Do you remember when journalism used to be ahead of the story? Me neither, but once upon a time that was allegedly true. Today though, the media is merely an endless series of noise and naval-gazing (nothing gets the media going like a story about the media.) For example, everything on CNN is BREAKING NEWS! no matter how meaningless or how old the story is. But CNN has to capture our attention somehow, and despite flailing ratings, the powers-that-be continue to think that inducing a sense of urgency and panic is the way to attract viewers. (And we won’t even begin to discuss Fox News, the 21st century’s Pravda.)
The media outlet that is the focus of my ire today though is the much-vaunted, self-important New York Times. The Times has always, rightly or wrongly considered itself America’s–if not the world’s–premier newspaper. (Probably because it was the only New York newspaper that did not try to whip readers into yellow journalism hysteria during the Spanish-American war, therefore establishing journalistic credibility.) To be fair, in its day the Times broke many an important story in the years since, and will gladly show off all its Pulitzer Prizes to prove it.
Yet at least since the advent of the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle, the quality of the media has fallen so dramatically that it is hard to believe that we as a nation ever wanted to protect it. The Times in particular is especially egregious because the stories that it runs are so far behind the times. You know a trend is ending when The New York Times finally gets around to publishing a story about it. For example, do you remember Friendster? If not, it was the first of the big social networking sites. Friendster was severely flawed, always down for repairs and flooded with fake profiles. As a result, there was massive exodus, and Facebook filled the gap. By the Times ran a story about how everyone was joining Friendster, Friendster’s popularity (outside of Asia) had long since passed.
Yesterday I noticed a story that really annoyed me. The Times finally deigned to recognize the gay-themed sports website Outsports.com. While I’m happy that Outsports is getting deserved attention, the story is woefully late. To its credit, the Times profile acknowledges that the site has been around since 1999. (I’m also pretty sure that the Times has gone to the founders of Outsports for quotes whenever there was a gay-related story in the news.) What bothers me though is the attitude of the story: “Look! Gays play sports!”
This is not news. I have already talked somewhat the history of gays and lesbians in professional sports, so there is no need to rehash here. Needless to say, in 2011 it should not come as any surprise that there are gay athletes in professional and amateur sports (even before Saint Gareth of Rugby publicly came out.) It is however, news to the Times because the Times, barring war, politics, or catastrophe (or all three), doesn’t bother to report on the world immediately around it until after everyone else has done so. There’s something so condescending about that. It’s like the Times deliberately stays behind pack so that it might give its imprimatur as if to say, “this is legitimate.” I will not be giving any money to the Gray Lady now that the paper is charging massive amounts for Internet access. I’d rather know about the story while it’s happening not years later.
It is something of a mystery that journalistic standards have gotten so poor. More astute and involved people than I have debated this issue, so I would defer to them. My own opinion is that the problem is multi-layered. Part of the problem is because of the predominance of cable and Internet news, but most of the decline is attributable to the change in ownership structure of the major papers. Once upon a time the major American papers were owned by families: the Ochs and the Sulzbergers at the New York Times, the Grahams at the Washington Post, the Taylors at the Boston Globe, the Bancrofts at the Wall Street Journal, the Chandlers at the Los Angeles Times, and so on. Whether family owned or not though, the papers were owned by people–largely rich patricians who are at least partially motivated by a belief in the importance of journalism and an ethos of noblesse oblige.
Contrast that to today’s world where newspapers today are owned by large corporations. Corporations are by their nature solely motivated to bring money to the shareholders. Unlike human owners, corporations do not have beliefs or an ethos. There is only profit and ways to make more of it. Local papers are swallowed up by the large corporations, and if they don’t make money they are shut down, regardless of the impact on the community. Some of these corporations (*cough* News Corp. *cough*) also own cable networks and overseas publications which increases buying ability. All of these corporations have a significant Internet presence–which in many cases is becoming more important than the physical paper.
Yet another way the Internet is completely changing our world. I’m not sure if I like it.