people. There are now far fewer people “watching the henhouse” as illustrated by New York Times reporter David Carr’s remarks on page 176 of “Losing The News”. Carr observes that due to drastic cuts at the Newark Star-Ledger “New Jersey, a petri dish of corruption, will have to make due with 40% fewer reporters at the Star-Ledger, one of the few remaining cops on the beat”. The implications of this sorry state of affairs for taxpayers cannot be understated.
The way that news is reported became much more muddled with the introduction of cable news in the 1980’s and the emergence of the internet in the 1990’s. Given the feverish competition between all of these news outlets the desire to be first has become the primary concern of many of them. Many of today’s so-called “reporters” fail to verify the accuracy of their information or vet their sources resulting in lots and lots of inaccuracy in the news. Likewise, many reporters feel compelled to insert their own views into the story and editors are allowing them to get away with it. Throughout the pages of “Losing The News” Jones acknowledges the monumental challenges facing news organizations today. At the same time he chides many of these same outlets for practices he considers to be “unprofessional”. Meanwhile, Alex Jones advocates vigorously for a return to the more stringent journalistic standards of the past. Jones is a firm believer in the proposition that “the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” Count him an ardent supporter of The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Among other things this organization believes: 1) Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth; 2) Its first loyalty is to citizens and 3) Its essence is a discipline of verification
The release of “Losing The News: The Future of The News That Feeds Democracy” comes at a time when distrust of the media is widespread and freedom of speech is under attack from many quarters. Although a bit dry at times, Alex Jones has written a book that will get you up to speed on these very important issues. Highly recommended.