Get Me Rewrite!

By now everyone knows that a handful of giant corporations dominate the communications industry. ABC is a subsidiary of Disney, which also owns theme parks, an oil and gas company, cable channels, magazines, newspapers, record companies, an insurance company, and even a hockey team. Time Warner owns TurnerBroadcasting, parent company of CNN, as well as sports teams, cable companies, film studios, retail stores, utility companies and much more. NBC is now owned by General Electric, while CBS belongs to Westinghouse. Fox Television is part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which also includes the SkyChannel, HarperCollins publishing, newspapers, magazines and television stations.

Many observers worry about the impact that this state of affairs will have on our democratic future. Will corporate-owned media twist the news to promote their own narrow economic interests? But an even more vexing question is what happens to the story journalists tell when, under the thumb of corporate ownership, news is reconceived and repackaged as a product instead of being allowed to remain the complex process of informing citizens.

One of the stories journalists have been most fond of telling is the one about their own role as public servants, and about the steep wall that separates the newsroom from the business offices of media corporations, which assures journalists the freedom to tell us what we need to know. Yet more and more that wall is becoming an illusion. Mark Willes, CEO of the Times-Mirror corporation, which owns the Los Angeles Times, recently said, “I have suggested strongly and repeatedly that the people in the newsroom need to know and understand the people in our advertising department. And there has been more than one person who has pointed out the wall between the newsroom and the advertising department. And every time they point it out, I get out a bazooka and tell them if they don’t take it down, I’m going to blow it up.”

The destruction–or at least the erosion–of that wall is proceeding briskly. And it has many veteran editors worried. “Five or 10 years ago, your focus could be pretty much solely on content, and the question always was, ‘Is this a good story?,'” the managing editor of a small Virginia newspaper recently told the New York Times. “Now I have to think, ‘Is this a story that will connect with my readers’ particular lifestyles?’ That’s marketing, and it’s something that I never had to think about before.”

Under these conditions the line between telling and selling, citizen and customer, vanishes. In announcing an advertising campaign designed to change the newspaper’s public image, the management of the Minneapolis Star Tribune announced that “the goal is to change Minnesotans’ perception of the Star Tribune from that of a newspaper to ‘the brand of choice for information products.'” To help consumers make the change, the memo continued, “we need to move as far away from the newspaper as the point of reference as we can and focus on a product that’s the most different from the newspaper . . . And work will be done to create a personality that is positive, contemporary, and appealing to our customers of information.”

Viewed this way, the production of news becomes nothing more than a manufacturing process. Gene Roberts, editor of the New York Times, cites the example of the Winston-Salem Journal, now owned by Media General, where consultants introduced a system for classifying stories, and the amount of work each type of story should require: “An A-1 story should be six inches or less. A reporter should use a press release and/or one or two ‘cooperative sources.’ He or she should take 0.9 hours to do each story and should be able to produce 40 of these in a week.”

The graphics revolution in the newsroom has hastened both the commodification and the industrialization of the newsgathering process. Following the lead of USA Today, which has pioneered the use of color graphics, newspapers have to a large degree transformed themselves from a narrative medium to a visual one. Images now typically take up about 50 percent of the front page. Any information that is really important must be conveyed by the picture, the headline, and the graphic treatment. As on television, stories that don’t lend themselves to strong graphic treatment are likely to get poor placement in the paper. The result is a bias in favor of drama–or sometimes simply in favor of color–and against ideas.

The increased prominence of the visual element in newspapers has also led to changes in the news production process that strangely resemble those in the auto industry. Traditionally, the graphic presentation of the news story was the final stage of the process. But that approach, which dates back to the early decades of the century, is as old-fashioned as Henry Ford’s assembly line, argues Leland “Buck” Ryan, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. Ryan has popularized the concept of the “maestro session,” in which all of the members of the news team–the players–are brought together under the “baton” of a “conductor,” who synchronizes their activity. Once the reporter has done some initial reporting, the assigning editor, the artist, the photographer, and the graphic designer are all brought together to plan the presentation of the complete package. At that initial meeting, decisions are made about the presentation of the package: What the headline and subheads are likely to say, the prominence to be accorded the story, and the appropriate photographs and illustrations. Team journalism of this kind, which, under various labels, is becoming more and more widespread in newsrooms, was modeled on widely publicized Japanese innovations in auto production.

This approach works best when the reporter is collecting evidence or anecdotes in support of a foregone conclusion. But when the reporter starts with a hypothesis, or even just a question, then there is always the danger that as the process of investigation goes on, it will lead to conclusions very different from those decided on at the maestro session. In fact, this is what is supposed to happen in journalism.

In theory, it is possible for the reporter to go back, after further investigation, and announce that her fearless quest for the truth has led to unexpected conclusions, and that the page design will have to be scrapped, the headline rewritten, the photographer sent out again. The maestro system creates subtle pressures on the journalist not to ask questions that may lead to inconvenient conclusions and a lot of extra work for busy colleagues.

Perhaps the most insidious and far-reaching result of the news business turning into an arm of global mega-corporations, however, has to do with scale. As media extend their reach to embrace a larger and larger audience, the universe of stories with broad enough appeal gets smaller and smaller. It’s no longer possible to cover every local school board or city council race when your broadcast or circulation area encompasses scores of municipalities, so you barely cover any of them. Better to run stories that everyone can relate to, like the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. Or stories about the imaginary world that the media themselves have created, of Seinfeld, Schwarzenegger, and megasports.

This is a specific case of a larger problem: the enormous strain that media giantism is putting on language itself. Language got its start in small face-to-face communities, where shared experience provided the context that provided meaning. Today, a constant flow of words floods the world, spilling over the boundaries of cultures, as the vast apparatus of persuasion, commercial and political, ceaselessly works at stretching the boundaries of meaning.

Language was never meant to carry this load. Just as the industrial production of cars, computers, and other goods threatens to overwhelm the carrying capacity of our soil, water and air, the industrialization of communications threatens to overwhelm the capacity of words to convey meaning. As more and more messages are put into circulation, language itself is devalued. The response of the culture to a media environment dominated by selling is a smirky irony, the David Letterman-style cynicism of people seemingly too cool (but really too overwhelmed) to believe in anything. “Everybody lies,” says the motto at one veteran newspaper columnist’s desk, “but it doesn’t matter, because nobody listens.”

We act in the world, as journalist Walter Lippmann once observed, on the basis of the pictures inside our heads. And in the world we live in today, many of those pictures are of people we have never seen, and places we have never been. The stories we share with other people across the continent are the ones created for us by the mass media, through the words and pictures that they project into our heads. The rapidly deteriorating quality of these stories and pictures is as grave a public issue as the deterioration of our cities, our water, and our air.

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