Profits vs. truthtelling
Mediacultureby Gordon Houser
Two recent viewings have reinforced for me a growing problem in our mediaculture that has dire repercussions. Though I’ve touched on this before in this column (e.g., Feb. 18, 2003, and April 19, 2005), it bears further reflection.
Earlier this fall, I watched the fifth and final season of “The Wire” on DVD. Many consider this HBO show one of the best shows ever on TV. I concur, though its gritty realism and language in depicting life on the streets and among the political and judicial powers of Baltimore may offend many viewers.
The final season focused on the city’s newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, and revealed a trend that is occurring across the United States: the downsizing of newspaper staff, particularly reporters, in order to satisfy the wishes of corporate owners, whose main concern is profits for shareholders, not truthtelling.
Corporate ownership of U.S. newspapers has intensified to the point that nearly all are owned by a handful of corporations. (According to the Media Reform Information Center, for example, the number of corporations that control a majority of U.S. media went from 50 in 1983 to six in 2004.) Thus, in “The Wire,” the Sun is owned by the Tribune company, which shows little concern about investigating crimes in Baltimore unless the coverage somehow brings in money.
Certainly media must make money in order to function, but when concern for profits outweighs concern for learning the truth about what is happening in our communities, we all suffer. Investigative journalism requires allocating resources, sometimes months of reporters’ time in order to gain enough information to write truthfully about an issue.
Now to the second viewing. I rewatched All the President’s Men on DVD in November. This powerful film from 1976 tells the true story of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovering the details of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.
Among the special features on the DVD are commentaries by various people, several of whom point out that such a story could not be written in today’s media climate. Among other things, newspapers don’t have the resources to commit to such a story unless there’s a clear sign it will reveal a major revelation, which this one initially did not.
Also, government officials have learned ways to avoid truthtelling and repel reporters’ inquiries. One necessary element to such reporting is the use of anonymous sources, which government officials have tried to curtail if not eliminate outright.
Another aspect to our mediaculture that reduces the chances of learning the truth about what is happening behind events is the political polarization that infects much of our society’s conversation. People tend to gravitate toward media outlets that reflect their own point of view, and many media outlets are eschewing a more objective analysis of events and reporting of facts in the interest of promulgating a certain viewpoint.
This seems to be especially true for Internet users, which is becoming the majority of readers. Such users often look for opinions that reflect their own viewpoint rather than searching for sources that report actual news.
Such reporting exists, but its ability to investigate issues is being strangled by this culture of polarized opinions and the appetite for continual entertainment. In our rush to consume, we seem to have lost our desire to pursue truth.
Christians especially should be interested in pursuing truthtelling, which is at the heart of our faith. “The truth,” Jesus said, “will make you free” (John 8:32).
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