Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


Surveying the Sad Decline of the News Business Since the Triumph of Watergate

By Published on .

August 8 marks the 30th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon -- and the high point for journalism in America. Soldiering through collegial skepticism and official obstruction, two Washington Post reporters uncovered
Photo: AP
Marking a watershed in presidential as well as journalistic history, Richard M. Nixon waves good-bye as he leaves the White House for the last time.
a massive, illegal conspiracy to subvert the American electoral system, which stretched from several petty criminals to the White House. The reporters' work persuaded the best and brightest of a generation that the news media could be an honorable and effective channel for public service.

Bottom of the heap
Three decades later, American journalism is at its nadir. Surveys indicate that journalists rank with ambulance-chasing lawyers and self-dealing executives in public disapproval. The most able of our youth are pursuing MBAs. Journalism schools are cranking out blow-dried twinkies for ratings-driven newscasts. Print editors are paid to generate buzz, not insightful scoops.

What happened?

In part, U.S. journalism is returning to its roots. In the century before philosopher Walter Lippmann gave journalists standing alongside other leaders as shapers and transmitters of public opinion, newspapers were hotbeds of unabashed partisanship and ballyhoo. But to assume nothing's changed is to avoid the heartbreaking fact that newspeople are participating in the diminution of their own esteem.

Collision course with credibility
Tabloid behavior used to be confined to the tabloids. Today, the erosion of boundaries between media forms and the chase for every last eyeball in the rapidly fragmenting audience have put the most traditional of mainstream news organizations on a collision course with credibility.

Contributing factor No. 1 is the crawling I. Formerly straight news is now told in the first person to a degree unimaginable 20 years ago. A bastardization of "New Journalism" principles, the proliferation of the authorial "I" by reporters has the unintended effect of persuading readers that everything -- including undeniable, observable fact -- is subjective.

Closely linked is the branding of newspeople. Reporters used to be valued for their ability to access, process and dispassionately interpret facts. Today, both to feed their already well-nourished egos and to grasp at the big bucks that can flow from writing screenplays and sparring on TV talk-fests, once-objective reporters are turning themselves into trademarks.

From information to infotainment
Their superiors are supporting the strategy, because they believe that, in a celebrity-obsessed culture, they must participate in the transformation of information into infotainment. In news today, no sin is more grave than boring people. Thus the sad spectacle of The New York Times' "Boldface Names" gossip column (with its incessant, postmodernly ironic lessons to "Columbia J-School young'uns") and of CNN's vain efforts to outfox Fox.

Finally, there's the tiresome obsession of the media with the media -- like last week's front-page Wall Street Journal piece about The Times' internal controversy over its new public editor. As any circus-goer will attest, nothing contributes to more headaches than a hall of mirrors.

It's no wonder the public that once applauded the media's Watergate triumph now sees no difference between the nightly news and any other form of reality programming. Consider it Richard Nixon's posthumous triumph. If everything is subjective, then there is no such thing as a lie. And in the world of Big Brother, no one is any longer concerned about Big Brother.

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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