Dec 9, 2013
Is the Press Too Big to Fail?
Posted on Apr 25, 2013
By Todd Gitlin, TomDispatch
Meanwhile, thanks to that same financial press, a culture of celebrity enveloped the big names of finance: CEOs of major banks, Wall Street investors, operators of hedge funds. They were repeatedly portrayed not just as fabulously successful tycoons doing their best for the society, but as fabulously giving philanthropists, their names engraved into the walls of university buildings, museums, symphony halls, and opera houses. They weren’t just bringers of liquidity to markets, but wise men, too. In an all-enveloping media atmosphere in which the press indulged without a blink, they were held to be not only creators of wealth but moral exemplars. Indeed, the two were essentially interchangeable: they were moral exemplars because they were creators of wealth.
The Desertification of the News
Oh, and in case you think that the coverage from hell of the events leading up to the financial meltdown was uniquely poor, think again. On an even greater meltdown that lies ahead, the press is barely, finally, still haphazardly coming around to addressing convulsive climate change with the seriousness it deserves. At least it is now an intermittent story, though rarely linked to endemic drought and starvation. Still, as Wen Stephenson, formerly editor of the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section and TheAtlantic.com and senior producer of National Public Radio’s “On Point,” summed up the situation in a striking online piece in the alternative Boston Phoenix: the subject is seldom treated as urgent and is frequently covered as a topic for special interests, a “problem,” not an “existential threat.” (Another note on vanishing news: Since publishing Stephenson’s article, the Phoenix has ceased to exist.)
Even now, when it comes to climate change, our gasping journalism does not “flood the zone.” It also has a remarkable record of bending over backward to prove its “objectivity” by turning piece after piece into a debate between a vast majority of scientists knowledgeable on the subject and a fringe of climate-change deniers and doubters.
And if the press has, until very recently, largely failed us on the subject, the TV news is a disgrace. Despite the record temperatures of 2012, the intensifying storms, droughts, wildfires and other wild weather events, the disappearing Arctic ice cap, and the greatest meltdown of the Greenland ice shield in recorded history, their news divisions went dumb and mute. The Sunday talk shows, which supposedly offer long chews and not just sound bites—those high-minded talking-head episodes that set a lot of the agenda in Washington and for the attuned public—were otherwise occupied.
All last year, according to the liberal research group Media Matters,
“The Sunday shows spent less than 8 minutes on climate change… ABC’s This Week covered it the most, at just over 5 minutes… NBC’s Meet the Press covered it the least, in just one 6 second mention… Most of the politicians quoted were Republican presidential candidates, including Rick Santorum, who went unchallenged when he called global warming ‘junk science’ on ABC’s This Week. More than half of climate mentions on the Sunday shows were Republicans criticizing those who support efforts to address climate change… In four years, Sunday shows have not quoted a single scientist on climate change.”
The mounting financial troubles of journalism only tighten the muzzle on a somnolent watchdog. It’s unlikely that serious business coverage will be beefed up by media companies counting their pennies on their way down the slippery circulation slope. Why invest in scrutiny of government regulators when the cost is lower for celebrity-spotting and the circulation benefits so much greater? Meanwhile, the nation’s best daily environmental coverage takes a big hit. In January, the New York Times’s management decided to close down its environmental desk, scratching two environmental editor positions and reassigning five reporters. How could such a move not discourage young journalists from aiming to make careers on the environmental beat?
The rolling default in climate-change coverage cries out for the most serious professional self-scrutiny. Will it do for journalists and editors to remain thoroughly tangled up in their own remarkably unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes news? It’s long past time to reconsider some journalistic conventions: that to be newsworthy, events must be singular and dramatic (melting glaciers are held to be boring), must feature newsworthy figures (Al Gore is old news), and must be treated with balance (as in: some say the earth is spherical, others say it’s flat).
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