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.