The News Mediaís Greatest Myth

commentary by John McManus

†††††††††† Lots of smart people believe that the news media give us--for better or worse--what we want. Howard Kurtz, the Washington Postís energetic media reporter, says as a society we get the news we deserve.

††††††††††† Most local TV news directors agree. They say theyíd produce a serious, informative newscast except for one thing: You, the viewer, will click to another station with more sensation. Look at the O.J. Simpson trials, they say. People couldnít get enough.

††††††††††† They have a point. Iíll admit it if you will. The lurid, violent, or bizarre can turn my head.

††††††††††† Still, I think Mr. Kurtz and the news execs are wrong.†

††††††††††† First, notice that there are lots of things we want from news but donít get. Investigative reporting that exposes government and corporate corruption interest almost everyone. So does solid consumer reporting. So does trend reporting on the things that matter most to us. But all of these cost much more reporter time--and thus dollars--than crimes, accidents and fires. And they can anger the powerful. With the occasional exception, what local TV news provides is not what we want, but only that part of what we want thatís cheap to produce and protects their bottom lines.

††††††††††† Second. If youíre like me, some of what you want isnít really good for you. Too often, Bay Area news media, particularly TV, take advantage of our weaknesses--our desire to rubberneck, to be amused, our passion for things that donít really matter-- like sports and television shows (usually those appearing on their network). These news outlets maximize profit, but gnaw on self-governmentís weakest leg--our limited willingness to do the work of being informed participants, our desire for diversion.

††††††††††† Finally, notice who is to blame if you accept that the audience gets the news it wants: The consumer, not the corporations producing the news. The myth blames the victim and exonerates the victimizer. Itís elegantly insidious.

††††††††††† Journalismís core ethic is empowering the citizen. Thatís very different from generating the largest audience at the lowest cost.