Warp Speed

Warp Speed

One of the scholars/practitioners that I cited in my graduate research regarding the news media and society was Bill Kovach, the former editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and co-author of the book Warp Speed, American in the Age of Mixed Media. The book, written with Tom Rosenstiel, examines the media’s performance during President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. I think it’s a relevant read today. At the time I was writing my thesis, Kovach and Rosenstiel gave a speech about different periods in American history when journalism was thought to be in peril. I used the speech; here is an excerpt from my thesis.

The second significant period of sensationalism Rosenstiel mentioned in his speech, such as that which existed during the 1920s, simply came to an end in the Great Depression. The political and economic climate of the time would not support journalism that wasn’t serious in intent, he said. In 1999, Rosenstiel concluded that perhaps such a serious political or economic crisis might prove useful for the condition of American journalism, proving that there remains a strong connection between how the press functions and how the democracy functions.

The irony is that in 2003 we [entered] a period where both [were] present. After the September 11 tragedy news was as popular as ever. Journalists received high marks as well, for producing serious stories with hard-hitting coverage. And their efforts did not go unrewarded. Yet unlike serious times past, the new journalism model has not remained in place.

According to survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, cited in the November 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “the favorable glow from the media’s post-Sept. 11 performance “had completely disappeared” in barely one year. “The public’s grades for news organizations have tumbled on measures ranging from professionalism and patriotism to compassion and morality,” said the report. “Just 49 percent think news organizations are highly professional, down from 73 percent in November [2001]. If anything, the news media’s rating for professionalism is now a bit lower than it was in early September [2001], shortly before the terrorist attacks (54 percent). (“News” 45)

Worst of all for such journalism outlets is that the formula is starting to wane. According to Nielsen Media Research, television viewers are beginning to tune out. In the summer 2003, when the California governorship hung in the balance, and Kobe Bryant stood accused of sexual assault (two stories that seem to earn the single-story journalism moniker), the total evening news audience on the broadcast networks “has been lower this summer than it was during the summer of 2001, when the pressing stories of the day were shark attacks and Chandra A. Levy,” said the August 11, 2003, issue of the New York Times. According to the Nielsen research, in late June the CBS Evening News had one of its least-watched weeks for its nightly news report in at least a decade, and perhaps its history. The audience of ABC was down nearly 600,000 from the previous year in 2002 (Rutenberg).

And the trends continue. Watered-down network news continues to loose its share. Yet unlike Sept. 11, during the first 16 days of the recent Iraq war, any initial audience gains proceeded to vanish. CBS and ABC lost a combined 2 million viewers, during a high news period that traditionally gains viewers (Carter). Those cable networks treating the story as another round-the-clock melodrama, MSNBC, CNN and Fox have seen viewer increases of 350 percent, 300 percent and 300 percent respectively (Carter). Granted the total audience of the three networks compared to the top three cable networks is a respective 28 million to 7.3 million, it remains to be seen whether cable outlets can maintain any single-story momentum once the war is over.

Since writing those words in my thesis, new data has become available. As I mentioned in other posts on this site, the cable stations have since seen their viewership increases stall. Yet news, for business sake, continues to be a large profit center for major media companies. When do we reach the breaking point?