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Where Have All the Journalists Gone?

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I hear a lot of bickering about media bias these days. The right wingers complain that the media are biased towards the left. The left wingers insist that the media are biased towards the right.

Depending on the medium in question, either assertion might be correct. I offer another: The media are biased in favor of entertainment over acumen.

In all fairness, the print media are not nearly as guilty as their broadcast counterparts (although even the New York Times and Washington Post had initially jumped on the propaganda bandwagon in the run-up to the Iraq war). But, while the print media (with some clear-cut exceptions) might try their best to report the news in a fair manner, and present all sides in their editorial pages, reading newspapers and magazines is work. The average American doesn't want to take the trouble to read. The average American wants to sit back and be entertained. Newspapers and newsmagazines are not that entertaining in this electronic age.

And so we have cable news. Now, cable news is corporate owned, and these networks must be careful not to step on the toes of their corporate advertisers. And they must appeal to the masses in order to sell their sponsors' goods and services. In an age when more people know the names of the "American Idol" contestants than the names of their congressmen, cable news has to entertain in order to survive.

Once upon a time, TV news had Edward R. Murrow. The recent movie "Good Night, and Good Luck" documents Murrow's bravery and fierce integrity in taking on Senator Joe McCarthy's over-the-top anti-Communist witchhunt. That was journalism.

Then we had Walter Cronkite, who earned a reputation as "the most trusted man in America." He did not earn that title by being entertaining; he earned it by being thorough and truthful and honest. That was journalism.

So what passes for TV journalism today?

Today we have prime-time cable "news" programs that still devote an entire hour to Natalee Holloway's disappearance in Aruba. They do this while ignoring the thousands of other missing persons who never make the news because they're not as pretty or as blonde as Natalee. In other words, they're not as entertaining.

Today we have perfectly coiffed newsmodels who read to us from teleprompters and practice their frozen smiles as they gloss over stories of fatalities in Iraq on their way to the latest Hollywood gossip. They might occasionally cut to a 60-second report by an authentic hard-working reporter like Christiane Amanpour, in the trenches sans stylist and trying to bring us the real news. But not too much, because it's not as entertaining.

I can think of two current TV news show hosts who still seem to work hard at maintaining their integrity: Keith Olbermann, who takes on the propaganda machine each weeknight in his "Worst Person in the World" segment on MSNBC's "Countdown"; and Bob Costas, who refused to host an episode of CNN's "Larry King Live" because the topic of the show was the already overdone disappearance of Natalee Holloway. But what does it tell you when these two examples of journalistic integrity both rose to fame as sportscasters? Do they get away with practicing real journalism because of their connection to sports, which is much more entertaining?

How can so many Americans sit idle with "American Idol" while our soldiers are dying in Iraq, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and our Constitution is eroding faster than a polar ice cap?

Is entertainment all that matters to us now?

Have we not only turned off our minds but also our hearts and our souls?

Have we lulled ourselves into Huxley's "Brave New World," with the media as our soma?

Can we wake up before it's too late? Can the media?

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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