It's late so I don't have time to really flesh this out properly, but I was reading the esteemed Dan Kennedy's MediaNation media-criticism blog, specifically a post about how the town of Nantucket in Massachusetts somewhat inexplicably wanted to suppress details about a severance package a court granted a terminated employee. I'd already commented over there and someone else responded as well, and I had an epiphany of sorts.
I don't think this is really an epiphany, though. I suspect media veterans have been grousing about this for at least five or ten years, probably more like twenty. But hey, I'm not a real journalist - I just play one at my job. :-)
So here it is: it used to be that the media was the fourth estate. Newspapers especially, but radio and TV, too. It was to be feared, and respected. You could use the media to your advantage, but you had to be deferential and you had to treat the media right, or it'd utterly destroy you. But anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to this sort of thing knows that those days are long, long gone.
I mean, we've never lived in a more media-soaked landscape. Where anyone can bring a scandal to the limelight within minutes. We learned a right-wing Christian conservative governor was actually quite forgiving of unwed motherhood and premarital sex...solely because a hateful (and overall pretty stupid) rumor swept the series of tubes within hours of Palin being named McCain's Veep pick.
And yet, the press has never been more whipped and useless than during the eight years of the Bush administration. Used to be if a president stonewalled, lied and bullshitted the press as blatantly as Bush & company have...every newspaper in America would've turned on them so hard, there would've been impeachment hearings back in 2003. Obviously this isn't the case.
I have to think the obvious answer is that the press is so whipped precisely because we live in such a media-soaked landscape. When every yahoo and bonehead can have a blog and reach a national audience...like myself...then the meaning of "media" is diluted to virtually nothing. Can you imagine a President saying "If I've lost Cronkite" about anyone in the media anymore?
Couple that with the other side, that the "big media" have been so thoroughly bought and paid for. How can we truly expect anyone at the New York Times, the big three networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, or any radio news source...yes, even NPR...to keep the big & powerful honest? To do that, you must be willing to attack and destroy them. Assuming you even could destroy one of these mega-billion-dollar corporations (or the government) these days...in virtually every case, the big & powerful are the same people signing your paychecks. As a journalist, you can only get fired so many times before you stop biting the hand that feeds you.
I still consider NPR to be one of the most objective sources of news out there. That's part of the reason why I can manage an NPR station and sleep soundly at night. But it is rather dismaying how NPR so often steadfastly refuses to ever really smack around a news source. To insist on taking the high road at all costs. Nobody's really afraid of NPR...and with 20+ million listeners, if some corporate fatcat isn't afraid of NPR, then who? Who's going to keep them honest?
I'll end this with a call to action: I would like very much to see NPR get more commentators that aren't afraid to rip some jerk a new one. Who ask questions and expect a real answer because if they don't get one, they'll make you sorry you didn't give them one. Perhaps a Daniel Schorr for the modern age. I like Dan a lot, but he's just too genteel...give him some young, fiery interns who're out for blood and train them on how to sharpen their fangs.
Granted, thanks to the FCC making it next to impossible for non-commercial radio stations (as most NPR affiliates are) to endorse/detract against politicians, this task may not be easy. But I don't pay NPR fees because I want to be handed the low-hanging fruit. I pay them because I want them to give me the real story, even if it means it's speckled with a few drops of blood.