Old problems, new media?

Dennis Phillips

Jack Fuller What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2010 (214 pp). ISBN 9-78022626-898-9 (hard cover) RRP $35.95.

Mark Feldstein Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010 (461 pp). ISBN 9-78037423-530-7 (hard cover) RRP $41.95.

What is happening to the news? It is a timely and vexed question. News reporting, production and consumption are undergoing unprecedented change. Traditional forms of news distribution, such as the established and once revered daily newspaper, are in trouble. Last year one prominent American blogger concluded, ‘… newspapers in the United States are facing their greatest threat in history’ (Mcllroy 2010). Welcome to the information explosion and the ‘new media’.

Various definitions of the ‘new media’ come perilously close to claiming that the new media is everything the old media isn’t. Obviously, traditional news sources, such as newspapers, must now compete with a deluge of new, mainly electronic, technologies. Some experts fear that the information revolution and the haphazard way we are adapting to it have produced a crisis for modern journalism.

The ‘Standard Model of Professional Journalism’

Jack Fuller is one of those experts. Born in 1946, Fuller, a Pulitzer Prize winner, spent almost 40 years working for the Chicago Tribune, rising to chief executive of the Tribune Publishing Company in 1997. Like most leading newspapermen of his generation, Fuller was educated and trained according to a set of journalistic principles he calls the ‘Standard Model of Professional Journalism’. The fundamental principles of the Standard Model include a reporter’s disciplined respect for accuracy, objectivity, independence and ‘the clear labelling of what is fact and what is opinion’ (Fuller, p. 12) The Standard Model is what Fox ‘fair and balanced’ News purports to be and obviously isn’t.

Fuller’s main point is that the Standard Model of Journalism cannot survive the frontal assault represented by the new media. The competition for the public’s attention is so fierce that professional journalists are pressured to ‘give the consumer what he or she wants, not what they, as proud professionals, think the consumer should want …’. Put another way, editors and publishers ‘have to take the audience as it is, not as we would wish it to be’ (pp. 69, 168). In the scramble to maintain circulation, editors allow professional standards to give way to titillation and the satisfaction of public curiosity. Sensation trumps substance. For a recent example close to home, consider how an Australian prime minister’s official visit to Washington DC was pushed off the front page by the latest episode in the slow implosion of Hollywood actor Charlie Sheen.

To many observers, this populist trend in the media is evidence of the ‘dumbing down’ of public standards, tastes and morals. Surprisingly, Fuller has a different take. He suggests that ‘we are getting close to a neuroscience-based answer to the question why professionally undisciplined purveyors of news are gaining’ while traditional tenets of professional journalism decline. The triumph of sensationalism, he writes, can be attributed to eons of evolution and ‘the effect of message immersion on human brains’ (p. 57). Our ‘ancient brains’ have been conditioned by a few fundamental instincts—survival, sustenance, reproduction. When the brain is bombarded with messages, our ‘emotional systems’ help us sort through the chaos to focus on what is most important to us. Put another way, reason and emotion operate together to make sense of cognitive challenges (p. 60).

Traditional news sources must now compete with a deluge of new technologies.

As much as Fuller respects the tenets of the Standard Model of Professional Journalism, he knows its day is done. Genuine objectivity and ‘emotionless’ reporting were impossible ideals from the start. The contemporary information explosion makes that unfortunate truth obvious and undeniable. Fuller argues that a young generation of journalists will have to create ‘a new rhetoric’ for their profession. He believes ‘the future belongs to digital, interactive presentation of news’, but his ‘new rhetoric’ remains poorly defined (pp. 166–170).

What Is Happening to News has received extensive praise from some reviewers. One leading journalist quoted on the book’s jacket describes it as ‘a masterful and stunning piece of work’. Another called it ‘one of the most interesting, innovative, and important new books on journalism in ten years’. While respecting Jack Fuller’s outstanding career as a journalist, I am compelled to disagree. This book will disappoint many readers and few will finish it. Some of the opening chapters read more like a neurological textbook than a treatise on the contemporary crisis in journalism. While a detailed explanation of neurons, axons, dendrites, etcetera (p. 33) may be necessary to explain why our brain perceives new information as Fuller alleges it does, the brain of many readers may abandon the task before arriving at chapter 11 (‘A Kind of Truth’, pp. 137–152) which provides a less clinical and more engaging narrative on journalism’s contemporary crisis.

In recent years many authors other than Fuller have relied upon neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to analyse the impact of the information revolution on the human brain. While not specifically devoted to an analysis of professional journalism, Nicholas Carr’s controversial book, The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (2010; see also Carr 2008), provides an attractive alternative to Fuller’s What Is Happening to News. Where Fuller suggests that the presentation of the news must come to terms with changes imposed by the information revolution, Carr takes a more critical approach by analysing the dangers involved when we allow the Internet to rule our lives. Computers, he argues, affect the way we think, learn and socialise. We live more and more of our life ‘through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens …’ cut off from the world and working alone in a darkened room (2010, p. 207). Today most of us routinely spend more time involved with those disembodied symbols than we do working or socialising face-to-face with other human beings. (That said, there are more optimistic accounts of the new media out there—see, for example, James Fallows’ recent contribution (2011).)

There is another and more serious problem with the way Fuller’s book deals with this complex and nuanced topic. It is one thing to describe certain neurological, philosophical and even literary aspects of the information revolution, but there are some startling omissions. As his sub-title indicates, Fuller sets out to investigate ‘the information explosion and the crisis in journalism’. Yet nowhere in the book does the reader find even a mention, much less any discussion, of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blog, podcast, ‘The Huffington Post’ and many other specific examples of the extraordinary character and complexity of the information revolution.

Poisoning the press

Mark Feldstein’s Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture reminds us that the crisis in modern journalism did not originate with computers and the Internet. Political corruption and media scandal mongering developed centuries ago, but in 20th century American history they arguably reached their apogee during the presidential administration (1969–74) of Richard M. Nixon.

There are no heroes in Feldstein’s book.

Feldstein, who was an award-winning reporter before joining the journalism staff at the University of Maryland, has written a remarkably detailed history of the decades long rivalry between Nixon and journalist Anderson. There are no heroes in this book. The personal and professional flaws of both protagonists are described in detail. Feldstein argues that the bitter rivalry between the two men contributed significantly to a ‘noxious diet of sensationalism and trivialities’ that poisoned both politics and journalism by promoting the growth of ‘Washington’s modern scandal culture’ (pp. 3–10, 359–365).

Born in California in 1922, Jack Anderson grew up in a devout Mormon family in Utah. After military service overseas during World War II, he went to work for Drew Pearson, the renowned investigative journalist who produced ‘Washington Merry-Go-Round’ a popular, muckraking column known for its ‘lacerating attacks on public officials’ (pp. 35–36). When Pearson died in 1969, Anderson assumed control over what had become ‘the top newspaper column in the nation’. Just a few months earlier, Richard Nixon, age 56, finally realised his long held ambition to become president of the United States (pp. 112–114).

Feldstein describes Jack Anderson as ‘a bulldog of a reporter’ who was ‘part freedom fighter, part carnival huckster, part righteous rogue’ (p. 5). Anderson was one of many journalists who fanned Richard Nixon’s press paranoia and relentlessly pursued him until ‘Tricky Dick’ was finally forced to resign the presidency on 9 August 1974. By that time, Pearson and Anderson had been nipping at Nixon’s heels since at least 1952 when they revealed that Nixon, then Dwight Eisenhower’s vice presidential nominee, was ‘the beneficiary of a secret personal slush fund’ composed of donations from wealthy California businessmen. This exposure led directly to Nixon’s famous ‘Checkers’ speech, a maudlin but ultimately successful attempt to avoid being dumped from the Republican ticket (pp. 43–45).

From the early 1950s until Nixon’s death in April 1994 at the age of 81, the rivalry between Anderson and Nixon continued. Morbidly, the two men seemed to need each other. Nixon was so corrupt that, for investigative journalists like Anderson, he became the gift that kept on giving, supplying enough conspiracies, scandals and crimes (including a plot to assassinate Anderson) to keep busy a battalion of reporters (pp. 268–290, 339–340). Anyone who retains illusions about Richard Nixon as anything other the most corrupt president in American history (admittedly a crowded field at times) should read this book. Feldstein documents the whole gamut of Nixonian crimes: conspiracy, perjury, bribery, burglary, blackmail, fraud, destruction of evidence, systematic cover-ups, wire taps, illegal use of the FBI and CIA and more (pp. 262–263, passim).

Despite the fact that Richard Nixon’s troubled character and dubious political record had been well known for more than two decades, American voters in their wisdom awarded him an historic landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election. Nixon won 49 of the 50 states (Massachusetts being the sole exception) and received 520 of a possible 538 Electoral College votes (p. 310). In January 1973 Nixon took the oath of office for his second term as president. Nineteen months later, in August 1974, he resigned in disgrace as a result, among other things, of the Watergate investigations.

In 1972 Jack Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Nixon Administration’s ‘secret tilt toward Pakistan’ during the 1971 India-Pakistan War (pp. 155–174, 265). But when Nixon was forced from office three years later Anderson’s career began to slide. With his old adversary now sidelined, Anderson tried to refocus his attacks on Jimmy Carter. It didn’t work. Carter was not a new Nixon. In a desperate attempt to continue his long record of making shocking political revelations, Anderson resorted to some of the same tricks and techniques he had so earnestly condemned during the Nixon years (pp. 320, 342).

Sadly, the Internet merely supplied new tools for an old trade.

Feldstein argues that Jack Anderson never got over his disappointment at receiving little credit for his part in exposing the long list of Nixon crimes that are now routinely described by the single word ‘Watergate’. Once the nation’s leading investigative reporter, Anderson found himself increasingly ‘pushed off his perch’ by young rivals such as Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Seymour Hersh and others. Indeed, in September 1975, it was Bob Woodward of The Washington Post who revealed the Nixon Administration’s plot to assassinate Jack Anderson (pp. 318–319, 326, 339, 422).

Anderson’s decline accelerated during the 1980s when ‘he was seduced and coopted by President Reagan’. The once feared investigative journalist ‘became so compromised by his coziness with Reagan that he helped cover up the biggest White House conspiracy since Watergate’. In 1985 Reagan approved a secret, illegal and hypocritical arms-for-hostages deal with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. During the1980 presidential campaign, Reagan had bitterly condemned President Carter for negotiating with Iran for the release of 52 American hostages. When Anderson discovered the 1985 negotiations for the release of other hostages, Reagan appealed to him to keep the talks secret. Feldstein describes it as ‘the worst presidential scandal since Watergate’ and condemns Anderson for consenting to Reagan’s request, even though the President personally warned Anderson that revealing the deal might lead to the death of some or all of the hostages (pp. 344–345).

Anderson’s final years were ‘marred by careless factual errors, self-promotional stunts, and embarrassing financial conflicts of interest’. His biggest problem, however, was his own ego. As one of Anderson’s former colleagues wrote, long before his journalistic career ended, he ‘stopped being a reporter and started being a celebrity’ (p. 357). As early as 1981 a survey of American newspaper editors rated Anderson the worst columnist in the nation for both accuracy and integrity. When scandals accumulated in both his private and professional life, Anderson seemed to delight in his new notoriety. In 2004, the ‘Washington Merry-Go-Round’, by then the longest-running syndicated column in America, finally ceased publication. Jack Anderson, who had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for almost ten years, died on 17 December 2005 in Washington DC at the age of 83 (pp. 345–357).

New tools for an old trade

Mark Feldstein argues that Jack Anderson’s decades of rivalry with Richard Nixon symbolise both political and press decline in the United States. What Jack Fuller describes in What Is Happening to News as the Standard Model of Journalism was a leading casualty of this toxic process. It wasn’t the Internet that eroded journalistic integrity, but rather the ego-driven quest for influence, power and fame on the part of so many of the media and political participants in this sordid drama.

Sadly, the Internet merely supplied new tools for an old trade (see Stephens (2007) for a longer historical view). Modern forms of news delivery brought not some sort of purifying revolution for the media, but rather a seductive, fast-paced atmosphere of excitement supported by an apparently inexhaustible range of new, electronic gadgets. Feldstein concludes, ‘The spread of cable, satellite, and the Internet has transformed the media into an instantaneous cacophony of infotainment …’ (p. 359). Meanwhile, political corruption, the misuse of power, government secrecy, and sensationalist reporting prosper as never before.

REFERENCES

Carr, N. 2010, The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Atlantic Books, London.

Carr, N. 2008, ‘Is Google making us stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains’, The Atlantic, vol. 302, no.1, pp. 56–63 [Online], Available: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/ [2011, Apr 1].

Fallows, J. 2011, ‘Learning to love the (shallow, divisive, unreliable) new media’, The Atlantic, vol. 307, no. 3, pp. 34–49.

Mcllroy, T. 2010, The future of newspapers, 12 August [Online], Available: http://thefutureofpublishing.com/industries/the-future-of-newspapers [2011, Apr 1].

Stephens, M. 2007, A History of News, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Dennis Phillips taught US politics and history at Macquarie University and The University of Sydney until his retirement in 2010.