Sunday, August 22, 2004

The Ossification of the Fourth Estate

It is a well-known medical phenomenon that blood leaking into a joint, if not treated, tends to attract calcium-depositing bone cells. This in turn leads to markedly diminished functioning of the joint.

This might explain the conspicuous decline in the analytical skills of professional journalists in the last few decades. Many of those folks began their careers in the tumult of the civil rights movement, risking headthumps from police billy clubs to get out the TRUTH of political oppression of dissent. Later, there were the anti-war protests, where additional whacks were provided by highly idealistic LEFTISTS. It took some nerve to wade into the thick of things, regardless of which side was dealing out the bumps on the head.

A moment of silence, please, for all the brave American journalists assassinated, beaten, or “disappeared” by the fascists of the Right OR Left...

Hmmm. There was Alan Berg, a radio talk show host machine-gunned in Denver in 1984 by someone connected to the Aryan Nation movement. But the number of American reporters or editors killed in America (as opposed to being killed while on assignment in other countries) is essentially zero. (Check this URL:

Okay, how about a moment of silence for the brave American News Organizations that closed their offices in Baghdad rather than submit to Saddam’s extortion and chose instead to reveal the full extent of the rapes, murders, tortures, kidnapping, and brutality he had loosed on his own people BEFORE THE INVASION.

Ooops. Can’t think of any.

Well, how about a moment of respectful silence for Eason Jordan for bravely confessing in a letter to the NYTimes that CNN acquiesced to that extortion for years and years? Well, it got them a front row seat to broadcast the fireworks when we finally had a President with the simple courage to do something about Saddam H... (Remarkably, Indymedia-Atlanta has a link at this URL:
This seems to be the same article under Jeff Jacoby’s byline that appears in a number of other locations, but it’s pretty interesting reading.)


Well, even if they haven’t been risking their lives particularly since our abandonment of South Vietnam, they regularly risk dangerous blows to the head in their lunch-hour squash games with their mates. But lately, the predominant source of journalistic cranial injury is the desktops on which they bang their heads in frustration at the slow-motion trainwreck of the Kerry campaign.

In any case the net result is clear. A few years ago, journalists were unable to untangle Clinton’s definition of the word “is.” More recently they’ve had difficulty grasping the idea that an “ally” is a country that supports goals to which they have agreed, NOT one that obstructs. In the last weeks before the Republican National Convention, they are confused over whether the function of journalism is to report news or suppress it. At the current rate of regression, by election day journalists will have difficulty working out a use for their fingers beyond merely excavating their nostrils.

How in the world did they fall so far? A look back is instructive.

In the first decades of the Twentieth Century, in living memory of some who are alive today, many city newspapers were privately held--- i.e., owned and operated by the same families that had originally started them. Some cities had a number of newspapers operating in fierce contention among owners. They took every opportunity to criticize the opposition, and whenever possible, recruit each other’s most popular writers, cartoonists and readers.

Having that sort of local competition turned out to promote a healthy range of choices for the reading public. This meant alternatives in support for political candidates, editorial points of view, advocacy, entertainment, costs, and standards.

As newspaper ownership began to migrate from private holdings and consolidate into corporate hands, radio technology was maturing and spreading. In the Twenties and Thirties, some of the most progressive and idealistic journalistic enterpreneurs initiated news organizations for the new broadcast medium that were to be dedicated solely to the gathering and relaying of news. CBS, NBC, Powell Crosley’s WLW in Cincinnati, and a number of independent stations like KDKA of Philidelphia, and KQED of San Francisco, established their own independent departments for news. In addition several groups arose that were dedicated to nothing else but news--- UPI and AP, for instance.

In those first two decades, Radio was all new and special, with a romance hard to understand in these sophisticated days. Here’s a description from

“Broadcasting of this era was more than just a business or a job. It was the profession of magic.
Radio had a distinctly formal air about it. Announcers and musicians dressed in tuxedos. Female performers were elegantly attired as well, even when there was no studio audience. Announcing was formal. Broadcasting was regarded as a grand production, almost theatrical in nature. Enunciation and vocal clarity were essential, partly due to limitations of the equipment, but also because of the tradition of the theater. This formality of attitude and style would remain a part of radio well into the 1940s.”

Because many of the organizations were launched by individuals, or closely-held private groups, it was possible for many of their owners to give a simple mandate to their news teams: find out what was going on in the world, and report it back to the public. Within the limitations of their employers’ budgets, the reporters and their editors were given a great deal of independence.

Editorial policies admittedly did not venture far from those of the owners, but within limits, the listening public were served by the competition a number of alternatives and choices in interpretation and points of view. As television technology came into being, it was developed by essentially the same radio broadcast community, and offered ranges of choice similar to those of radio.

The enfeeblement of journalism now approaching crisis has its roots in the world-wide changes caused by the collapse of empires and growing commercial engagement between formerly isolated nations following World War II. A number of corporations, most particularly those involved in energy development and distribution, were increasingly pressured by market fluctuations in basic fossil fuels, to diversify. This led a worldwide surge of acquisitions, mergers, and consolidations among businesses, of which the multi-national corporations are the most conspicuous upshot. [This is a drastic oversimplification--- I’d welcome knowledgeable criticism or comment.]

Here’s the crux of the matter.

In the last four decades, the news organizations that originally were financed by the revenues of their parent organizations, were expected by the conglomerates that had acquired them to start paying their own way. There was enormous pressure to compete, not just with other newscasts, but with the full range of entertainment media.

What we got, instead of sober, reflective, judgment, was big hair, perfect teeth, and implants; cutesy human interest features carefully set off by lame banter among intellectual flyweights, and theatrical sets and logos eating up budgets that used to be sufficient to deliver feature films. We got news readers who think their celebrity equates to infallibility. In 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat used an interview with Walter Cronkite to announce his willingness to meet with then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Many television viewers may have assumed that Mr. Cronkite had somehow, by his journalistic wiles or stature, coaxed this from Sadat. The event, which sent shock waves around the world, certainly enhanced Cronkite's prestige--- he was later discussed quite seriously as a possible Presidential candidate. But it's more likely that Sadat chose that forum precisely so he could later dismiss it as idle chat with a person of no real consequence, in case it were rejected by the Israelis. If he had made the overture through normal diplomatic / political channels, a rejection might have led to an internal challenge to Sadat’s leadership. But Jennings, Rather, Brokaw, and Walters believe they’re the King-makers of our culture.

(By the way, I'm not claiming any deep omniscient insight in suggesting Sadat might have been challenged if his offer was rejected. For those too young to remember, Anwar Sadat was in fact immediately castigated by fundamentalist Egyptian Muslims for making the initiative, and within a few years after the electrifying visit to Jerusalem and the Camp David Meetings with Carter and Begin, he was assassinated by fanatical Muslims who felt he had betrayed them in making peace with Israel.)

So much for the decline of broadcast journalism. It took the misbehavior of Nixon and the Watergate scandal to truly screw up print journalism.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are a lot of dedicated print journalists out there. But the sense of gleeful triumph that raced through the liberal community at seeing Nixon brought low has had consequences that will reverberate for the next century.

Not the least of those is the missionary zeal of several generations now of self-annointed crusaders who chose journalism for their college degree program after watching Redford and Hoffman in “All the President’s Men.” Combined with the Radical-Left domination of American university faculties, this has produced a tide of counter-cultural primitives steeped since toilet training with the notion that the purpose of journalism is to topple Republican/Fascist presidents. The collection and correlation of facts are only important insofar as they can be used to support the underlying agenda--- Resistance to the oppression of the Conservatives. Inconvenient facts or allegations are to be dismissed, belittled, scorned, and characterized as lacking credibility.

Damn, I’m indulging in the same sort of smearing of liberal journalists that I detest when they do it to conservatives. But there is a lot of truth in there; it is definitely a case of Asymmetric warfare. In the course of my animation career I’ve had occasion to become acquainted with a fair number of print and broadcast journalists, and I can tell you... respect and tolerance for conservatives is exceedingly rare.

I admit I may be leaving out important factors. The fact of the public’s growing dissatisfaction with traditional news media is undeniable. There are certainly dangers and pitfalls in a D-I-Y approach to newsgathering. I certainly have to grit my teeth and hold my nose when I check on sites like and But I am occasionally surprised, as I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts, to find leftward sites that acknowledge and link to articles, blogs, or information that contradicts their viewpoints.

In the middle ages, scholars, philosophers, and the just-all-around-wise regularly exchanged correspondence, and discussed new discoveries and ancient lore over great distances. I shouldn’t compare myself to those worthies, but their example is a good one, even for us lesser lights. Connecting with other bloggers, and getting involved in the comment streams with other folks who take the time to research and thoughtfully compose their posts--- certainly are mind-stretching exercises.

Often when I’m trying to organize my thoughts even for just a comment, I find myself searching the web for sources. I try to look at a range of sites--- including some I expect to disagree violently with my own preconceptions. (Hey! I always have the option of discounting their junk!)

The thing that keeps coming back to me (and I know some of my readers are darn tired of seeing me dredge this up) is that concept I’ve heard described as fundamental to information theory: The importance of data is inversely proportional to its consistency with your expectations.

Relating that to Mainstream Journalism, it’s vital to remind yourself that the world doesn’t work the way you want it to JUST BECAUSE YOU WANT IT TO. When some nagging fact can’t be hidden, discarded, argued away, or papered over, you finally have to consider you might be wrong and start trying to see things as they are.

You can’t solve a problem if you won’t acknowledge it's a problem.


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