Earlier this year, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech on the state of the news media. I’d heard it referenced a few times and finally went back to read it. It’s an incredibly astute observation on the current state of affairs in the news business. Everyone should read the whole thing, but here’s a good bit toward the end:
News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light. Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.
Watergate was a great piece of journalism but there is a PhD thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up. What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct.
But misconduct is what has impact. Third, the fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out. Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself.
So – for example – there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean.
This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.
In turn, this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course.
In other words, this is not exceptional. It is routine. The metaphor for this genre of modern journalism is the Independent newspaper. Let me state at the outset it is a well-edited lively paper and is absolutely entitled to print what it wants, how it wants, on the Middle East or anything else.
But it was started as an antidote to the idea of journalism as views not news. That was why it was called the Independent. Today it is avowedly a viewspaper not merely a newspaper. The final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media.
Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life’s usual grey is almost entirely absent.
“Some good, some bad”; “some things going right, some going wrong”: these are concepts alien to today’s reporting. It’s a triumph or a disaster. A problem is “a crisis”.
A setback is a policy “in tatters”. A criticism, “a savage attack” NGOs and pundits know that unless they are prepared to go over the top, they shouldn’t venture out at all.
Talk to any public service leader – especially in the NHS or the field of law and order – and they will tell you not that they mind the criticism, but they become totally demoralised by the completely unbalanced nature of it.
It is becoming worse? Again, I would say, yes. In my 10 years, I’ve noticed all these elements evolve with ever greater momentum. It used to be thought – and I include myself in this – that help was on the horizon.New forms of communication would provide new outlets to by-pass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media.
In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five. But here is also the opportunity.
At present, we are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact. Trust in journalists is not much above that in politicians. There is a market in providing serious, balanced news. There is a desire for impartiality.