- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

There is some actual news in there. Really.

Somewhere behind the clucking analysts, breathless investigations, blaring headlines, whirling graphics, frantic music, celebrity anchors, news babes, bombast, angst and agenda, there is news.

You remember the news.

Once upon a time, a single anchorman with a voice of doom delivered it in a tidy half-hour dose rooted in journalism rather than showbiz, before the terms 24/7, feeding frenzy, sound bites, news cycle, news products, news marketplace, and — even worse — news consumer — were invented.

Actual, factual news has become a garnish rather than the main course for Americans seeking to make sense of their world. It is tucked, like a paper umbrella, into a big cocktail of commentary, analysis and what the consultants like to call “brand identity.”

And all this caterwaul of leaks and leaking and leakers and leakage. Heavens. Even the dog would be ashamed of such talk. At least there is some comic relief here. Just this week, one headline announced, “Russert admits some discomfort with his role in leak case.”

We hope NBC bureau chief Tim Russert’s condition is improving.

Like any crack news team, we here at the Dysfunctional News Desk will go to the polls to reveal that, surprise, the proverbial news consumer is losing patience with the news.

The Pew Research Center for the People and Press noted in midsummer, “Public attitudes toward the press, which have been on a downward track for years, have become more negative in several key areas. Growing numbers of people question the news media’s patriotism and fairness. Perceptions of political bias also have risen over the last two years.”

The poll found that 60 percent of us believe the press is politically biased, 72 percent think journalists are politically one-sided and only 42 percent think they stand up for America.

A whopping 75 percent said they felt that the press was interested mostly in attracting the biggest audience; 19 percent said the press’s mission was to inform the public.

Oh, bad, bad journalists. No biscuit. No dessert tonight. Stand in the corner. Other than sending a note home to all their mothers, we are not going to abuse journalists here in the family section of The Washington Times. Our national desk can do that — or the scores of newly minted media critics who have emerged to beat their querulous “gotcha” drums.

But we can, perhaps, explain what has turned the simple, accurate delivery of the news topsy-turvy, when Jon Stewart — a comedian who delivers fake newscasts — is cited by millions of viewers as the most “believable” anchorman on the airwaves.

What happened here? The operative word, for better or worse, is convergence. Several convergences, in fact.

News began its transmogrification in 1980, when CNN went on the air round the clock before an audience of, oh, at least 12. But the high-concept network received a visceral ratings boost with the 1991 Gulf war. Major news event and technology converged. News became accessible.

Convergence No. 2 took place in 1998, when the world discovered Monica Lewinsky and her dalliance with former President Bill Clinton, interest fueled by three 24-hour news channels and the Internet. Voracious talk radio emerged, and again, events and technology fed off each other. News got even more accessible; public appetite was whetted.

Convergence No. 3? Competition for ratings and audience caused newsmongers to resort to fancy color graphics, music, titillation and style to attract readers and viewers. News became entertainment.

Convergence No. 4? Ever poised for a crisis, often all dressed up with no where to go, journalists fall back on analysis and argument to fill the downtime until they commit the ultimate press sin: Many believe they are more important than their story. News became opinion.

Convergence No. 5? The Internet enables everyone, including the dog, to become a journalist, with cheeky bloggers often given as much credence as veteran counterparts in the daily press mix. Every tidbit is hashed over; the din is tremendous. News becomes, well, annoying.

But enough, already. The most important thing to remember is that the news media itself is a work in progress. Sooner or later, the annoyance of the elusive “news consumer” will assert itself and force the press to return to the time-honored, old-fashioned, well-starched standards of accuracy, credibility and sound news judgment.

Finally, here is a parable to consider. Two years ago, an estimated 3,000 reporters covered the first days of the war in Iraq as if it were the opening of a Broadway play — but it took just 28 reporters to cover the invasion of Normandy in 1944, according to legendary combat reporter Ernie Pyle.

Even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld waxed nostalgic at the time.

“No TV,” Mr. Rumsfeld observed. “There was radio. And people went to the movies and saw a newsreel, a summary of events. Now we’re seeing every single second.”

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and journalistic dysfunction for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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