How Journalism is Eating Itself

Ouroboros drawing from a late medieval Byzantine Greek alchemical manuscript.

Ouroboros (from a late medieval Byzantine manuscript).

KARDASHIAN!!!

Now that I have your attention, or the attention of your search engine anyway, I have something to get off my chest. What passes for journalism in our country is a mockery of the word. It has devolved from a public duty to a socially-transmitted disease, and I wonder if our civil society can survive it.

This isn’t anything new, of course. Look at cable news, or the internet. There was once a divide between respectable journalism and so-called scandal sheets. A moat that once encompassed and protected our somewhat functional democracy.

That moat has long ago been breached. All media is now gossip, sensationalism, and an insane quest for more eyeballs and more clicks.

What breached the wall for me? What sent me on this rant today when what passes for journalism in our nation has been rotting for years?

This.

Ms. Kogod, I know you just write for the sports section, but you still work for THE WASHINGTON POST. Woodward and Bernstein, Ben Bradlee, Katherine Graham, any of these name ring a bell to you? How about Shirley Povitch? He was the columnist who—with the assistance of Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department—finally got George Preston Marshall to integrate the Redskins in 1962. That’s the legacy that you are—pardon my language—Kardashianing.

Yes, you are only reporting what Jason Whitlock said. But why? He’s cable sports hack—formerly  Fox Sports and soon of ESPN, which is like moving from CNN to FOX News in the cable news world. Why do you waste bandwidth recycling his trash? And it’s not just you. Witlock, after writing his last gossip column at Fox Sports, talked about on PTI (ESPN’s answer to shock radio) with Tony Kornheiser, who was filling in for Michael Wilbon.

Recognize those names? Of course you do. They were both columnists for the Post before abandoning—or being kicked off of—a sinking ship to go to work on a submarine.

And now you’re all in it together up to your eyeballs. Taking offhand, under-thought, baseless commentary and reporting it as news. And then reporting on the reporting as news.

And it all feeds on itself. Like Ouroboros, feasting on its own tail. Or like ESPN feasting it’s own “scoop.”

Or something that rhymes with scoop. Deadspin uses stronger language than I allow on this blog, but you get the idea.

So the next question is this. Fine, this whole “story,” like so many so-called stories in sports media these days, is nothing but unsubstantiated gossip, repeated and reported until it takes on a life of its own. What’s the big deal? It’s just sports. Like movies and TV, sports is entertainment and gossip has always had its place in entertainment.

The problem is this. All journalism—whether it’s about trivial things like sports or entertainment, or serious things like immigration reform, income disparity, access to affordable healthcare, unaccountable wars, domestic surveillance, or a hundred other complex issues that can bring life or death—has been reduced to entertainment. The only goal, get as many clicks and make as much cash as possible.

For another example, here’s the Onion’s take on CNN’s “big story” from last weekend.

Over the years, CNN.com has become a news website that many people turn to for top-notch reporting. Every day it is visited by millions of people, all of whom rely on “The Worldwide Leader in News”—that’s our slogan—for the most crucial, up-to-date information on current events. So, you may ask, why was this morning’s top story, a spot usually given to the most important foreign or domestic news of the day, headlined “Miley Cyrus Did What???” and accompanied by the subhead “Twerks, stuns at VMAs”?

It’s a good question. And the answer is pretty simple. It was an attempt to get you to click on CNN.com so that we could drive up our web traffic, which in turn would allow us to increase our advertising revenue.

Spot on. As funny as it is depressing. This is the closest thing we have left to true reporting and well-though-out commentary—The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report—satire is all we have left.

It’s just easier to notice the sensationalism, the laziness, and the drive for clicks at all costs in sports journalism than in politics where too many have been conditioned to hear only what they want to hear.

And in the case of sports, the proof is on the field, and while reporters might not be able to tell the difference between a pistol formation and a read-option play and probably don’t care, they still have to report the score when the game ends. Did they win or lose? That’s the one fact no one can spin.

But in politics everything is spin, and the same laziness that is inconsequential to the outcome of a game may be catastrophic in an orchestrated push to war.

I responded to Ms. Kogod on Twitter before I sat down to write this post. Here is what I said along with a thoughtful comment from a former colleague. His words provide a fitting close to my commentary.

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2 thoughts on “How Journalism is Eating Itself

  1. Michael P. Havens says:

    I believe that when Turner gave up all control of CNN, he lamented and admitted that he helped, “turn the news into entertainment”. He, like many of us, even as “young” as I am, individuals like the late Walter Cronkite. I’ve noticed that even a once respectable ’60 Minutes’ has gotten sloppy in this area. Sorry kids, I’m very sorry that our generation (the 80’s) brought into the world MTV, which in turn ‘churned’ the nauseating stream of reality t.v., which morphed into our most entertaining… news! It would be so funny if it weren’t so sad. Kardashian? Where’s that Pepto Bismol bottle?

    Like

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