When I think of today's media, I'm reminded of the scene in the animated movie Up where a pack of dogs is distracted by a squirrel. The lead dog announces "Squirrel!", all the heads turn and the pack instantly forgets the task at hand.
Today's news outlets are like those easily-distracted canines. No sooner do newspapers, web sites and TV networks start to cover a story in any depth than a new shiny story comes along causing them to drop the first and glom onto the second.
It wasn't always this way. Fifty years ago, the media investigated stories in depth and were not easily distracted from the task at hand. Newspapers were willing to assign reporters to stories that took weeks of investigation and often resulted in revealing truths about the operation of business and government.
Think back to the 60s and 70s and the sterling job the fourth estate did in ferreting out wrongdoing and holding public and private institutions to account. The Watergate investigations and the publication of the Pentagon Papers are just the two most notable examples of what was then a mission pursued by hundreds of papers as part of what they considered their public duty.
Back then, most newspapers abided by an ethical code that saw them invest countless hours in a particular story and check and double-check facts before publishing. TV networks, in turn, saw fit to create a Chinese wall between their news department and their sports and entertainment branches. The news department adhered to higher standards and was allowed to run at a loss because it was there to serve the public interest.
Investigative journalism was a sacred calling, a vocation dedicated to keeping the other sectors of society honest. Today, investigative journalism is an oxymoron, an event so rare that it usually startles readers or viewers who happen upon it.
Success is no longer measured in fruitful investigations and corruption revelations but rather by readership, eyeballs and profits. Where once the public interest was paramount now it's only the bottom line that seems to count.
News outlets might start out investigating a story but if it doesn't serve the ultimate purpose of earning a profit then they'll drop it. The Watergate investigation of the 70s could never happen today. The media have forfeited their traditional role as protectors of democracy and are just another profit center for large corporate interests. Given their superficial coverage of events, they are easily distracted and thrown off course by government spokespersons and business p. r. specialists and now function more as lapdogs than watchdogs.
How often have you seen a 12-part newspaper investigation into government corruption or an ongoing TV news investigation into fraudulent business practices? They simply don't exist anymore. Now daily papers operate solely on a 24-hour news cycle which leaves no time for pursuing the deeper story. What passes for TV journalism these days is more in the nature of so-called infotainment with tabloid "investigations" of murder cases and sex scandals.
Sadly, this forswearing of duty by the news media has left us all worse off. The now toothless members of the fourth estate can or will no longer function as a check on abuses of power by other segments of society. Wall Street and Washington can go about their shady business with impunity. If not for the occasional whistleblower and outliers like Julian Assange, we would be mostly ignorant of the wide scale corruption and abuses going on around us. The ultimate irony is that many members of today's media take editorial stances condemning these renegades for doing the job that they should be doing.
So what's the solution? As for TV networks, they have been granted hugely profitable broadcast licenses, licenses which used to come with a public responsibility. It's time to enforce that responsibility and make these media giants accountable once again. Sure, it's OK to make billions from mindless entertainment but the quid pro quo for that pot of gold is to also serve the public interest through investigative journalism.
Ultimately, the responsibility lies with us. It's high time we stopped supporting ADHD Nation and demanded the return of reasoned, thoughtful, extensive, in-depth journalism. Let's face it; for the most part, we're just like the pack of journalistic dogs. We, too, have a limited attention span and redirect our gaze every time a shiny new story comes along. Maybe it's time we stuck to the task at hand and ignored the next person who calls out "Squirrel!"