Enter the Son of the Editor…

The decline in trust and respect for the media, especially the news media, can be seen in many ways as an indictment of free-market capitalism’s effect on the spread of important ideas. Put simply, the market provides financial impetus to create programming palatable to the broadest possible demographic, forcing out nuanced and thoughtful discussions of issues in favor of easily digestible entertainment. Newspapers adapted their language and content in an attempt to sell more papers to a broader audience. In the same way, the tone and content of media programming, especially news, has devolved to allow for easier monetary exploitation in an era of near-ubiquity.

More is more these days, even if it’s more of less. I hope that makes sense.

It would seem that audiences are at least slightly more difficult to exploit than programming directors and advertising executives would admit, however. In attempting to walk the fine-line between airing American Idol commercials in the news hour and actually covering American Idol DURING the news as if it’s news, the cynical Hollywood types might have under-estimated their audience. At very least, they’ve over-estimated how blatantly the audience is willing to have their intelligence insulted. Polls show that Americans are coming to feel that members of the news media are no more to be trusted with the facts than are advertisers or entertainers. Perhaps this is because Americans are beginning to look at members of the news media AS advertisers and entertainers.

A powerful and fearless media is important to the cause of freedom. That sounds over-wrought, but it’s true. The people should have the right to know what politicians and leaders do on their behalf, whether the politicians and leaders want them to or not. If the media does not protect this right for the people, who will?

It only follows, of course, to ask who will protect the media from the people. I, for one, despair a little at disturbing trends such as calls from the private sector and the Right to cut funding for public radio and television programming. These trends threaten one of the last remaining bastions of unbiased reporting left minimally influenced by commercial considerations. On the other hand, one can at least take solace in the idea that the internet will create a new paradigm for the dissemination of ideas which will help render irrelevant such considerations as monetization and distribution.

The traditional idea of news coverage sponsored by advertising and other means of commercial monetization may simply have become too broken to fix; market-pressures have rendered the end-product a bastardized committee hodge-podge of celebrity gossip, entertainment news, sports, and opinion pieces. Those who are looking for easy entertainment have a million places other than the nightly news to find it. Those who are looking for actual news aren’t even looking to traditional media any more, and traditional media doesn’t yet seem to notice.

The only way for the media to gain back the respect of its audience then is to do the opposite of what the market tells them to do: the programmers must refuse to give the public what the advertising department tells them the public wants; instead it must give them quality news programming based on solid journalistic principles and ethics. If news anchors today are not trusted as Cronkite was, it stands to reason that either the public no longer wants a trustworthy person such as him delivering the news, or the news is no longer being delivered by a trustworthy person such as Cronkite. We should examine which of these is the case, and why it is so; then we’ll know how to get back the respect the Fourth Estate has earned.

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