The institution known as the Fourth Estate has eroded so deeply, you hesitate to bring up another example for fear of repeating the obvious: The news business as we once knew it is gone.
There is no more, or very little, primary source reporting or distancing the reporter from their report. There is no more, or very little, filtering of stories; vetting the source material or using anonymous sources when absolutely necessary. Such as their lives are at stake. Now, reporters use anonymous sources quickly and easily, without a moment’s pause and sometimes as an excuse to hide the fact they have no sources. Yes, that’s right, the reporter is making it up.
Remember when there was no ads on the front page of the newspaper? That was sacred territory. The news was separate from advertising. There was a wall between the two opposing forces. Objectivity demanded it. No more. There are so many ads on the front page of newspapers, it’s hard to find Page one sometimes. And this is just a sampling of the what’s gone haywire.
Which brings me to the Los Angeles news station that is giving away grocery gift cards if you like them on Facebook. You have to watch the news broadcast to see if you won, which snares more viewers, not by the news it covers, but by the gifts it gives. It seduces viewers into watching to see if their name is called. You have to like them on their Facebook page, which increases their number of friends, which in turn must impress the advertiser. Good business.
The anchors of the news program announce on air the winners. The winners receive a $250 grocery gift card. There is no denying that helping people in these tough times with free groceries is great. We need all the help we can get. So, the news station is doing a good deed. Viewers are getting free groceries. The grocery store is getting free advertising. The station is getting more viewers. Everybody wins. Right? Maybe not.
What happens to the news? How can a news organization that is giving away gifts be objective about the news? The news outlet must be in the community, not of the community. News organizations must report the news not be the news.
And that’s exactly what happened the other night. One of the winners of the gift card deciding to break the $250 gift card into smaller gift cards, so he could then give away those smaller gift cards to people in the grocery store. By the way, it is a specific grocery story. I am not going to name the television news station or the huge grocery store chain.
Anyway, the winner of the gift card called the station and told them what he was doing. The station sent a reporter out to cover what the winner was doing and as part of that story, rebroadcast the news anchors announcing the winner of the card. The news outlet was advertising itself by giving away these gift cards and now was reporting on itself for giving away these gift cards.
A quick story by way of an example of the erosion. I spent nearly three years in Kansas running the newsroom of a large daily newspaper. I left Kansas and came back home to California after getting a great job as a publisher of a weekly newspaper. That was fun, let me tell you. So, here I am back in Southern California driving to work one day listening to an all-news radio station that no longer exists when one of the news anchors starts reading an advertisement. They were reporting the news and then without hesitation or comment went right into an ad. I was stunned. Everything had changed. It broke my heart. Who cares if it broke my heart, right? Who am I?
Well, I’ll tell ya who am I: I’m a guy who found a home in the American newsroom. I could always count on a newsroom, whether it be small or large, to reset my clock, to stabilize my situation, to make what was wrong, right. I could make a difference, do some good and make a living. The American newsroom was my professional home.
That home is gone. Make no mistake about it, we are in a Brave New World. Talk soon.