Critic: Profits trump quality in news

by Mark Herman | 10/23/03 5:00am

Well-known media critic Tom Rosenstiel said he was "absolutely" worried about the future of journalism in an interview with The Dartmouth yesterday.

In an era of large media conglomerates and cable news, corporate bottom lines have become more important than the quality of journalism put forth.

Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, studies news outlets and has found alarming results since he began in 1996.

As all three major broadcast news organizations are now small parts of large corporations, Rosenstiel and his colleagues have found that television news programs, especially morning shows, are no longer focused on journalism.

According to Rosenstiel, half of every morning show hour is devoted to advertisements, mostly for items whose sales benefit the show's parent company.

"Each network was more than twice as likely to sell their own products," Rosenstiel said, adding that 90 percent of the times they do, they do not inform viewers.

The state of cable news is just as dismal, as reporting has been replaced by a televised form of talk radio. "Talk is cheap, and it's a lot cheaper than hiring reporters to cover the news," he said.

As a result, the adoption of what Rosenstiel called "the Fox News model" by other cable news networks has been propelled less by audience demand and more by a desire for profit.

The highest rated cable news program is the Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, which attracts 2 million viewers.

"It's a very small number of viewers," Rosenstiel said. "You can only do that if a show is cheap to produce."

The insufficient reporting of the television news media has contributed to a public that is not particularly well-informed.

"We're awash in opinion in this country, but we don't have a lot of knowledge," Rosenstiel said.

Rosenstiel has found more positive results in his study of print journalism. Newspapers are "more of a mixed bag," he said, with several, including the New York Times, engaged in quality reporting.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is an initiative by journalists to identify the values and raise the standards of journalism. It is associated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

"We're really just trying to understand the press," Rosenstiel said of the organization's work.

Among other studies, the Project has analyzed the reporting of the war in Iraq and the quality of local television news stations. They have also identified certain values that journalism should continue to espouse even as the face of the media business is changing.

"Do those values survive inside a company like Disney that is primarily an entertainment company?" Rosenstiel said, as an example of questions his organization asks.

The Project, however, does not provide the answers to those questions or solutions to the problems it identifies.

Still, despite this and the declining confidence Americans have in their news media, Rosenstiel and his colleagues have made an impact on a "microlevel," he said, in newsrooms whose members they have trained or in local television news stations that have responded to their surveys by increasing quality.

Rosenstiel is conducting a series of seminars and lectures on campus this week as part of the Montgomery Endowment's series on truth and ethics in journalism.

Of his career, Rosenstiel said he "sort of wandered into press criticism by accident:" while working for the Los Angeles Times, he was assigned the beat of covering the press.

Rosenstiel cultivated his interest in journalism during his high school years when his school was involved in a controversial busing program. This "racial controversy," he said, encouraged many students to become involved in his high school newspaper.

In fact, Rosenstiel was recruited to begin writing by an older student, Mike McCurry, who later became President Bill Clinton's press secretary.

"Somewhere in college, he took a wrong turn and joined the wrong team -- he became a politician," Rosenstiel said.