A sobering critique of U.S. news media is out this week. A report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that Americans now get their news from so many different sources - even late-night comedy shows and personal logs on the Internet - that traditional media like newspapers are struggling to survive. Meantime, a corporate oligarchy is gobbling up both print and electronic news operations, cutting back on hard news, and fattening profits by feeding Americans' appetite for lightweight fluff. The study says the result is declining respect for journalists and their craft.
Dante Chinni, one of the authors of the year-long study, says the journalism profession is experiencing what he terms an epochal transformation as monumental as the invention of the telegraph or television.
"What we're seeing is the rise of the Internet," said Dante Chinni. "Network television is moving more online. Newspapers are already online, obviously. The lines are really going to blur between what's cable television, what's television, what's print media. And when the media fragment too much, our ideas of what is reality [also] fragment."
And what is news? Matthew Felling, who has analyzed the report for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, says more and more often, it's what he calls soft cotton candy, disguised as news.
"How many times have we seen Michael Jackson dangle a little baby over the ledge [of his apartment]? That's not real news, as I learned in the Journalism 101 classroom," he said. "It's People magazine merging with the hard-news genre, and it's just combining to make this mucky soup. Are they looking to widen their audience, or is it an attempt by the news outlets to draw in younger viewers? And by 'younger,' do we automatically mean 'stupider'?"
The new journalism study observes that the nation's three newsmagazines have, in Dan Chinni's words, gone soft, doubling the amount of entertainment and celebrity gossip. It found that even venerable Time magazine now devotes almost one third of its content to frothy info-tainment. That's because, the report says, what it calls old media like news magazines and newspapers have little choice but to fluff up, and dumb down, if they want to survive.
But Time's managing editor, James Kelly, tells VOA the study unfairly lumps important lifestyle stories about health and personal finance into the soft category, as if they are as trivial as a pop-culture piece about Madonna's wardrobe.
"They took Time, and they looked at Time in 1983, 1993, and 2003, and one of their conclusions was that Time's pictures have gotten much bigger, and therefore there's less room for words," he said. "Well, since 9-11, I would argue that a photograph across two pages of downtown Manhattan, or from the fields of Afghanistan, or from the plains of Iraq, can tell as important a story as those pages filled with words."
The Center for Excellence in Journalism report casts a wary eye on the rampant consolidation of media ownership. Dante Chinni says media barons were once wealthy civic leaders or headed companies whose only business was journalism. Now, one corporation - Clear Channel - owns more than 1,200 radio stations, often five or six in a single market. The CBS television network is owned by Viacom, whose properties include the Paramount movie studio and the MTV pop-music cable channel.
"NBC is GE [General Electric]," he said. "Broadcasting is just a tiny sliver of what GE is, and news is just a sliver of what broadcasting is [at GE]."
This week's report also found journalists, in the eyes of the public: "sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, and less honest about their mistakes." These perceptions have been fueled, of late, by embarrassing ethical breaches, including phony quotes and faked interviews that have cost several reporters their jobs across the country.
Earlier this year, the Boston Globe's top political reporter, Glen Johnson, told VOA's Adam Phillips that journalists today are held in about the same regard as lawyers, which is to say, low regard.
"People have grown more wary of the press," said Glen Johnson. "They're concerned that their remarks could be interpreted differently than they intend them. And so they're a little more cautious about what they say and to whom they say it."
To gauge public perception of the news business, we asked Central Michigan University journalism professor Rick Sykes to bring some citizens together in his town, Mount Pleasant. Fritz Schmidt, a tax assessor and a local elected official, told us too many journalists today are under the gun to deliver something spectacular.
"That tends to cause them to maybe stretch some facts a little bit, to give you some things that actually were not there or didn't happen," he said. "And they tend to slant the news just a little bit and in some cases a lot." Lindsey Allen, a public-relations executive and speechwriter who says she gets most of her news from the Web, agrees. "There are so many news sources competing for your attention that everybody kind of wants to have the one that's going to reel you in," she said. "And a lot of times making more of a spectacle out of the news is what reels people in."
Hans Fetting, a retired English professor, laughs that the media's thirst for celebrity news is introducing him to people he never thought about.
"Upper-echelon criminals! And then, of course, all the forbidden stuff that's popping up, things that used to be titillating, right? Now they're getting to be kind of boring," he said. Central Michigan professor Sykes says his former industry, television - like much of journalism - has moved from a public service to a profit center.
"Are you making [working within] budget? And if you're not, what are you going to do about that? It impacts some of the decisions you make about how much time you spend on a story and the types of stories you cover: 'info-tainment,' or stories that your research tells you will be of interest to the broadest audience out there," he said.
The report by the Center for Excellence in Journalism did find a couple of bright spots. Ethnic media, especially Spanish broadcasts, are booming. And the audience for generally serious National Public Radio has doubled in the past 10 years.