AN ENVIRONMENTAL reporter for the Los Angeles Times recently was wrestling with the problem of how to get his editors interested in a story about DNA research in Yellowstone National Park. Finally he hit on the formula: a reference to O.J. Simpson in the first paragraph. The story made Page 1.
That was an innovative way to win a broad audience for a story that some might label dull, but it was a sad commentary on the state of American journalism.
One after another, big names in journalism are worrying about a slide toward sleaze, superficiality, and celebrity coverage -- a preoccupation with conflict and scandal instead of solutions and substance.
Tom Winship, whose editorship of the Boston Globe won it a string of Pulitzer Prizes, print journalism's highest award, startled a convention of journalists last month by saying of the press today: "It's too cynical, it's too negative, it's too superficial, and I think we're doing quite a job in trivializing to death serious newspaper and serious television and radio journalism."
Peter Kann, chairman and CEO of Dow Jones & Company Inc., which owns the Wall Street Journal, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent himself, earlier this year warned the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers of a "growing American media fascination with the bizarre and perverse. . . . The press has a short attention span. It is a rare issue that can long sustain media interest."
Jim Lehrer, of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," has lashed out at snide journalistic arrogance, a "plague on and in the newsrooms of America," which he says is eroding journalistic credibility.
These gloomy words come from journalists of moderation and reason. They love their craft and are concerned about the negative trend they perceive emerging in it.
In part, the trend is attributable to an explosion of media outlets and competition for ratings and audience. New cable and independent TV stations have spawned a slew of talk shows, many of them anchored by entertainers. Networks have joined the competition with a flurry of news-magazine shows, many specializing in sensationalism and celebrity journalism. In print, supermarket tabloids encourage competitive frenzy. This bottom end of the media scale pays high fees for interviews of increasing outrageousness, a practice eschewed by reputable news organizations. The result is a lurch in the direction of entertainment.
Coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial is a case in point. An army of reporters is camped outside the Los Angeles courthouse. For HTC the most part they are not there to cover a significant judicial process. They are there to capture a drama laden with celebrities, salaciousness and passion that must vie with such entertainment shows as "NYPD Blue" and "Wheel of Fortune" for a mass audience. Some editors and TV news directors argue that they are simply meeting an insatiable public demand for Simpson trial coverage. How then to explain the thousands of letters Judge Lance Ito has received asking him to turn off courtroom TV coverage?
Competition is not alone responsible for the negativism and cynicism pervading much of the press. That is an attitude problem. It is easier, but not very responsible, for reporters to chronicle personality conflict and mudslinging between candidates than it is to analyze politicians' policies in a compelling way for readers and viewers. It is easier for editors to offer dollops of royal family scandal and Nicole Simpson gossip to the exclusion of Middle East peace moves and the anguish of Rwanda.
Responsible news organizations know that serious news does not have to be dull in the telling. They work hard at making it relevant to their readers and listeners and viewers. If we are to find solutions to a variety of the world's ills, it is more of this kind of coverage that editors must provide and consumers must demand.
John Hughes wrote this for the Christian Science Monitor.