Old Media vs. New Media

The other day I was listening to an NPR show called Talk of the Nation during which several current issues in journalism were broached. Among them were such things as the concept of reportorial objectivity, the dearth of foreign news bureaus staffed by trained professionals and the idea that individuals themselves are better able to gather news they want than allowing editors and producers to select it for them.

These are all critical questions and ones that journalists and journalism educators have been discussing for years.

In this case, former Nightline host Ted Koppel, who was representing what some call “old media”, was squaring off against Jeff Jarvis, a media critic and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York.

Koppel was making a point that goes to the heart of all of these issues: objectivity, the decline in sustained international news coverage and the “Internetization” of journalism.

Here is what he said:

“We now live in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and were encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable. Beginning perhaps from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unobtainable; Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it.

“It has to do with the corporations that own those two networks and their interest in making money. And operating foreign bureaus, for example – whether they’re operated the way they used to be run 20 or 30 years ago or whether there is some new and better way of operating them – is not the issue. They’re expensive and, as I said talk is cheap.

“And the fact that you have these many voices on cable television, in effect, debating one another day in and day out, is an inexpensive way of attracting an audience and making money. And that’s why they’re there – not because of any search for a new, brighter form of journalism.”

Amen. These programs have nothing to do with journalism. They are places where people can rant and pontificate ad nauseam. The people who sit behind the desks are journalists in name only. Few have actually spent much time working in a newsroom and if they did, it was likely brief and in the case of TV talent, they were little more than talking heads.

There was another discussion about foreign news and the fact that U.S. networks and newspapers have severely degraded and in most cases, shut down foreign bureaus. Why? Because they are expensive and, according to the green eye shade people who run today’s news organizations, they are simply not cost effective as “profit centers.”

At the Chicago Tribune (my home for some 27 years) and other places with foreign bureaus, it was common knowledge that the bean counters would divide the cost of operating a foreign bureau by the number of stories produced. That gave the bottom-liners a number they could use to show how much each story from Tokyo or Buenos Aires or Nairobi cost in relation to those produced locally or regionally.

Was there any doubt that the foreign stories cost a lot more? Not at all. But that is not why news organizations had bureaus back in the old media days. There were a couple reasons. First, it was considered prestigious to have one’s own correspondent covering events from afar. But second, and most important, the people who ran news organizations back during the “old media” days were journalists–often former foreign correspondents themselves or editors who believed it was the news organization’s responsibility to provide international news to their reading or viewing publics.

Today, many news organizations have opted to use “local talent” to cover foreign news. In other words, they hire a Chinese reporter to cover news in China or a Russian to cover news in Russia. This is usually much less expensive and as “New Media” mavens like Jarvis told Koppel on the NPR program: “We have people who actually know the territory and are natives. Do you think we have to have Americans tell Americans the news?”

Here is how the exchange went after that:

KOPPEL: I would like to have American reporters conveying the news to Americans, yes.

JARVIS: Whoa. That seems like a kind of strange bit of xenophobia, journalistic xenophobia. I would love to have people – I love being able to go to blogs and elsewhere and read the people who are in Iraq and in Iran explain it to me far better than someone who just jetted in.

KOPPEL: You’re making precisely my point. I don’t want someone who just jetted in. I want someone who’s lived there for two or three years, speaks the local language, and knows something about it.

JARVIS: How about someone who’s lived there for 40 or 50 years and truly understands it and can use these magnificent new tools – which you still haven’t answered for me. What do you think of the new tools? Do you see new hope for journalism here?

KOPPEL: I don’t see new hope for journalism; I see new hope for the exchange of information. But you haven’t responded to my part, which is unless one knows the provenance of the information, unless I know who’s putting the information out, I can’t judge the validity of that.

And that is why having American correspondents on the ground is so important. When I was covering places like China, S.E. Asia, Latin America, etc. I made sure I knew who was putting out information. I was also not afraid to push officials for it or to demand that they verify some point or another. However, a Chinese reporter working in Beijing is putting his or her life on the line or at least risking prison time doing something like that.

So, if the world of New Media is about “exchanging information,” that is fine. However, it is NOT journalism in any sense of the word. People who do journalism are, for the most part, professionals who take their jobs seriously. In fact, as one of my professors once said: “You don’t think of journalism as a job. It is a calling. It carries serious responsibility with it. People depend on you for accurate, unbiased information.”

There are, of course, those professionals who are less professional than others. It’s the same with attorneys, the clergy, teachers and yes, even politicians. There is a reason that journalism is the only business that is protected by a Constitutional Amendment.

Those who founded this nation had no idea that something called The Internet would emerge as a global force for information exchange, but they did understand the value of a free and independent press and its value as a “fourth estate” with the responsibility to be a watchdog of government and to be a open market for the free exchange of ideas.

Bloggers, tweeters, information exchangers and bombastic talking heads on TV are not part of that fourth estate. They are the back benchers of journalism. They can fulminate, blame and pontificate, but they will never break a story that results in a Pulitzer Prize or a Peabody Award. They aren’t interested in producing compelling journalism.

That’s not their job. Their job is to preach to their choirs–to bring forth opinions and judgments that coincide with the attitudes and values of their slavish audiences–be they liberal or conservative.

And that, my friends, is NOT journalism.