59. Have T V and Newspaper Purveyors of News Committed Socioeconomic Suicide ?

October 24 2020

This morning a member of an e-mail discussion group to which I belong circulated the following story: 

Washington Post public editor:  the powerful have realized they don’t need the Post

THIS MONTH we learned that Tesla, a $400 billion public company run by one of the richest people in the world, has done away with its media relations department—effectively formalizing an informal policy of ignoring reporters. …


For personal reasons, I found the source of this story, the Columbia Journalism  Review, as interesting as the story itself.

In 1949, when I was about fifteen, and living in the little town of Monroe, about 50 miles north of New York City, I attended tiny Monroe High School, where my English teacher, Miss Beal, whom we all believed was secretly dating a boy in the senior class who had been left back a couple of times, more or less told me that I was going to be the Editor-in-Chief of our school paper.  As I recall, it was less like an invitation than an instruction. 

In making that appointment, she initiated what have been a series of major effects upon my life.  This is all the more astonishing to me because Monroe High School was such a tiny institution.  There were only just over a dozen kids in my class, and the “newspaper” was merely a bimonthly, mimeographed publication.  

In a way, being its Editor-in-Chief was like being appointed “emperor” of somebody’s back yard.  Yet, I discovered nine years later, after college and two years of law school, when the Army drafted me and and made me a military journalist, layout is layout and the inverted triangle format of a news story is independent of the relative magnificence of the publication.  Expositional writing, the clear explanation and publication of information about what is going on around here, is an art that is scalable.

I am pretty sure Miss Beal gave me my editorial duties in an unsuccessful effort to keep me too busy to disrupt her English class with my clowning around, but for me the first unexpected consequence came a year later when she recommended that the school should send me to a week-long seminar of New York State high school editors at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

It was my first exposure to the excitement of a big city university campus.  The conference alone was stimulating enough, but in addition, on the first day I met a grad student, Buddy Brehm, who stopped me to ask what our baby-faced crowd was up to at his school.  At the end of a half-hour chat he had to go to a psych class, and invited me to come along.  The class, given by a professor named Short, had to do with the design of academic tests.  Now, after 71 years, I still remember the main point of that class:  that if too many students fail a given test, the problem is with the test, not the students.  The test design will have failed to match the teaching.

This was all about a dozen years before the birth of the Columbia Journalism Review, and I have only a vague impression of the journalism conference itself, other than it was consistent with the professional standards of the day as they were reflected in the work of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

On the basis of that long perspective, I believe I spied another conclusion hidden in the words of the present article.

The author of the Review’s article, Hamilton Nolan, asserts that because the very rich possess extraordinary access to social media, they no longer need to provide once necessary access on the part of the traditional mass media, to their organizations and their lives.  The example cited in the article is that because Elon Musk has more than 40 million Twitter followers, Tesla no longer finds it necessary to have a media relations department, and for more than a year has not responded to any inquiries from what he calls, “critical and ethical outlets like the Washington Post”.

Nolan laments this loss of power by the further assertion that, “As journalists, we all view this as a horrifying assault on the public’s right to know, and on our own status as brave defenders of the public good.”  One wonders whether he is simply unaware of the delicious irony ingrained in this statement, or whether it is merely a cynical exercise of the egregious disinformation strategy for which the current media have become infamous.

First, modern reporters, mostly ignorant of the law and the constitution, have exaggerated the Constitution’s freedom of the press, which merely states that no law shall be made prohibiting it. Reporters have converted that right into a more global but imaginary public right to know.  In using the latter term, the press grants to itself a right and a power it does not actually have.

Secondly, if Nolan thinks that anyone still regards the press as, “brave defenders of the public good”,  he is delusional.  By foregoing the clear and truthful exposition of events as they have transpired, ( forgetting the legacy of Murrow and Cronkite), in favor of the role of  fomenting the on-screen or in-print acting-out of rage and anguish, they have reduced themselves to being parties to the chaos.  They are no longer disinterested reporters of the news when 98% of their content participates in the mêlée for the purpose of attracting viewers and readers and enhancing their own power,

Therefore, by its behavior the press, as it once was,  has committed journalistic suicide, and today the products of the media are consumed only by individuals who already know the various media prejudices and are intent only upon confirming their personal biases.

People who are invited to talk to reporters know that the product of the press is so devalued that it is no longer worth the price of dealing with any who are, or may be, antagonistic.  For the new strategy of ignoring the press you can thank the President, because he has proven that more people see his tweets than they do the content of any of the print or TV news outlets.  

For allowing their greed, rage and fear to corrupt their professional standards, modern journalists have earned the consequences of their bad behavior.