By Charlie Mitchell
For America to get healthy, financially and otherwise, the big boys in media would have to change their ways. That’s unlikely, so their audience is going to have to figure out their game and reject it.
Here’s how it works:
During the recent days of great financial turmoil, the airwaves were filled with quips from Republicans who are or may be running for president in two years. Guess who Republicans blamed? Within hours, a contest was under way to determine which one could say the most outrageous things about Barack Obama.
This is also what passed for news during the 2008 Wall Street upheavals. Democratic hopefuls were paraded before microphones to say outrageous stuff about George W. Bush.
The pattern of not doing any real reporting and instead just pitting people against each other is the gold standard for national broadcast journalism.
It’s very different from reporting as practiced by community journalists in Mississippi and other states, but the differences may not really be apparent without stopping and thinking.
As this state’s general election approaches in November, odds are the newspaper printing this column will explain ballot processes and issues. For example, readers will be provided resources to study the pros and cons, if they wish, of the three amendments proposed to the Constitution. There will be profiles of the candidates.
Community journalists do this kind of stuff day in and day out. Turner Catledge, late managing editor of the New York Times, started his career at the Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, said newspapers “hold up a mirror to the people they serve.”
This is not the model for network or cable news companies.
They use the same template as developers of all shows. Drama sells.
Time and market testing has shown that the fastest way to get and keep a TV audience is by instilling fear, inciting conflict or revealing secrets. TV is long on mystery, excitement, violence and confrontation and short on actual information.
A couple of years ago in what has become an iconic video on You Tube, comedian Jon Stewart appeared on CNN to beg jousting hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to “stop hurting America.” Stewart, who oddly enough became something of a one-man-band for better TV “news,” tried to make an age-old point: The best journalism is solution-oriented.
Don’t confuse that with pap. Catledge and other great editors in Mississippi’s history have made the point that newspapers are not – or should not be – cheerleaders for their hometowns. If a look at the scoreboard shows a town is behind in a lot of ways – losing jobs, not taking advantage of opportunities, being led inefficiently or by unwise or corrupt people and policies, that needs to be reported. News isn’t always happy or welcome. Often there are heated confrontational and adversarial components, even in community papers.
The difference is that for community journalists, conflict is an accepted part of the process. For CNN, Fox and the others, conflict is an end unto itself.
Many are saying that perhaps at long last there’s recognition that the nation is up against the wall, in financial terms at least.
We can hope that day – as painful as it may be – has arrived.
If so, it will be in spite of news programs that judge their success strictly by audience numbers. They will not stop doing what they do best.
The painstaking gathering of information, checking details and actually finding ways to solve problems is boring.
Name-calling makes the cash registers ring.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.