When Everyone Has the News

THE media increasingly share a common world. The economic and cultural conditions driving editorial change, staff reductions, and technological presentation are affecting television, magazines, and newspapers alike. In part, the media share a general repositioning that has struck American and global corporate enterprises. For the past five years, competitiveness has meant shedding staff and eliminating management layers, in all lines of work.

It is still striking how both network and public TV are undergoing staff cuts similar to those occurring among newspapers. It is not just the recession and advertising slippage. Steve Friedman, NBC Nightly News executive producer, said of his network's shrinking bureaus: ``We're not in the overall killer-coverage business anymore. We're in the program business.''

The ``big press,'' the major dailies, are including more demographic, sports, and even culinary stories on their front pages. Sometimes of seven or eight page-one items, only one or two can be said to be ``news'' stories - printed because of an event the day before. The rest are trend stories that could have been written at any time the past week or the next week.

Time is not what it was. Picture, sound, and reading media are available today in a jumble. The pretense of TV evening news that it was the national convening hour, the apex of reporting, has disintegrated. To see ``anchors'' dislodged to chase the news, Rather in Arabia, is to witness the establishment networks losing their grip. Cable newswires, radio, and lower-cost cable TV reporting (still expensive compared with radio and print) have stolen the news from the networks, leaving them to work on prese ntation or ``programming.''

The same is true of print. More and more, colleagues in the news business say they do not read the news magazines anymore, except journals of an economic bent. And among newspapers, it is chiefly in the interesting detail, the perceptive quote, the structure or context of events rather than in the events themselves that they hold their audience.

Big television and the big press are becoming democratized. Sources are now principals. During the Iraq war, military experts became prime-time regulars - much as former coaches are now integrated into sportscasting rosters. Print journalists have become television commentators.

Reporting is dissolving into conversation.

Video literacy - comfort in appearing on television - is now required of the educated man or woman, much as public speaking before a live assembly was expected a generation ago. The formula: You sit there reasonably alert, try not to squint in the lights, speak briefly, with humor when you can, avoid anger, engage the group, advance the argument without having to win it, and speak with amiable energy as if among smart friends.

TV news and the big press should shed some activities - such as following the president around like puppy dogs. A press plane was canceled when Mr. Bush took a fishing vacation earlier this month after the networks decided it wasn't worth the expense. The president will always have his ``death watch,'' particularly the wires in constant vigilance. But he should have to earn his coverage by having something to say.

We are seeing a general, shared media discourse. Here's a fragment from the March Harper's, a debate over dinner at New York's Le Bernardin restaurant, between authors Neil Postman and Camille Paglia:

Paglia: ``What I argue ... is that Judeo-Christianity never defeated paganism but rather drove it underground, from which it constantly erupts in all kinds of ways.... The history of Western civilization has been a constant struggle between these two impulses, an unending tennis match between cold Apollonian categorization and Dionysian lust and chaos.''

Is print Apollonian, TV Dionysian?

``My TV is constantly fluttering,'' Paglia says. ``It's a hearth fire in the modern home. TV is not something you watch; it is simply on, all the time.''

Postman prefers print's silence: ``I came to understand Charlie's Angels when I realized that the entire show was about hair.''

A newspaper eavesdrops on two book writers conversing about television in a magazine. That's what it's come to.

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