Scott Pelley’s book, “Truth Worth Telling,” brought tears, cheers and fears — tears over well-told stories about courageous individuals, cheers for journalists who keep us informed, fears that the decline of good journalism will continue.
As Pelley says: “There is no democracy without journalism.”
Today, both journalism and democracy are threatened. No more visible evidence exists than the trashing of the nation’s Capitol by an out-of-control mob. They were not bad people; they were simply misinformed, uninformed and misled. Good journalism protects the nation from those triple threats. The decline of journalism did not begin with Donald Trump and his sycophants. Multiple factors contributed.
Years ago, education (especially higher education) chose to ignore journalism. Sophists decided it was not “academic” enough for college recognition. At the University of Utah, for example, elitists merged journalism into the Department of Communication. That’s like merging surgery into the department of sutures; it’s backward. The real work, the vital work of journalists (and surgeons) takes place long before the effort is “sewn together” by communicating the news.
A journalist cannot write the story until she has first researched background information, cultivated sources, interviewed participants on all sides of the issue, and bounced ideas off busy colleagues and grumpy editors. Good journalism follows the pattern of good science: the bulk of the effort is careful research. Writing the news story or the research paper (communication) closes the project.
When journalism is driven primarily by the need to communicate, (a) subject matter is too often controlled by opinion polls, (b) news reports are overly long and (c) writing leans toward creative entertainment rather than factual presentation. Populist journalism may also lead reporters to endlessly relive yesterday’s news instead of focusing on today’s events. And calling TV news reports “investigative journalism” cheapens the value of important journalism surrounding those reports. In most cases, such “investigations” are little more than mislabeled news stories. So-called “breaking news” often suffers from similar distortion.
A powerful second contributor to the decline of journalism was economics, especially greed. Years ago, Congress surrendered valuable protections for good journalism to “deregulation.” Prior to congressional malfeasance, newspaper publishers were limited in the number of newspapers they could control, guaranteeing multiple news sources. In broadcasting, ownership was limited to no more than seven TV stations, seven FM stations, and seven AM stations.
Today, some publishers own dozens of newspapers. Broadcast conglomerates own hundreds of broadcast stations. Stations are licensed to serve in “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Those terms were well defined until Congress and the Federal Communications Commission surrendered to pressure from media owners.
Later, Congress failed to limit giant retailers such as Walmart. Lawmakers allowed national chains to drive out the home-town retail businesses that purchased advertising to support local newspapers and broadcast stations. Then Amazon came along to inflict more damage on local business, local media and local economies. (Local retailing was also a source of much-needed competition and innovation.)
Finally, unregulated technologies spawned social media, making it possible for untrained and misinformed busy-bodies to pose as journalists. Today, most of us carry in our pockets the fake news of social media.
We can never return to the halcyon days of quality journalism. But until we find new and effective ways to support good journalism, Scott Pelley’s warning about the demise of democracy is inevitable.
Don Gale taught and practiced journalism in Utah for 60 years. He is confident that education, economics, technology and necessity will somehow find ways to revive journalism and rescue our democracy.