Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Getting What We Deserve

By Ann Mulhearn

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  There is a war being waged. In homes and offices across the country, on supermarket shelves, in the computer labs of universities and public libraries. The combatants -- the media. The prize -- huge profits. The cost -- the heart and soul of American journalism.

Today's media has changed dramatically from the days of Walter Cronkite and afternoon editions. Gone are trench-coated gumshoes pecking out well-researched and sourced exposÚs on manual typewriters. In their stead are Geraldo Rivera and tabloid television specials, fueled by "unnamed sources" and submitted by state-of-the-art cellular modem links.

The traditional media -- network television and radio and print, are struggling to compete in a high-speed, high-tech world of instant access and instantaneous gratification. Reporters, photojournalists, and editors supposedly adhere to the credo of "find a second, confirming source, and then check, check again, and then recheck." This time-consuming and sometimes costly process often delays publication and makes for less than exciting reads. Wouldn't it be easier and more exciting (and more profitable) to just wing it?

Hell, yeah. Today's tabloids are replete with sex, lies, and videotape. Without even the pretense of being "real" journalism, sensationalistic headlines, lurid photos and innuendoes dripping venom and malice blare from supermarket checkout lines. The never-ceasing chase for larger audiences and bigger bucks led to a guise of legitimacy being wrapped around it like so much brown paper. "Professional" sets and anchorpeople host "entertainment news" shows on every major network and cable channel. Same product, new and improved packaging. Profits soar.

Laudable ideas like truth and integrity don't pay the bills. Mainstream media must evolve to survive, much less thrive. The in-depth, hard-hitting chronicles of political corruption and societal crises are replaced with cursory, shallow accounts of only the biggest of stories and slick glossy photos of the celebrity du jour. Even the most respected of journalists and scholars are compromising themselves and their work by going on record with cockamamie ideas and unsubstantiated speculations.

Why the metamorphosis? Changing standards and tastes? A more global market? Advances in technology? Human nature? Money?

Yes.

As society becomes more casual, more lax in its rules and norms, it isn't surprising that professional standards become a little looser. Dress-down Fridays, telecommuting, and unverified sources are the new rule. The physical and philosophical barriers separating nations and societies are crumbling; the potential consumer base for the media grows.

The advent of the "new media" -- talk radio and the Internet -- has pushed both the traditional and tabloid media to new highs and lows. Individuals, having no professional or corporate accountability, take to the airwaves and bandwidth at little cost. Spewing bile, half-baked theories, and outright lies as fact, these dramatists garner huge audiences, eager for their next dose of "news." An e-mail article can take on a life of its own, circling the globe in seconds, morphing from speculation to reality with each forward. Web sites that can be accessed in the click of a mouse proudly boast conspiracy theories, rumors, gossip, and caches of paparazzi photos. Ad space on these shows and sites is almost as hot a commodity as the content. The facts, or lack thereof, are of no consequence.

This blurring of the line between the professional and the personal communication of ideas and facts is fed by society's insatiable desire to know. And to be entertained. To know what is happening, to know who is doing what, to know why things are. Often there are no real answers to these questions, but maybe if you give them what they think they want, they'll buy it. Again. And again.

This quest for readers, viewers, listeners, profits is nothing new to the American media. The "yellow journalism" of the tabloids and their ilk has blemished our society since the late 19th century, but it was never taken seriously. Until now. It was truly a sad day when the mainstream media, charged by society with the responsibility of reporting pivotal events and issues, succumbed to using a tabloid as a source -- all in the effort to be first, to be number one.

The stakes in this war have become so high that the rights and privacy of newsworthy individuals have been tossed aside, their personal lives regarded as a commodity. Fed what we think we want, what we think we deserve, we, the clamoring, preying masses demand our bread and circuses. And our media complies.

Where did we lose sight of what the media is and should be? When did we become so jaded and disenchanted with our own lives that we are willing to pay to have the lives of others pilfered for entertainment and profits? What is our responsibility as consumers, citizens, and human beings?

There are certainly no easy answers to those questions. And that's the crux of the issue -- ease. The seeming loss of integrity and responsibility in the media is only a symptom of a deeper problem -- our unwillingness as a society to wait. Until we demand more from our media and ourselves, we will get what we deserve.


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