Commentary on Frontline: News War


Get Frontline: News War from Amazon.com
Get "Frontline: News War" from Amazon.com

So, I don’t have one of my standard reviews for you this time. I’ve watched another Frontline documentary series, titled “News War” which covers the state of American Journalism… only with the last installment, it kind of changes tack with an episode of Frontline: World which aims to put things in perspective with the state of foreign journalism. This is fine and all, but I wrote a bunch of great stuff in my physical journal while I was watching the first four installments that I don’t want to totally change my tack. Yeah, being flexible is good, but I had some commentary to make, and the discussion of the episode on foreign doesn’t necessarily reflect it. Further, to a certain degree, the episode has been rendered somewhat obsolete based on how citizen journalism in the Middle East (specifically, Iran) changed how the media in general (not just American media) handles the news. So, moving on…

The Premise: The state of American Journalism is in what can lightly be described a crisis. More and more newspapers are laying off reporters, the Bush Administration was manipulating the media like a puppeteer to justify the War in Iraq, and when the media didn’t dance to their tune the Administration retaliated directly, through legal action (or threat of legal action), and through castigation by through right-wing pundits like those on Fox News. This documentary tries to figure out how things got this way, and possibly how to fix things.

The Good: The documentary does a pretty good job of how the use of Anonymous sources, specifically in Washington DC, slowly changed from being a way to coax a source into telling what he knows (through anonymous protection), to a way for sources to dictate the terms in which they talked to the press, and control the flow of information. It also does a good job of showing how newspapers becoming publically traded through jmassive companies lead to the current death spiral many news papers are in, with cuts not only to news departments and staff, but to the size of the newspaper as well.

The Bad: While the film does somewhat document some of the rise of bloggers and social media as journalism, it doesn’t spend a lot of time on it. Further, it could have spent a little more time on spelling out the death spiral. Mind you, this is Frontline, it’s on PBS, and thus leans to a better educated, more intelligent audience, which doesn’t necessarily need to have it spelled out how less page count means less space to have the ads that support the paper, which leads to less ad revenue, which leads to increased page cuts, which leads to less space for ads (even if you cut news coverage), etc. I say that it’s important to spell this out, because if the chowderheads in the boardrooms at these gigantic publically traded news companies, and the people who hold shares of them can’t figure it out on their own, then journalists need to berak out the clue bat and start swinging.

This leads to rant time.

A lot of people get their news by reading it on the internet, from the AP wire’s web page, from Forbes, from the BBC, from CNN, and from the web pages of major papers like the Washington Post and New York Times and, in my case, RSS feed of my local paper, the Portland Oregonian.  They either get it directly, by going straight to the page, or going through the RSS feeds for the site, or they go through a service like Google News. But, in any case, they depend upon, at the end of that chain, a reporter doing investigative work.

Currently, reporters, attached to an organization, are really the only people who can do this. I, as a blogger, would love to go full time reporting the news in Wilsonville, my home town. I’m unemployed right now, so technically, if you want to be nitpicky, I have the time. However, ideally, I’d have a job that would pay me, rather than depending on my slowly depleting unemployment fund. Currently, this blog doesn’t make enough for me to do that. It doesn’t make enough for me to go full time writing about reviewing films and video games and discussing the history of games journalism by recapping and discussing retro video game magazines. I don’t even make enough money off this site to buy a mike that doesn’t suck, or to get a domain name so I can expand my adversing on the site to include google ads of my own, or javascript so rather than having to put the “buy from Amazon.com” text under the images in reviews like this one, I can instead use iframe tags.

Why do I go into all that whining about what I can’t do? Because other people can do it. Other people can afford to do the major local reporting and national reporting, but they’re having difficulty doing it. Here’s the thing – When I mentioned that death spiral earlier on, it is important to mention that at every step of the way, including at the beginning, the hypothetical newspaper is still profitable. The reason this happens is not because the paper is losing money, or because profits are decreasing, but because they’re not growing. Because the newspaper is publically traded, the suits in the board of directors, who could not be any further removed from the news production process, feel that increasing profits is more important to the newspaper, because that’s what “Wall Street Wants.”

The head of Aerial Capital, one of the major shareholders of the Tribune Media Group, which currently owns the Los Angeles Times, one of the newspapers covered in the show, insults, derides, and demeans the Pullitzer Prize, the highest award in Journalism short of the Nobel Peace Prize itself, saying that instead what needs to be covered is the kind of entertainment gossip that everyone can get through TMZ, through Entertainment Tonight, through supermarket taboids and People magazine, instead saying that national news only needs to be covered in 3 papers, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. This, in it’s own right, is bad, and is leading to the death of legitimate journalism in the media today.  However, what makes this worse, is, to be frank, the celebrity gossip field is significantly over-saturated, and if it continues growing at the current rate, I suspect that, in all seriousness, there will not be enough Paparrazi to fill the demand from various web pages.

Further, the suits like those Aerial that local news should be covered over national news, with National news coverage being scaled back or eliminated entirely. Well, I’m already being frank, that’s what you read me for, so without further prefacing, that’s bullshit.

The war in Iraq and Afganistan are local news. They’re not taking place in, literally, our backyards, but people from our home states and even our towns are fighting in Iraq. They’re fighting in Afganistan. Hell, one of the familes from my church has a son in Afganistan who lost both his legs from an explosive device and died. One of my friends from High School went to join the Army after he graduated, to be in the Corps of Engineers. What happens in Iraq, and in Afganistan affects me. I want the troops in Iraq to come home safely. I want the troops from Afganistan to come home safely and in both cases, I don’t want the last troops leaving to depart like the last US troops did from Vietnam – evacuated from the embassy by helicopter. Consequently, it’s important to have multiple newspapers having presences in Iraq, and in Afganistan, so, we, the American people, whose friends and family are fighting and risking their lives (and we hope not dying) can get a better idea of what’s happening to our friends and family, and get a better idea what things are like, and ultimately get a better idea of how things will turn out and when our friends and family will come home.

National politics is local news. The success of the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Trans-sexual movements in various states at getting everything from same-sex marrage to protections from descrimination in housing in other states helps build national momentum for protecting those rights in other states. We also need to know what bills are going before the House and the Senate, so we can contact our representatives about them, and when they come to a vote, we need to know how our represenatives voted. We need to know how what kind of job the President of the United States is doing, after all, we voted for him. And we need to know how our local economies compare with the national economy, so we know what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong. Further, we need to know what neighboring states are doing, because what happens to their local politics, to their economies, to their populations, can effect us – from businesses moving from one state to another to take advantage of tax breaks, to people moving from one state to another to get to a state with a better economy.

Again, I don’t work for a newspaper. I’m an unemployed blogger who writes for a science-fiction and fantasy news site which isn’t profitable enough yet to pay me. That is what makes this worrysome. I can figure out why national news coverage is important to newspapers local markets and why it should be preserved. I can figure out why constantly slashing staff and page count to artificially inflate profits in the short term will bite you in the ass in the long term. I can see that the suits in the boardrooms at the massive publically traded media groups like the Tribune Media Group, which are pushing these cuts to “pacify the shareholders” with growing profits intead of consistant profits are trying to attempting to vivisect the goose to remove the golden eggs from its uterus without killing it, and failing. The suits, who are looking at this from on high and can, in theory, see the “bigger picture” can’t, and that frightens me.

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