Of the many institutions that failed us during this decade of American decline, none took the face-first diver into a freshly laid steamer like journalism. The once critical Fourth Estate has not suffered post-modernity well, and its decay only accelerated as humanity turned the corner of another millennium of civilization. The sensationalism and spectacle for which it was derided during the celebrity trials and presidential impeachment of the Nineties became the only way to sell newspapers and 30 second spots. The news business became one OJ trial after another where headlines read like car dealership billboards, stories bloated with corporate spin and the street-savvy, careful insight of the American journalist was replaced by the doe-eyed, photogenics of the beauty-pageant runnerup communications major fresh from community college.
How the media handled the medium can bear much of the blame. Information technology made the business of distributing information so cheap and easy, the role of the international conglomerate as gatekeeper became obsolete. A middling deal attorney could become a tech business kingmaker with a ten dollar hosting plan, open source blogging software and a clever domain name. Two Dutch kids with a Twitter account developed the “news wire service for the 21st century” out of their dorm. Even your humble author was able to cobble together a few friends, sneak some work out of a graphic designer and get a platform reaching tens of thousands for less than $500. Where the audiences flocked in the Nineties to websites that generated compelling content, more came after the turn of the century to those that served as platforms for users to create their own. The concept of the “broadcast network” – a medium that delivered content to audiences numbering in million - now applied to several hundred companies instead of a dozen. Anyone could “go viral” with a piece of reporting and reach millions and expect to get picked up by one of the traditional outlets within a few days. While information distribution became effortless, verifying it became an impossible game of whack-a-mole.
With the lower barrier of entry came competition, generating a demand entirely new to the consumers of news: flavor. Discussions around water coolers and dinner tables was less about what the news was than where those in the discussion had received. “Oh, I heard that on NPR/CNN/MSNBC/Fox and Friends/Hannity/Olbermann/Beck/Maddow/HuffPo/TPM/RCP” became the standard response to the news scoop of the day. Running on half the budget of the pioneer of 24-hour news, the success of Fox News at the beginning of the decade spawned the overt marketing of bias in the reporting of news. The taglines read “fair and balanced” and “a fuller spectrum,” but the marketing message always spoke differently. Suddenly it was less about being the leading news source and more being the leading news source with a particular demographic. This decade marked the final victory of advertising over the newsroom; where the stories were all the same, but all packaged differently.
Accessibility was not the only culprit of journalism’s decline. The technology for traditional broadcasting was changing as well. High definition television, followed quickly by full high definition, completely changed the appearance of news anchors. Looking good enough for television went from a twenty minute session with a skilled makeup artist to a two hundred grand investment in a leading plastic surgeon. Walter Cronkite would not survive the age of HD – old, experience reporters were out, and young, telegenic talking heads were in. Kelly O’Donnell could no longer hide her pack-a-day habit with foundation and Andrea Mitchell only looks slightly less decayed than her ancient husband. The Dan Rathers gave way to the Katie Courics – the harsh realities of broadcasting at near-real resolution made faces more important than the brains behind them.
And once bias became a selling point and the finest minds took a backseat to the fairest skinned, the product began to show it. We opened the decade with the colossal failure of the 2000 election, where premature announcements plunged the entire country into unprecedented month-long uncertainty over whom its next leader would be. The next year those same Americans would spend the fretful morning hearing the conspiracy theories of every two-star crackpot in every producer’s rolodex while watching planes crash into the World Trade Center over and over and over – no more informed than at the beginning of the crisis but a shitload more scared.
The breaking news rush to speculation became such an expected consequence of this new era of journalism that an entirely new class of celebrity was born. “Famous for being famous” was now something one could be in America. No longer did an American have to produce a record or write a book or win a championship or campaign for public office or land an airplane in a river to become famous. Now all one who wanted to be famous had to do was do something really stupid.
Celebrity was now attainable through news coverage alone. One could now have another eight kids without the ability to care for them and get a reality show development deal. One could hide his son in the attic, launch a balloon, call the TV station and become a Top Ten story of the year. Even just getting naked on your MySpace page could get one at least to the C-list in this new America. And if one was just hot and rich, one could get an invitation to the Oscars every year.
For the enormous advances of technology and process that made news something you found out about in minutes instead of days, American journalism retreated to its yellow beginnings. The news business, where it still remained, became less about the story and more about the lead-in.
This decade will not be written in history as the one where American journalism died, but it will be marked as were it started dying – the twilight of the most important instrument of democracy.