If you watch it, they will show it The media should cover important news, and consumers should demand it
Aaron Brown, a former longtime CNN news anchor, says the American public needs to look in the mirror when it criticizes the direction of TV newscasts. In the perfect democracy of TV ratings, he said, if you watch it the TV stations will show it.
That means sensational fluff too often gets more play than serious journalism. The saga of a missing teenage girl in Aruba trumps the tsunami tragedy in Indonesia. Movie stars and latter-day O.J. trials get the air time; genocide in the Sudan is just a bit too much of a downer, thank you very much.
Brown, who lost his CNN anchor job in the fall to a younger, glitzier Anderson Cooper, spoke Thursday at the First Amendment Forum at Southern Oregon University. His talk was in part a defense of the journalists who still do good and necessary work all over the world and in part an expression of frustration over where journalism ' and TV journalism in particular ' has gone.
For some people, the media are to blame for many of the world's ills, a sentiment voiced on a couple of occasions by audience members attending the talk at SOU. For the conservatives out there who are sure the liberal media are indeed a problem, brace yourselves. The criticism there was that the media are conservative, too slow to criticize the Bush administration and too beholden to corporate America.
As an anchor emeritus, Brown had no problem telling the critics they were full of it. Real journalists, he said, are less interested in skewing a story for political reasons than they are in just getting a good story. Bill Clinton lying under oath was a good story, and an important story. George W. Bush approving unauthorized wiretaps of American citizens is a good story, and an important story.
But journalists ' whether anchors on national networks or editors of local newspapers ' will also be the first to tell you that we have many shortcomings. There's too much emphasis on the horse races and name calling in political coverage and too little in-depth examination of issues. Too few stories that get below the surface, too many members of the media caught up in the flash of the moment.
— And too many viewers or readers as well. Brown offered a telling point in calling TV a perfect democracy. Driven by ratings, networks and newscasts will provide what the public demands. ... it's not enough to say you want serious news, Brown said. You have to watch it.
The same argument, without the instant ratings feedback of TV, could be made of newspaper coverage. While waiting in the checkout line, resist the temptation to buy the Tattler Tabloid, with its latest important news on Nick and Jessica. If you want serious journalism, reward the paper that tells you what's going on with your government, how your tax dollars are being spent or how public policy creates winners and losers in your community or around the world.
The burden falls on the media ' on the Mail Tribune, local television news departments and CNN alike ' to give you that kind of news. Viewers and readers may send signals about what they want and a business ignores that message at its financial peril. But the media have an obligation to be more than financially successful; we have an obligation, a responsibility, to cover the news and to cover it well, and maybe to raise a bit of hell along the way.
When the media cover a celebrity trial in more depth than they do a looming humanitarian disaster, they ' we ' have failed, and no increased profitability can cover that up.
We in the media all owe you more than we often give you. When we fail, you need to demand that we do better, and when we succeed we hope you'll reward us. But if you don't, we need to find the courage to first do what's right and then worry about what's profitable.