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The Pathological State of America's Broadcast Journalism: Thoughts From Greenwald, Others, and Me

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On his blog this week -- the excellent Glenn Greenwald has pursued the theme of the abysmal level to which American journalism --at least some components of it-- have sunk in our times.

In what follows there are to be found some remarks from Greenwald, some quotations that Greenwald provides, and some comments from me-- all on this degradation of American journalism, and on the deeper problems in American culture reflected by journalism's sorry state.


First is a quotation from "David Halberstam from back in November, 1999 -- even before the media's full-on collapse under the Bush presidency":

I thought that with the end of the century approaching, it might be a good time to take stock of where this profession is. Obviously, it should be a brilliant moment in American journalism, a time of a genuine flowering of a journalistic culture . . .

But the reverse is true. . . . What I think is happening is something extremely serious, nothing less than a change in the value system in a very important part of the news business.

At the core of the old value system was a belief on the part of the men and women who worked in journalism that this was an uncommonly privileged life, that we did not do this for the money -- almost all of us could have made a great deal more money in some other field, but we were uncommonly privileged, free men and free women working for a free press in a free society, beneficiaries of exalted constitutional freedoms, willing, if need be on occasion, to report to the nation things which it did not necessarily want to hear.

We have morphed in the larger culture from a somewhat Calvinist society to an entertainment society, and that is reflected in the new norms of television journalism -- where the greatest sin is not to be wrong but to be boring. Because boring means low ratings. And so altogether too many people at the top in the television newsrooms have accepted the new, frillier dictates of the men and women above them in the corporations. . . .

Magazines which were essentially tabloid were inexpensive to produce, more so than sitcoms, seemed to have acceptable ratings, and so they proliferated under the guise of being news. And a great many of our colleagues went along with it -- for immense salaries and a great deal of air time, of course. . . .

Somewhere in there, gradually, but systematically, there has been an abdication of responsibility within the profession, most particularly in the networks.

Television's gatekeepers, at a time when a fragmenting audience threatens the singular profits of the past, stopped being gatekeepers and began to look the other way on moral and ethical and journalistic issues. Less and less did they accept the old-fashioned charge for what they owed the country.

The viewpoint seemed to be -- from their testing and polling -- that the American people did not want to know what was going on, so why bother them with unwanted facts too soon? So, if we look at the media today, we ought to be aware not just of what we are getting, but what we are not getting; the difference between what is authentic and what is inauthentic in contemporary American life and in the world, with a warning that in this celebrity culture, the forces of the inauthentic are becoming more powerful all the time.

And that's to say nothing of the fact that our new objective, widely celebrated news organization is owned and operated by hard-core right-wing ideologues. But it's all related -- modern "journalists," as Halberstam says, take dictates from those for whom they work and "go along with it -- for immense salaries and a great deal of air time"...

My thoughts:

Halberstam says, "We have morphed in the larger culture from a somewhat Calvinist society to an entertainment society, and that is reflected in the new norms of television journalism -- where the greatest sin is not to be wrong but to be boring. Because boring means low ratings."

This seems to dovetail with my analysis of the problematic trends in the culture, which I also say helped create the environment in which dark forces could rise to power. In particular, I think Halberstam's remarks can be integrated into the ideas I develop in "The Challenge of Affluence: A Root of Our Moral Crisis." (at

We seem in general to have lost hold of the moral discipline of seeing a higher good to be served other than the satisfaction of one's own desires, with a diminished sense of there being an important distinction to be made between right desire and wrong desire, i.e. those desires whose satisfaction move one's soul and the world in a positive direction and those that lead them downward.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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