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Acting like fools has the potential to save journalism

November 27, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

The Thanksgiving weekend is not a time for serious commentary, so in that spirit I will bestow my blessings on the media industry, which has been having a rough go of it of late.

No one needs a recap of the troubles: Declining circulation, bankruptcies, major staffing cuts, loss of readers and viewers to other entertainment, and a general lack of interest in what we used to call news.

Professional scowlers like to say the media are suffering from a number of self-inflicted wounds. I would maintain that media are suffering from a number of other-people-inflicted wounds.

For example, how are we supposed to market our product to people whose line of curiosity ends at the daily commute and the amount of rain we're going to get from the most recent "storm event"?

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So we have been forced to lower our common denominator to stuff that people will be able to process without investing anything resembling intellectual capital.

That leads to such penetrating, journalistic statements as this, culled from an actual Washington, D.C., news station report: "We now take you LIVE to the scene of the sinkhole."

Does anyone think about this stuff before they pipe it into the TelePrompTer? Like what was the sinkhole supposed to do, rise up and start taming lions?

Yet it's what people care about, so that's what matters.

Or take this report from the scene of a shooting, which might be my all-time favorite: "This is where the teenager was shot three times, but what I want you to pay attention to is over here (camera pans right), where traffic is backed up all the way to the I-395 off ramp ..."

Yes, we could do an in-depth investigation on the roots of inner-city violence, but why bother when the only thing viewers care about is whether the requisite blood-mopping is going to cause them to be 10 minutes late to the gym?

The second problem the media face is the quality of people that we are forced to report on. Believe you me, we would like to find a source that could say something more memorable about the tornado than "sounded just like a freight train a comin'," but no one ever seems to step up.

We have people who have abjectly bombed at their given pursuits, but all that does is qualify them to be expert commentators in the fields of their failings. Matt Millen proved he knows nothing about running a football team. Karl Rove proved he knows nothing about running a country. Jim Cramer proved he knows nothing about high-risk finance. So who do we turn to for expert advice on football, politics and the markets? Matt Millen, Karl Rove and Jim Cramer.

But commentary is all in good fun. Scarier is the thought that few of the people in power, from Wall Street to Congress, from TEA parties to ACORN, are worth quoting.

As journalists, we have been taught not to interfere. People say what they say and we write it all down, whether it's a politician driven by campaign contributions, a businessman driven by greed or a "scientist" in the employ of Exxon Mobil.

Enough, I say. If they are going to treat us like fools, it's about time we started acting like fools.

If nothing else, it has the potential to save journalism.

Look at what's rapidly becoming our three most popular sources of current-events information - "The Daily Show," YouTube and The Onion. It's public acknowledgment of the problem and a workable course of action. If the established powers are not going to be serious with us, we're not going to be serious with them.

Who do the inane cable-network blatherers fear more, a journalist or Jon Stewart? Who does the president fear more, a journalist or an Onion headline that reads, "Obama: Health Care Plan Would Give Seniors Right To Choose How They Are Killed." Who does a global banking executive fear more, a journalist or the thought that some goober will do a YouTube mini-documentary on how he was scammed on his credit card?

It's high time that "serious" journalists joined in the fun. Instead of newspapers, we should publish news-based papers, where reporters would be at liberty to write about, and make fun of, all the garbage that the powers that be are trying to get away with. For example, remember all the serious stories featuring Wall Street insiders fretting that salary caps would drive "talent" away from troubled banks? The editor should have the liberty to place a note above the story saying, "Warning: Hogwash; Do Not Read."

The paradigm is hard to ignore - the funnier NBC news anchor Brian Williams has gotten, the more people have started to watch. Perhaps he realizes that if they're not going to be serious with us, we see no reason to be serious with them.

It sounds harsh, but it's the only way they'll learn. And it might be the only way we survive.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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