Farewell to quality journalism
No matter where I go, what the subject of the conference, or who is seated around the table, at one point in every meeting, virtually everyone agrees that 'the media is to blame'. It does not matter what we are talking about - US-China relations, Iraq or anti-Americanism in South Korea (to name but three items on recent agendas).
It is an easy charge to make. The media is the prism through which we see the world. It has to reduce years of history and complex issues into intellectual chunks that can be easily digested. Unfortunately, this is not a black and white world. We may yearn for simple solutions - 'for us or against us' - but political and foreign policy problems are nuanced and multidimensional. There are no easy answers - and globalisation and the expanding networks (economic, political, social and information) it relies on mean the world is becoming increasingly complex.
This is occurring as attention spans are shrinking. The sound bite has displaced sober analysis. Ironically, this is happening during - and because of - a proliferation of media sources. That is part of the problem. The intense competition for audiences means that entertainment has won out over rigorous analysis. The deadline has prevailed over the journalistic standard. All of this has encouraged the simplification of issues - when they are even presented. This reflects another transition: once considered a public trust, the news industry is now just another business.
This year's State of the American Media survey provides some alarming assessments of the industry - and, sadly, they validate many of my own conclusions. Some of the key points are: first, that a growing number of news organisations are chasing a static and shrinking market. Second, that much of the new investment in journalism is in disseminating news, not collecting it. Third, that increasingly, the raw material of news is appearing as the end product. Fourth, that journalistic standards vary within even single organisations. And last, that those who manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them.
The study, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism - affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism - is a fascinating look at the US media. It covers newspapers, magazines, ethnic media, radio, TV, cable and online media. I am unaware of any similar global or international comparison.
I am especially concerned about the conclusions about public attitudes towards the media. The study says: 'Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.'
A lot of evidence supports the notion of the declining credibility of the media in the eyes of the American public. The authors conclude: 'The problem is a disconnection between the public and the news media over motive. Journalists believe they are working in the public interest and are trying to be fair and independent in that cause. This is their sense of professionalism.
'The public thinks these journalists are either lying or deluding themselves. The public believes that news organisations are operating largely to make money and that the journalists who work for these organisations are primarily motivated by professional ambition and self-interest.'
As always - keeping with the theme of complex answers - both sides are right. But as both a producer and consumer of news, I believe the public's inclination to blame the media is a cop-out.
News editors walk a narrow line. On the one hand, they have to educate the public, informing it of issues it does not know about and often does not care about. The rigorous pursuit of that objective is usually rewarded with charges of elitism. At the same time, editors cannot afford to ignore the views of their audience. After all, this is a business and no company that fails to meet the demands of the market will survive. In other words, in a capitalist society you get what you pay for.
All this is a long-winded way of saying farewell. This is Making Waves' last appearance. It has been a pleasure sharing these thoughts with you over the last year. Thanks to the editors for giving me the space to ponder some key concerns for the region and the world; thanks to those readers who wrote back with comments, even - or especially - when you did not agree. That kind of feedback is always important. In journalism, as in democracy, the public gets the product it deserves - and demands.
Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank