Dumbing down journalism…

On the PBS NewsHour yesterday, Carl Bernstein criticized the present state of journalism. He said:

“I think that the real trends in journalism in the past 30 years have been toward gossip, sensationalism, manufactured controversy, and at the same time as we’re doing the dumbing down of most American journalism to the point where we’re losing most of our context, then you have these great newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times and the “Wall Street Journal”, that are doing better reporting in many ways than they ever have. And, as Ben says, small papers are getting great young reporters. But then they’re going to places that are owned by the conglomerates where the agenda is no longer the best obtainable version of the truth; the agenda is really about sales. That’s the bottom line.”

This is really nothing new. Other journalists (James Fallows) and academics (McChesney, Postman) have been saying this for years. It does, however, need repeating because the trend continues in exactly the direction Bernstein describes.

Who or what is to blame? There is no easy answer to that question. In addition, the answers you may hear reflect the biases or values of the speaker. In my case, I put the blame on television. I do not suppose that the structural biases of television are the only cause or even the most important cause. Corporate interests are certainly affecting reporting, especially in television news. And I think we need to consider cultural changes. Everyday in my college classes I see students who care nothing for news and politics. That’s understatement. Many of them don’t care and don’t want to care. I’m heading toward a chicken-and-egg question here.