The evidence of this alleged phenomenon is usually presented not as a measured lack of knowledge about events but instead as a decline in newspaper readership or television news viewership. Clearly, if people don't read newspapers or watch network news, they don't care about the news or current events, right? Because surely there aren't any other methods people might be using. Surely there is no way in which traditional media might be failing the public.
So what sort of stories have been emphasized by these media, for our edification?
The "weapons of mass destruction" lie? Back-page news. The fact that Social Security could be saved by removing the taxation cap, but Medicare is already redlining? Not so much. Darfur? Very little, very late. The number of civilians who have been killed by the "liberation" of Iraq? Not at all. The omission of war costs from the budget, so that those precious tax cuts may be coddled? A passing line or two.
Seriously, in each case, even in the supposedly liberal media outlets, I've seen a few dry articles on each topic. Nowhere has any attempt been made to engage the reader, far less incite the reader to action or offer what actions might be taken.
No, the media have been saving their passion for articles, broadcasts, and essays with topics such as ...
o Martha's going to jail! Really! Any day now! Hey, remember how Martha's going to jail? She's almost there!
o Omigod, Brad & Jen are having trouble!
o Oops, a national reporter falsified or plagiarized. Hey, that means we can navel-gaze for months!
o Brad and Jen might be splitting!
o Michael Jackson! New charges! He's scary and weird!
o Boy, it sure is hard to avoid Brad & Jen articles ... so let's talk about that! It's still about Brad & Jen, but it's *also* about ourselves, so bonus!
o The Martha's-getting-out-of-jail countdown clock! (Really.)
o A sexual assault report? Boring ... no, wait, it's Bill Cosby! Let's keep mentioning it and showing clips for months as nothing of note happens!
o Brad & Jen really are splitting! It's official! How can this be?
o The Michael Jackson trial is starting. Let's send thousands of media teams to the Michael Jackson trial! And then, THEN, let's do reports about how we're sending so many teams! It's so deep that it turns inside-out! It's the snake eating itself! It'll BLOW YOUR MIND!!
I mean, there have been other articles and broadcasts (like the continuing Catholic Church scandals and closings, or yet another bombing of troops or local police in Iraq), but most topics seem to fall into these two camps: important and presented dully, or utterly insipid and presented breathlessly -- near-orgasmically, in fact.
I'm talking about formerly-respected traditional media here, not tabloids. Tabloids at least have an excuse. But CNN, NBC, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Associated Press ... why are they doing this?
I understand that the entire point of journalism in this day and age is to sell the medium, in order to deliver the consumers to the advertisers. This goes beyond simple sales directives. This goes beyond pandering. This is titillation, and it is unworthy of all of them, and it cheapens all media every time any of them resorts to this pathetic activity.
Some stories just become big by themselves. Laci and Scott Peterson struck a popular nerve. So did Elizabeth Smart. In this day and age, the public has a strong need for morality plays. They -- we -- need to hear stories in which wrongdoers are identified, condemned, and punished for their actions. I understand that. These stories were still overexposed, but I understand that, at least to a point.
But don't keep cramming Brad & Jen & Cosby & Martha & Jackson down my throat and then dare to accuse me of apathy. Maybe even feign some passion occasionally for "unsexy" topics like federal bill negotiations or foreign wars or genocides or analyses of presidential proposals or Supreme Court rulings ... y'know, the sort of things we used to call news.
Seriously. I'm perfectly well aware that "The Daily Show" is fake news. So why does a fake-news comedy show do a better job of increasing my knowledge of real news than many of the traditional media outlets? Yes, that's shameful. But the shame isn't mine, because I'm using what I have to (from multiple sources) in order to get real news; and the shame isn't the Daily Show's, because they're perfectly honest about what they are. That only leaves one party.
The shame is on you, Old Media. Accept it. Own it. Maybe even consider making the occasional attempt to atone for it. Then I'll consider turning back to you.
But never as my only information source.
The days in which people got all of their news from Walter Cronkite and the local paper are long over. Part of that is the fragmentation of the media, sure. That's not why Old Media no longer has any authority, though. Old Media threw aside its respectability and began trading its virtues for coin. It didn't have to be that way. Instead, we the people are left waiting for the next wave of dedicated investigative journalists. Some speculate the bloggers are that wave; maybe so, maybe no. We'll see.
I do miss the comfort of trusting the old news outlets. Some say that Rome fell because the barbarians stormed the gates, but others observe that Rome was in decline before that point -- the society had already begun to decay from within. The fall of empires can be sobering, but it's difficult for me to weep for an empire that brought itself down. Old Media hasn't earned any tears from me, beyond those for what might have been.
(ETA: I couldn't know when I wrote the above, but the Boston Globe's front-page color picture for Saturday, March 4, was ... Martha Stewart. This is the city's more respectable newspaper? Pathetic.)