Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Corporate Snake-Oil Journalism...

Regular readers of this blog have probably picked up on my opinion of our news media corporations. I heard Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit on the Hugh Hewitt radio show warning that if the credibility of our corporate journalists continues to decline, more and more people will begin viewing news media as a vehicle for out-of-touch corporations to peddle defective products without fear of consequences. He paraphrases his comments at Instapundit.

Today's expansive press freedom, which I support wholeheartedly, is of recent origin (essentially, it's a post-World War II phenomenon) and not to be taken for granted. Remember all the talk about the Enron scandal, and how free enterprise was at risk if greedy corporations didn't clean up their acts? Well, I'm afraid that press freedom is at risk if it's seen as a vehicle for out-of-touch corporations to peddle defective products without fear of consequences.

Of course, the fear is that once the value of our national news media drops below a certain level, people will no longer care enough to protect it from government manipulation and control. Aren't we are already there. This is not a result of the Newsweek debacle. This latest flusher-flap is only a symptom of what our national press has really become, a relatively small collection of for-profit corporations filling the space between ads with what I call snake-oil journalism. Let's see how Merriam-Webster Online defines snake-oil.

snake-oil: any of various substances or mixtures sold (as by a traveling medicine show) as medicine usually without regard to their medical worth or properties

Listen to how that sounds adapted for journalism; any substance or presentation sold (as by a television news show) as journalism usually without regard to their journalistic worth or properties.

I don't pretend to know much about being a journalist, but I can recognize when I'm not getting straight information. I liken it to people's ability to smell and taste bad food that otherwise looks good. Apparently, most of the viewing audience in America can recognize bad food once they've tasted it, according to the a study done last year by the Pew Research Center. Would it be fair to interpret this chart to mean a significant majority of Americans believe less than half of the information reported on Cable News? I think so.

Many people are suggesting that the news media is losing credibility because of various faulty reports. I believe these faulty reports are only a result of the way these out-of-touch corporations peddle their products. That's the key point in all of this. These for-profit corporations, like News Corporation and the Washington Post Company, package a product on a consistent schedule for the express purpose of securing sustained ad revenues. Only after that goal is achieved do they look towards journalism, and I believe they will discard any number of journalists to defend that goal.

Here is where bloggers actually get too much blame or credit, depending on your point of view. As I have pointed out before, it wasn't bloggers that chased Eason Jordan out of CNN and Dan Rather off the air. Remember the comments of Bill Maher doubting the courage of our naval personnel who execute cruise missile launches?

"We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." -- Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect

I bring this up to point out that it wasn't bloggers who took Politically Incorrect off the air; it was executives at ABC. ABC Chairman Lloyd Braun said Maher's controversial comments had nothing to do with the decision to replace him with Jimmy Kimmel, and that statement is probably true. The decision was most likely made to stop the bleeding after Sears and FedEx pulled their ads from the show. The same can be said for Rush Limbaugh at ESPN, Dan Rather at CBS, and Eason Jordan at CNN. These are all examples of corporations defending their primary purpose for being in business.

Wretchard at Belmont Club stole a little of my thunder as we are saying many of the same things.

In the case of the Newsweek decision to print a poorly sourced story on the descreation of a Koran at Guantanamo Naval Base it is pertinent to ask how the costs and benefits of the magazine's action would be distributed; whether the interests of the agent substantially coincide with the principal -- the public -- in whose name the press often claims to act. But any boost in circulation would accrue benefits to the employees and stockholders of Newsweek and not to general members of the public unless they had shares. It is equally clear that any externalities arising from the Koran story would not normally be borne by Newsweek. Though people might die, places destroyed or riots occur they would not likely happen to people or places associated with Newsweek.

The fallacy in the argument, of course, is the premise that Newsweek acts as an agent for the general public. It isn't, and is free from any responsibility as a public agent in the uproar it has caused by its retracted story. Newsweek is not an agent, but the purveyor of a product for which there happens to be a market protected by the First Amendment. This should be clear, and there is nothing wrong with it. But the question arises: to what extent is a commercial organization free to dump the external costs of their business on others.

However, I'm going to take exception to Wretchard's assumption that Newsweek's product is protected by the First Amendment. I am an individual tip-tapping away on my modern-day printing press, which is explicitly protected by the First Amendment. Newseek is a corporate entity that operates at the pleasure of the government laws and regulations under which it was created, and by extension, at the will of the people. I believe that may be the source of Glenn Reynolds' apprehension.

You Gotta Dance With Them That Brung Ya

What would be the argument for the government of the people regulating corporate media on a subject directly linked to a war effort and the safety of our soldiers serving abroad? I am surprised at how prescient were President Bush's "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" comments following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. If you don't like the absolute nature of that statement, former President and CEO of Netscape, Jim Barksdale, describes the same principle in a different way.

"At a ham and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed."

Our media corporations seem to be having a difficult time grappling with the emerging global market for their products. In addition to employing terrorists and signing contracts supporting organizations sympathetic to terrorist causes, our corporate media have also forgotten who it is that affords them their global reach. They have, as a result, moderated their national allegiance to avoid the appearance of being jingoistic to satisfy the farcical notion of non-subjective reporting.

FOX News is not appealing because it is fills a void of right-wing news. FOX fills the gap of journalists who are Americans first and objective reporters second. The embedded journalists who were covering the invasion of Iraq and the battle of Fallujah for FOX News were great. Contrast those to NBC's Kevin Sites who did nothing but question our mission and second guess our troops as far as I could tell. It is along those lines that make the Newsweek mistep so egregious. By ignoring the problems with their story, Newsweek availed our enemies' propaganda machine of the world wide publishing media built by the pocket-books of the American consumer. I'm not piling on Newsweek here. Many of our media corporations are positioning themselves to appeal to a broad anti-american market. It would be my advice to the executives and shareholders of our American media corporations that they keep in mind who brought 'em to the dance.

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