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In this vividly written, compelling narrative, award-winning journalist Neil Henry confronts the crisis facing professional journalism in this era of rapid technological transformation. American Carnival combines elements of memoir with extensive media research to explore critical contemporary issues ranging from reporting on the Iraq War, to American race relations, to the exploitation of the image of journalism by advertisers and politicians. Drawing on significant currents in U.S. media and social history, Henry argues that, given the amount of fraud in many institutions in American life today, the decline of journalistic professionalism sparked by the economic challenge of New Media poses especially serious implications for democracy. As increasingly alarming stories surface about unethical practices, American Carnival makes a stirring case for journalism as a calling that is vital to a free society, a profession that is more necessary than ever in a digital age marked by startling assaults on the cultural primacy of truth.
The event that convinced me of the need to reassess both the transformation of professional journalism and my changing role as a teacher did not take place in 2004, when I first heard official confirmation that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been based almost entirely on cooked-up evidence largely unchallenged by the nation's news media. Neither did it stem from revelations that same year that the government increasingly was in the business of broadcasting propaganda disguised as journalism through the airwaves of willing local television news stations. Nor was it related to any of the notorious reporter scandals involving plagiarism and fabrication that have bedeviled America's top news publications over the past few years. While all these events certainly served as important signposts along the way, I realize now that my journey actually started on a rainy morning back in April 1998. That was the day one of my former graduate students told me an eye-opening story about her life on the job as a local television news reporter.
She was in her late twenties then, a young woman with a passion for news reporting and writing who dreamed of working as an on-camera national network correspondent. Like many television news aspirants, she waspaying her career dues by starting out in a smallish city in the West, with hopes of advancing to a big-city market such as Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York.
I admired the young woman's skills: she had been a terrific student during her two years at the University of California at Berkeley, with a talent for interviewing sources and researching court records and a commitment to professional values such as accuracy, fairness, and the importance of maintaining a moral conscience about right and wrong. When I heard she was visiting the Bay Area, I invited her to speak to a large undergraduate lecture class I was teaching that semester. Since the class focused on the role of the news media in democratic society, I thought it would be great for my 120 students to hear how she went about collecting and reporting the news each day in the "real world."
During her visit to my class, the young woman showed video clips of a few of her news stories, including a serious one about a murder investigation and a feature about the spring weather. As she answered the students' questions, she was as informative and captivating as I had expected. Her talk was a real hit.
But afterward, as we talked in the hallway of North Gate Hall, she told me another story about her job, one that was quite different from the inspiring anecdotes she had shared with the students just a few minutes before.
Several months earlier that year, in January, the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken, bringing with it a national frenzy for news related to the presidency and the brewing constitutional crisis between Congress, the judiciary, and the White House over President Bill Clinton's sexual affair. In my lecture course that semester, I had been referencing the Clinton scandal and the front-page headlines it was generating, using it as an educational wedge to inform students about a wide variety of issues, from the impeachment process, the history of special counsels, and the grand jury system to the perils of anonymous sourcing and the growing influence of new, Web-based, non-mainstream information sources.
But my former student had been doing something far different in connection with this story, she told me, something that in many ways said more about the values and pressures of news reporting today than all my lectures put together. She said that her boss, the station's news producer, was eager to capitalize on the scandal's ratings draw by finding a sexy local angle that paralleled Bill Clinton's political travails. Her reportorial mission? To go out into the town she was covering and try to hunt down a married man who, like the president, was carrying on a sexual dalliance; to interview him about his double life and its effect on his marriage and family; and to try to get a reaction from the mistress as well.
The assignment was not the sort of thing my former student had bargained for when she chose professional journalism as a calling. At a cost of more than $70,000, she had attended grad school at Cal, full of high ideals about the role of the press in a democracy and dreams of doing stories that really mattered for the public. Now she was being ordered to use those hard-earned and valuable skills to do something that veered sharply from the mission and purpose of journalism as she understood it.
But what could she do? Refuse to do the story? Quit in protest? Who would hire her in television news again? Who would pay the student loans she took out to finance her professional schooling? So she carried out the assignment, she told me, no questions asked. Using her investigative skills and the station's precious labor time, she eventually did track down such a subject, who was persuaded to do an on-camera interview with his face blurred out and his voice scrambled to protect his identity. She had succeeded. But she didn't feel much satisfaction. Neither did she tell this startling story to my undergraduate audience, she explained, because she didn't feel professionally comfortable discussing the assignment or secure enough in her job to speak publicly about it.
That anecdote was among the first and perhaps the most memorable of a growing number of disquieting dispatches I have received from young people working in the field of professional journalism that have caused me to radically reexamine how I view the news industry and how I prepare my students to enter it. Although there has always been something of a gap between classroom theories about the function of journalism in a free society and the gritty day-to-day reality of the American newsroom, I've witnessed this gap widen considerably in the comparatively few years I have worked as an educator. My student's story was just one example of questionable, disturbing, and at times outrageous acts by news media organizations that each year hire young people leaving colleges and professional school programs like mine, brimming with enthusiasm and high regard for the calling, only to see their ideals twisted or crushed by the weight of conflicting institutional demands and special interests.
I don't think I was ever naïve enough to believe that the American news media were as clean and saintly as the professional standards adopted by governing organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association might have implied. These cherished codes of conduct, which stress principles such as editorial independence, accuracy, and truth seeking, were developed over many decades in response to systemic bias, inaccuracy, and sensationalist excesses. But neither was I fully prepared to accept, as I listened to some of my former students relate their disappointing experiences, the reality of how the news industry's values and practices were being weakened by the relentless assault of outside political interests, profit pressures, and the manipulation of advertising and public relations.
One former undergraduate student, for example, who was working at a weekly newspaper in Northern California, told me how her managing editor had blatantly pressured her to write favorably about a controversial commercial development project whose chief backer was a close associate of the publisher. What about the idea we taught in college that a paper's business interests should never be allowed to conflict with the independent mission of reporting?
Another alum, working for a large, publicly traded family of newspapers in California, messaged me in despair when he heard that his newspaper's news and editorial staff would soon face another round of layoffs and budget cuts because the annual 25 percent profit promised to shareholders by the corporation's CEO had fallen 5 percent short of the target. In an age of stagnant or declining circulation and advertising revenues, executives at this newspaper were looking to cut costs to improve the company's bottom line. And journalists and editors, costly to keep, were likely target number one. My student wondered: What was so unsatisfactory about a 20 percent annual profit for newspapers? What about the notion that good and effective journalism, not shareholder pressure, should be the strongest and most important engine driving a news organization's success or failure?
Another young reporter with several years' experience covering major professional sports teams and an excellent record at culling sources was flabbergasted when a network television sports reporter suddenly appeared on the scene of an important news story on his beat in nearby Oakland and miraculously managed to get an exclusive on-camera interview with a source at the center of the story. The young local reporter and his colleagues were certain that the rich network had paid a considerable sum of money to the source, who refused to talk to anyone else in the media afterward. It wasn't the first time that this network had been suspected of paying for interviews, the beat reporters claimed. What about the caution against checkbook journalism that teachers always preached in graduate school? What about our warnings that if we treat the news as if it is for sale, lies will flourish, and only the rich will be able to own and control it?
Assigned to her first reporting beat to cover the public relations industry for a national magazine in Los Angeles, another alum wrote harrowing messages to me about her intense on-the-job education in how deeply PR specialists and advertisers working for corporate and political clients had inserted themselves into the news-gathering process-and how complicit news media organizations have been in the corruption of their civic responsibilities. Over the past decade, for example, PR firms have become increasingly effective at churning out print and broadcast advertising that looks and sounds just like the mainstream journalism the public is used to reading, hearing, and viewing. Their aim, however, is not to present news and information gathered under professional rules of ethics; instead, they intend to sell a product or a political message. This deceptive marriage of two separate and conflicting missions in the form of "advertorials," "video news releases," and other techniques employing the latest in high-tech digital tools has grown into an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually over the past twenty years. Increasingly, it is difficult for the average citizen to tell the difference between what's real news and what's fake.
Not coincidentally, this phenomenal growth in propaganda cleverly disguised as news has occurred while many news organizations are cutting back on staffing. America's television news networks, for example, employ fully a third fewer correspondents today than they did in 1985. The nation's radio newsroom staff shrank by 44 percent between 1994 and 2001. Cuts have also occurred in local television news and newspapers across the country. Headline after headline on business pages in 2005 alone reported staff cuts at news services, magazines, and newspapers across America:
September 22: A 15 percent staff cut in the newsroom of the San Jose Mercury News, with a loss of fifty-two full-time professional journalism jobs.
September 24: A 15 percent cut in the newsrooms of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, and a loss of forty-five professional journalism jobs at the New York Times and thirty-five at the Boston Globe.
December 26: A cut of nine hundred editorial jobs at the Tribune Company's prestigious family of newspapers, which includes the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Tribune. That news sparked a Christmas week demonstration outside the corporation's headquarters in Chicago, where protestors charged that the company's cost-cutting endangered the public's right to be informed.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported in early 2006 that, all told, America's newspaper and magazine industries had lost more than thirty-five hundred newsroom professionals over the previous five years alone, a drop of 7 percent.
These corporate trends signal only the latest chapters in a compelling and longstanding story of major shifts in news consumption by Americans over the past half century, shifts that have intensified as the New Media challenge the dominance of newspapers and other traditional media in American life. But even before the advent of the New Media, the landscape had begun to change. From 1960 to 1995, the American population grew from 180 million to nearly 260 million-but total daily newspaper circulation in the United States remained roughly steady, at 59 million, according to Claude Moisy. As Moisy points out, this extraordinary one-third drop in per capita readership will only accelerate, since the rate of readership among the young is even weaker. A 2004 survey of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four found that 44 percent relied chiefly on Web-based portals such as Yahoo! and Google for their news and information, with just 19 percent ranking newspapers as their primary source. The survey also found increasing numbers of young people abandoning traditional broadcast news media.
Television news long ago replaced newspapers as the chief source of news and information for most Americans. But here, too, the job losses among professional journalists locally, nationally, and overseas have been acute. Longtime CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, in a scathing analysis of the decline of foreign news reporting since the Cold War, cites data showing that foreign coverage by broadcast and cable networks has shrunk 70 to 80 percent since the early 1980s, largely replaced by celebrity news, "tabloidism," and "junk news." Since 1995, ABC and Fox have closed what were once full-time bureaus in Moscow; CBS has closed bureaus in Paris, Johannesburg, Beijing, and Bonn; and CNN has closed operations in Manila, Belgrade, Brussels, and Rio de Janeiro. Latin American correspondents are rare; and the entire continent of Africa, apart from a skeletal operation run by CNN in Nairobi, is completely bereft of a full-time, professional American news reporting presence.
Closer to home, one troubling event that proved emblematic was recorded in a little-noticed story about the closing of Chicago's legendary, 105-year-old City News Service. CNS was a place where generations of young journalists and other writers, from Seymour Hersh and Ellen Warren to Mike Royko and Kurt Vonnegut, learned their craft by reporting on crime and other city beats for a consortium of Chicago newspapers. The news service functioned as a tip sheet for print and broadcast outlets. But a new owner, the Tribune Company, decided to close CNS shortly before Christmas in 2005, partly to save costs. A more important factor, however, was that the company's news competitors, instead of using the service as a tip sheet, were simply posting City News articles on their own Web sites and thus undermining the service's value to the Tribune. The closure stood as a stark cautionary tale about the wider ramifications of the power of the Internet and its effects on traditional professional journalism. Nineteen jobs, most of them filled by young people just starting their careers in Chicago, were lost.
One consequence of this shrinkage in professional content in the nation's traditional news systems is that many news organizations now find it commercially advantageous not only to deliver easy, inexpensive fluff about celebrities, health, and decorating but also to disseminate fake reporting in order to fill the breach of actual news-gathering. The product may not be real journalism, but it looks like real journalism to the unassuming American citizen. Most important, fake journalism is practically free and helps to fill airtime in the relentless twenty-four-hour news cycle, in contrast to the high cost of actually paying professionals to report the news. In effect, public relations specialists and crafty advertising hucksters masquerading as professional journalists have become significant competitors for the journalism jobs my students are seeking after graduation.
Excerpted from American Carnival by Neil Henry Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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1. American Carnival
2. Freak Show
3. Fun House
4. World of Illusions
5. Defending the News