Memo To Media Outlets: To Regain Our Trust, Keep it Real (Not Safe)

Last month, Russian journalists were put on notice. President Vladimir Putin’s government informed them that 50% of the news they reported had to be positive.

This meant that no matter what was going on in Russian society — plague, pestilence, corruption or another Chernobyl — members of the press corps had to ensure that their reporting informed the Russian public that its cup was at least half full.

A leader like Putin obviously prefers news that portrays the cup running over, but in a Stalin-esque gesture of compromise, he instructed journalists to meet him halfway. Or else.

The good news is, every story may have some good news. The bad news is, bad news may be reported as good news.

If another Chernobyl occurs, Russian journalists will simply have to report that although a nuclear meltdown has poisoned thousands and will lead to ghastly genetic mutations, thousands of acres around the damaged nuclear facility will become dirt-cheap real estate and it’ll be a buyer’s market. After a stark headline announcing the catastrophe, a subhead will say Invest now, comrade, and the government will throw in a six-legged cow.

It’s easy to be smug and poke fun at the hapless Russians, but the truth is we’re not a whole lot better off. Our founding fathers made special provisions for a free press in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but, unfortunately, our press isn’t really free. Especially to do the job it was meant to do.

Media outlets pay the bills with advertising revenues. These revenues are generated by businesses or large corporations that can afford large advertising budgets. These companies are generally politically conservative and solely devoted increasing their profit margins. Their top priorities usually preclude forward thinking, social accountability and adherence to methods of long-term, responsible productivity. From this point forward, they become entities media outlets should be criticizing, not receiving their marching orders from.

Profit-mongering sponsors truncate a serious media outlet’s most indispensable functions, preventing it from keeping us informed, scrutinizing our political processes and challenging us stay abreast of the events that define or confine our existence. In short, corporate America obstructs long-term media vigilance to ensure its own short-term economic prosperity.

It works like this: controversial reporting, expository programming and challenging editorial commentary confound, frustrate and unsettle Joe Q. Public. Joe Q. Public tunes out anything he doesn’t agree with or like to hear. Corporate advertisers want Joe Q. Public’s attention (especially in the form of an receptive predisposition). If a well-meaning media outlet interrupts Joe Q. Public’s pleasant daydreams or airs or publishes something large corporate advertisers think might wake Joe Q. Public up or scratch his head or simply grimace, they seek other outlets to peddle there wares.

Most media outlets cannot afford let this happen, but if they allow corporate America to involve them in profit-mongering or force them to pander to the whims of Joe Q. Public, the free press no longer fulfills its mission. It simply mimics contemporary politicians who follow the path of least resistance and try to please everyone during a campaign year. But unlike an elected representative, a media outlet’s campaign runs year-round, year after year.

In the last eight months, the weekday circulation of the average U.S. newspaper has fallen 2%. The weekday circulation of our hometown newspaper, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, fell almost four percent.

This drastic drop-off obviously led in some way to the paper’s new aesthetic reconfiguration. Staffers redesigned the entire broadsheet, incorporating USA Today-like graphics, switching to posh typography and utilizing simpleton-friendly copy arrangements.

But the problem with declining newspaper circulations and discredited media outlets is not the packaging. It’s the product. For most of the last seven years, our press has not done its job. Up until the last year or so, it let President Bush and the Republican Party lead it around by the nose, told Joe Q. Public what he wanted to hear (instead of what he needed to hear) and remained blasé and noncommittal when it should have been blistering.

The American media has lost its credibility and new layouts and/or complimentary colors are not going to restore it. Fortunately — for the first time in a long time — Joe Q. Public is weary of political charade, open to dissenting voices and ripe for spirited forums.

Instead of spiffing up the décor, media outlets like the Star Telegram need to rededicate themselves to watchful diligence and editorial courage. For instance, the Telegram needs to resuscitate or sufficiently replace Molly Ivins (Garrison Keillor is insightful and fun, but too abstract) and jettison asinine, Neocon apologists like Cal Thomas and Don Erler. Thomas and Erler bet on the wrong horse and now all they spend their copy space doing is qualifying their original, unenlightened positions.

The Telegram doesn’t have to take a side; it just needs to stop hedging its bets. The Bush devolution is over and media obsequiousness is no longer a sound business plan.

Skip the nifty graphics and bring on fresh voices, singular vision and editorial integrity. Something like Fox News, except with heart and a conscience.

The cup was more than half empty in this country for a long time. Give it to us genuinely and straight and your ratings and readership will climb.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional & Nefarious and Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History. Read other articles by E.R..