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Journalism swapped nutritious information for sugar

July 31, 2010|By TIM ROWLAND

Time Magazine blames O.J. Simpson. But for me, from the moment USA Today began dumbing down the news and replacing nutritious information with cotton-candy graphics almost 30 years ago, the events of the past two weeks became inevitable.

USA Today gave rise to color (in my archaic view, the first time a newspaper printed a color photograph we were doomed, because we started putting looks ahead of content) and the 10-inch news story, and with that sacrificed the advantage newsprint had over videotape: Detail, and the knowledge that comes with detail.

Save for a couple of holdouts, almost every newspaper bought in, as the press began listening to outside consultants instead of its own instincts. At every paper I'm aware of, editors essentially told reporters to start doing less work by writing ever-shorter stories.

And boy, did we ever.

Hey, it was no skin off of our teeth. Why ask difficult questions, why spend any time trying to untangle complex issues when none of this detail had a chance of seeing the light of day?

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And all that led to all this: Our stories gave a quick synopsis of the issue. Then we got a quote from one side, got a quote from the other side, called it a day and went home to get our drama from a glowing box -- drama that we used to live out in the real-life course of our jobs.

For America's dailies, the tide changed too fast to react. Once the reading public got a taste of refined sugar in the form of tasty little news briefs, it wasn't about to go back to eating collards. Taking the time to understand an issue, God forbid, was too much like work.

In 1975, Andrew Breitbart's video flameout over Shirley Sherrod never could have happened, Internet or no. A bunch of salty old foul-mouthed dogs in the press would have asked the following: Who is Andrew Breitbart? What rock did he crawl out from under? What's his agenda? Is there money in it? Then they would have gotten hold of Sherrod's full speech, not just selected clips, and analyzed it in full.

After a couple of hours and a little shoe leather, they would have formed one succinct word to describe Andrew Breitbart: "Crackpot." He would have been spit out and never given the time of day in legitimate news circles again.

But today there is no such follow-up, as a general thing. We report both sides all right, but without any information that helps the reader or viewer decide who's right and who's wrong.

Sources close to Tim Rowland charged him this morning with being a heroin junkie.

"He's a heroin junkie," said one insider, who asked not to be named.

"No I'm not," said Rowland.

The End.

This is acceptable for matters of opinion, but not matters of fact.

No one really has any idea whether or not elimination of the Bush tax cuts will, overall, be a good thing or a bad thing. It's a matter of opinion for which there is no definitive answer.

But the idea that health care legislation provided for "death panels" was not a debatable point. The notion that Obama was born in Africa was not a debatable point. The contention that scientists have cooked the climate-change books is not a debatable point.

It didn't, he wasn't and they haven't.

Yet those who wish to dominate the news today are free to toss out a lie of their choosing without fear that it will be exposed for a lie until they've moved on to a new lie, new sound and new fury -- leaving the public with the impression that there may have been some truth to the earlier lie.

Journalism invited this loophole in the system when it jettisoned its investigative reporters. Enlightening prose was replaced by television personalities whose idea of educational discourse was to say the same thing over and over and louder and louder.

Yet just when all seems lost, along comes WikiLeaks, and its release of thousands of documents related to our decade of war in the Middle East.

Had a traditional news reporter dug up this information she would have been awarded a string of journalism prizes a mile long. But because it arose out of a nebulous, whistle-blowing website, the mainstream press is buying into the White House line that it's all "old news" and of no particular relevance.

Were we back in the '70s, a traditional newspaper might have dug up this information on its own and framed the wars as unwinnable wastes of lives and money. But today those same papers facilitate wars and fail to challenge the establishment, even when presented with the evidence (that happened to come to light outside of traditional channels).

We in the press continue to fret over Internet profitability, but the greater threat may be this peer-to-peer dissemination of news. Twice now in the past few days we have swung and missed -- ignoring something that mattered and overblowing something that didn't.

I would never argue that the press is perfect. But for a lot of years it did two things better than any other institution. It decided what was important and what was not important, and it dug until it had the facts. All of them.

Those two mantles are still there for the taking in the unlikely event that journalism should ever decide to return to its roots. Until then all we can do is be thankful that Walter Cronkite didn't live to see the day that the investigative reporters at gossip websites are better than the ones at CBS News.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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