Why News is Dying
These are some of the precepts of news since the mid-20th century, and even today we cling to them fervently.
They are also, I think, the primary reasons why news is dying. In the modern world when facts are easy and convenient to come by, it’s not facts listeners need from radio, it’s how to sift those facts into right and wrong, true and false. It’s how to frame those facts in a context that says: We are on your side and looking out for you.
Opening in theaters this month is a terrific new movie from George Clooney, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” It chronicles the real-life conflict between television newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although Murrow is often lionized as the ultimate neutral, balanced journalist, it was his outspoken criticism of McCarthy that ultimately cemented his role in history. Murrow broke with convention and spoke his opinion. For the sake of America, he did what was right, not simply what was factual.
The notion that news is “all about the facts” is largely a contemporary myth. How else to explain the visceral impact of Murrow’s McCarthy attack, or the sea-change symbolized by Walter Cronkite’s conclusion that the war in Vietnam was not winnable, or the pointed and opinionated barbs of legendary newspaperman H.L. Mencken, or the influential fun-poking by a young Benjamin Franklin under the pen-name Silence Dogood, or the frantic, angry, and star-making pleas of Fox News reporter Sheppard Smith, surrounded by the hurt, the dying, and the dead, abandoned and alone, in the wake of hurricane Katrina.
News without soul represents facts without passion. And passionaless facts are available anywhere. It is the force of opinion, the point-of-view that comes from an honest expression of right and wrong, that compels an audience to care and creates emotional force in action.
This is why Jon Stewart is every bit a newsman. And so is Howard Stern. And so is Bill O’Reilly. And so am I. And so, too, can be you.