The news media meltdown

Sunday, December 3, 2006

The press is in deep trouble — plagued by legal, economic, technological and professional problems. All of which prompts the question: Will the bad news stalking the mainstream press wind up killing the messenger?

There are plenty of reasons for worry in the past few days’ headlines alone.

The Supreme Court rejected an effort by The New York Times to block a U.S. prosecutor’s access to two reporters’ telephone records, further damaging journalists’ ability to protect confidential sources that have become increasingly important as the government has become increasingly secretive.

In California, a federal court launched an investigation to find out who may have leaked “improper communications” about a grand jury inquiry to a Washington Times reporter writing about military secrecy.

In Washington, a federal magistrate punished The New York Times for failing to identify two FBI sources by ruling that the Times could not use information it had gained from the sources in its defense of a libel case brought by a former government scientist.

There was a time when such news was infrequent and courts were not routinely hostile to the idea of First Amendment protection in such cases. But today, the threats are neither abstract nor trivial. When hauled into court to protect their sources or themselves, journalists can be sent to prison or their employers fined into oblivion.

In the past few years, subpoenas for reporters’ notes, telephone records and sources have increased dramatically. To resist is costly and dangerous.

Joshua Wolf is a San Francisco freelance journalist and blogger who refused to give up uncut video of a violent protest to U.S. prosecutors. He has now served more time in prison than the 85 days former New York Times reporter Judith Miller served last year for refusing to reveal her sources in the Valerie Plame leak case. Two San Francisco Chronicle journalists face up to 18 months in federal prison for protecting their sources in a series about steroid use in Major League Baseball.

A proposed federal shield law designed to help reporters protect their sources in such instances has languished in Congress since 2004. Even if the current version were to pass, significant protections in the original bills have been removed.

Things are not any better on the business front. News organizations are losing readers, ratings and revenue. Some of the nation’s finest newspapers have been sold or are now on the auction block. To stanch financial losses, both print and broadcast newsrooms have cut back coverage and have fired hundreds of professionals who gather, report and present the news.

And if all that were not enough, the American public shows little interest in or sympathy for the press. Worse, the press is losing the public’s trust.

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center shows a sharp decline in trust for even the news organizations ranked highest by respondents who were asked if they believed all or most of what the news organizations reported. From 1998 to 2006, The Wall Street Journal dropped 15 points (41% to 26%). In television news, CNN dropped 14 points (42% to 28%). Local print and TV news suffered similar declines in confidence.

Should Americans really worry whether the news media are in the middle of a meltdown?

Many believe they have access to all the news and information they want, without the major media. The Internet, for example, oozes information. Record numbers of Americans are now posting content online themselves, either on personal Web pages or blogs. Others blithely boast that they get all the news they need from family and friends, or from late-night comics Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Jay Leno.

And while these alternative sources of information make a vital contribution to the national conversation, the problem is that they are largely derivative. For the most part, they live off the facts, enterprise and resources that the mainstream press provides. Most have a different take on professional standards or journalistic goals.

More important, they lack the expertise, the resources and the will to fight the long and expensive legal battles that regularly confront the mainstream press.

Imagine what this nation would be like if there were no major newspapers or network news operations. Or if the press were in a permanent state of economic disarray or government subservience.

The framers of our Constitution recognized — as we sometimes do not — how dependent democracy’s vigor is on the existence of a strong press. They recognized that not all elected officials are created equal when it comes to competence or honesty. So they provided constitutional protection for a press that would keep the citizenry informed and government accountable.

While the First Amendment protects the press from overt government censorship, it can’t fully protect the press from full-time government hostility or part-time citizen apathy. Only Americans who recognize that bad news for the press is worse news for democracy can do that.