In the latest development, a judge in London has convened an inquiry into journalistic practices in the wake of News Corp's "phone-hacking" scandal. Among other things, he will hear from figures such as Hugh Grant and Harry Potter author JK Rowling about the violations of their privacy by the media.
As the New York Times reports,
The inquiry's stated purpose is to investigate the way journalists operate and the elusive balance between press freedom and individual rights to privacy. But within hours of the investigation's opening, Robert Jay, a lawyer for the inquiry, presented extensive written records of phone hacking not just at The News of the World but also at another Murdoch-owned tabloid, The Sun, and at a rival paper, The Daily Mirror, owned by Trinity Mirror.
Reprehensible, of course. But the bigger problem isn't the unethical and illegal practices of some, it's the quotidian, standard, legal practices of virtually all. It's the degraded nature of what, even in the supposedly legitimate and proper media, is presented as journalism.
News organizations have always traded celebrity fluff for eyeballs. This was not a problem so long as there were places to go for serious journalism. But with the rapid decline of investigative inquiry and policy analysis, the alternatives have become few and far between. So the time is long overdue to move beyond criticizing the bad boys and girls of mass media and to take a hard look at what passes for real journalism these days.
Day by day, most news outlets appear to be obsessed with the sayings and doings of the famous, from the entertainment industry to the political and financial elite. The principal distinction we can see is between the take-no-prisoners approach of the Murdochians and their ilk, and the more sober practices of the A-said-B-said-C-said crowd -- a kind of dutiful recording (without questioning or context) of every pronouncement and deed, real or fabricated, of the famous or infamous.
In a sense, the Murdochian feistiness actually is the more honest approach. At least the Murdoch tabloids do not try to put a high-minded spin on their passion for people and topics that should not matter in the first place.
Consider the "acceptable" behavior of the likes of CNN, which still presents itself as the definitive place to turn for knowledge of our world. The other morning, at the gym, I found myself unable to avoid CNN, as it was on the screen in front of me while I ran on a treadmill. During the half hour I watched "the news" (mercifully with the sound off) I saw stories on the trial of Michael Jackson's lawyer, the Penn State scandal, President Obama attending a basketball game and giving a boiler-plate Veterans Day speech, and Lindsay Lohan in court (yet again). Once upon a time, no self-respecting entity that called itself a "news" operation would have lowered itself to cover so much "human interest" stuff without a substantial counter-balance of what used to be called hard news.
Now, one can make an argument that some of these stories -- especially the Penn State scandal -- are about real issues, such as (specific cases of) child sex abuse, prescription drug abuse, and so on. But the reality is that CNN is running out the clock with police blotter junk while the problems that affect us all and that urgently need attention get short shrift. (Climate change, anyone? Economic disaster? Corruption in politics?)
And CNN is hardly alone. NBC has just hired Chelsea Clinton as a reporter. And the Huffington Post, originally thought of as a place for news and essays on politics, actually derives an unseemly percentage of its readers and comments from the constant marriage of policy and celebrity, scandal, and gossip. Even the New York Times, and especially former regional powerhouses like the Los Angeles Times, have more and more soft stuff in the mix.
On a more recent visit to the gym, I did see a CNN anchor briefly grilling a reporter at Zuccotti Park in New York on the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Although when the reporter began explaining that the protesters are concerned about income equality (rendered tellingly on the screen as "income and quality"); she was quickly cut off and the anchor rushed to the next report, with the caption "girl survived on pop tarts."
These days, when it comes to news, we're all expected to survive on Pop Tarts.