Giving the Public What It Wants, at a Price

Before texting, emails and tweeting, the high cost of cabling put a premium on an economy of language

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Ted Koppel.JPG In the days before texting and emails and tweeting, the high cost of cabling or
telexing, when messages were priced by the word, put a premium on an economy
of language. Reporters were expected to save their organizations money by employing
the fewest words and the tersest form of cablese. Following a dispute with
an editor, Ernest Hemingway memorably demonstrated the form by tendering his
resignation with this commendable example of economy: "Upshove job asswise!"

A mere five syllables of unmatched force and clarity. Brilliant!
No haiku, but poetry in its own way, and 12 syllables
left to spare.

Let no man, then, accuse me of lacking appreciation for
the impact of brevity when it is married to substance and
clarity. An additional layer of wit, and I practically drool my
admiration. Show me the man or woman capable of repeatedly
displaying a quick, succinct and telling wit and I fall,
helpless, to my knees.

Brevity and substance, however, are no easy match. Speed
is often the enemy of accuracy and clarity. Wit is a scarce
commodity in any format. And it is both the blessing and
curse of our time that media have never been equipped for
greater speed and universal reach than now. Sound, picture,
the printed word; they've been transmitted at the speed of
light for decades. Once, though, the wherewithal to communicate
to a wide audience, instantly, was available only to
a privileged few. Now, the capacity to communicate almost
anywhere at any time rests in the hands of, essentially, everyone.
Is the world a better place because of it? I'm not sure.

The new media clearly enable information to be transmitted
more widely and efficiently than ever before. But all media
are either validated or trivialized by the content of the
messages they convey. The most enduring and arguably the
most influential message of all time was—we are instructed
from childhood on—inscribed by the finger of God onto two
tablets of stone. The singular importance of the message
seemingly reinforced by the unique inconvenience of the
medium. But it is the message that has survived, not the
stones. Media are, after all, only tools for conveying information.
Whether or not a chimpanzee, endlessly pounding
on a typewriter, will eventually produce Macbeth, is beside
the point. The typewriter doesn't care. Pen and paper are indifferent to the words that are inscribed by one on the other.
Twitter is not capable of formulating an agenda.

When we observe our children and grandchildren
exchanging hundreds of text messages a day, it is hard not
to believe that the medium is the message. But we cannot
surrender our responsibility as messengers for the ultimate
quality or content of the message. Media clearly enhance or
degrade the impact of communication, and some messages
are vastly more effective on one medium than another. But in
the final analysis, media are still just tools, inherently neutral
toward the words and images they carry.

I acknowledge the importance of social media in permitting
us to see what might otherwise be concealed from
us. I concede the impact of social media as a networking
instrument of unparalleled speed and efficiency. The Arab
Spring stands as incontrovertible evidence of that. By all the
reasonable rules of simple arithmetic—more eyewitnesses,
more reporters, greater volume of information, multiplied
by enhanced speed of delivery should have produced a better
brand of journalism than any we've ever seen. It hasn't. It isn't.

Many years ago, I offended some of the photojournalists
among my colleagues in making a critical observation
about CNN. Simply pointing a live camera at an unfolding
event, and then transmitting that signal around the world,
was not, I suggested, journalism. It was a breathtaking feat
of technology, but journalism requires a great deal more. It
requires editing, separating the significant from the trivial.
It requires context; an explanation of how what we're seeing
fits into a larger pattern of events. It requires reporting; the
process by which we establish, as best we can within the
limits of deadlines, the veracity of what is being said; sometimes
even what is being seen.

Thirty or forty years ago, I used to tell audiences, with a
mixture of pride and chagrin, that while doctors and lawyers
needed a license to practice, that while everyone needed a license
to drive, or hunt, or fish; nobody needed a license to be a
journalist. Of course, back then, the only way to communicate
with a national audience was to get a job with a national news
magazine, like Time or Newsweek, or with a national broadcasting
network, of which there were only three. So, the opportunity
was more theoretical than real. Still, with the advent of
the Internet, I used to tell college students that the capacity to
communicate globally was now, literally, in their hands.

I never actually expected them to do it.

Well, here it is: the democratization of journalism. And
somewhat belatedly, some of us are recalling that the Founding Fathers weren't all that enamored of pure democracy, when they
were crafting what would become our system of government.

Representational government!—not democracy, for
heaven's sake! The American public, it was feared, was too
likely to be swayed by passions of the moment.

Just imagine if the public was kept informed, round the
clock, of the votes—sometimes even the intentions—of their
congressperson. Imagine if they were exposed, round the clock,
to a partisan harangue designed to inflame their pre-existing
biases. And imagine if voters could then instantly communicate
their displeasure directly to the office of their elected
representative. Well, the consequences to our political system
are too horrible to contemplate. But what was unimaginable in
the 18th century has become commonplace in the 21st. More
than ever before, we live today in a world of instant reaction,
constant judgment and corrosive partisanship.

What's happening in the arena of
journalism is even more perilous.

The broadcast networks which
are licensed by the federal government
on the predicate that they
operate in the "public interest,
convenience and necessity," once
regarded their news divisions
as essential evidence that they
were doing that. Setting up news
bureaus around the world was
expensive, but that's what network television news did: It
covered the world. William Paley, the founder and long-time
chairman of CBS, once told a gathering of his correspondents
and producers not to worry about the cost of news
coverage. "I have Jack Benny to make money," said Paley.

That began to change in 1968. Whereas previously
no one had believed that television news could earn
serious money for the networks, the newsmagazine
60 Minutes gradually changed that perception. Initially,
it was a fairly benign process. But by the 1980s, when the
Reagan administration began the process of widespread deregulation
and federal agencies like the FCC were rendered
essentially toothless, the networks began putting more and
more pressure on their news divisions to operate like any
other profit center.

The networks are, after all, businesses; and, in fairness,
they were experiencing something throughout the l980s and
into the 90s that they'd never known before: outside competition.
Cable television, satellite TV, the Internet. The pie—the
overall number of viewers—remained essentially stable. It
was simply being divided into more slices, with the broadcast
network share dropping. More pressure on that front, less
pressure from the FCC. Gradually, the mandate to give the
public the news that it needed, as an informed electorate,
gave way to the same imperative that governs entertainment
programming. If you're looking for money you need ratings, if
you need ratings you serve the public what it wants.

That sounds so benign, so fundamentally American,
doesn't it? Give the public what it wants. Except that the
public doesn't want to hear all that much about Iraq anymore,
or the rising danger of Iran, or the aftermath of the
Arab Spring, or Pakistan or the economic crises in Greece
and Italy, Ireland and Portugal. What the public wants is
more about Charlie Sheen. Or the Amanda Knox trial in
Italy. And what it really, really wants is more about Casey
Anthony. I know the trial's over, but she's of far greater
interest than the budget defi cit or the war in Afghanistan.
And the public is getting what it wants.

In October of 1996, Rupert Murdoch hired a former top
Republican strategist by the name of Roger Ailes, to establish
the Fox cable and satellite network. These days, Fox is at great
pains to deny that its news channel has any political agenda.
But Murdoch and Ailes are being unnecessarily modest. They
perceived something that the rest of us did not. There were
millions of conservatives in America who considered ABC,
NBC and CBS to be far too liberal. There was an appetite
for news and opinion with a more conservative spin. And
again, the American public got what it wanted. Fox was so
successful that it encouraged NBCUniversal to turn its cable
channel, MSNBC, into a liberal counterweight to Fox. So that
now we have what I like to call "news you can choose." "Tell
us your political bias, and we'll amplify it for you."

Political debate is a wonderful thing; but partisan shrieking is
corrosive and destructive. If we are to find solutions to the challenges
we face, we have to re-learn the virtues of compromise.

If we are going to deal intelligently with the problems we
confront, we need time to pause, to consider and reflect. But
our media, news and social, are intolerant of anything but an
instant response. We are making and receiving endless observations
about the trivial, and believe that we are communicating.
I am left with a feeling of not just great opportunities
missed, but with a sense of actual danger to our republic.

Much of our journalism is a catalogue of what just happened,
without any regard to its impact or importance. We
have a greater capacity to communicate more, further and
faster than ever before. Rather than using information to
illuminate the world, though, we
consume it like fuel. The more we
burn, the faster we go. The faster we
go, the less we see and understand.
We slow down only for the accidents
along the side of the road; and
the biggest accident still lies ahead.

Only, I fear, when that occurs -
only when the combined impact
of too many unemployed, too
many foreclosures, too much debt,
exacerbated by two undeclared and unfunded wars; only
when the human and social costs of a crumbling education
system and a flawed healthcare system leave us wondering
where and why we lost our footing as a nation, will we come
to realize that that what is communicated to us is vastly
more important than the medium by which information
is conveyed.

Some are already posing the question; but one day, most
Americans will point at us in the news media and say: "Why
didn't you tell us? Why did you encourage all that partisan
bile and venom? Why did you feed us all that trivial crap,
when so many terrible things were converging?" And no one
will be happy with the answer. Least of all those of us who offer
it. "What we gave you," we will say, "is what you wanted."

Ted Koppel is a commentator for National Public Radio and
special correspondent to the NBC newsmagazine
Rock Center.