“Our House is on Fire…”

Posted on May 13, 2013 by

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So begins Scott Pelley, CBS journalist, as he lays out the media’s recent string of embarrassments. In a solid Quinnipiac University speech that will create few enemies, and that does not necessarily articulate new ideas, Pelley nevertheless manages to say a few things succinctly and appropriately. Pelley concern for journalism’s integrity in the information age is palpable. He knows that technology is revolutionizing the industry and that pressures for publicity are eclipsing long-standing principles of corroboration, surety, and fairness. His words will further inflame our basic perceptions of media shortcomings on Benghazi and Boston and Obama and the IRS.

Is Pelley pointing the way forward to a new age, or is his lament made in the dimming glow of media’s golden age? He is right that technology has compressed the news cycle into nearly unmanageable bites, but is technology the only culprit responsible for the news media’s apparent decline?

While conservatives revel in the cries of ‘bias’ whenever they discuss the media, and there is obvious truth in it, the more dramatic problem, apart from ideological distance, is relational. Pelley references Edward R. Murrow’s opening line for a speech on a similar occasion, “This may not do anybody any good.” Murrow, though being used as an icon of respectability, is actually the beginning, in some ways, of journalism’s decline and fall in the United States.

Murrow, Huntley, Cronkite, Woodward, Bernstein, Rather, Donaldson, Jennings, and Brokaw were all celebrities at least as much as they were journalists. They become giants and were, as a consequence, feted, awarded honorary degrees, and invited to all the best parties. Journalists became major cultural influences and thereby were launched into the outer reaches of the American firmament. They slowly morphed into stories in and of themselves, often larger than the ones they were covering.

All at once, it seemed, though it took several decades, journalism was respectable and lucrative. While we may not like to admit it, at least those of us who stand on the outside with our noses pressed firmly to the television’s glass, the world in there is small. Elbows are rubbed. Drinks are had. Stories are exchanged. Giggles flit. People go to the same schools. They marry one another. They work with one another. Before you know it, an actual discrete social class emerges, one that combines politicians AND journalists AND celebrities of different sorts. P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “politics is show business for ugly people.” If so, than journalism is show business for the marginally repulsive.

All of this to say, simply, that technology is a demon that continues to stalk the media. It may, however, be exorcised at some point. However, the cultural proclivities that spawn this sort of clique are not going away. Until they do, we cannot expect journalists to give a fair shake both to ideological strangers and bedfellows. It is not so much, “we cannot report on that, they are liberal and it might hurt them,” it is at least as much, “we cannot report that, my brother works in the White House!”

Pelley, unsurprisingly, sees Democracy’s success as hinging on journalism’s quality. While grandiose, there is more than a tincture of truth at work. For the sake of our democracy, we benefit from journalists who scorn these social circles, ones who, frankly, don’t care who might get damaged so long as the truth rolls downhill, smashing whoever, liberal or conservative, friend or foe, stands in the way. In this way, perhaps, our citizen journalists, the internet army, may come to our rescue, but only if we begin to judge information more carefully.

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