Monday, February 21, 2011

SEO: The Epitaph for Journalism

Looking for suitable employment in my area of expertise, communicating important information to the public, I feel defeated – defeated by the evolution of journalism from almost a priestly calling to a puerile exercise in “search engine optimization.’"

Much criticism of the “mainstream media” centers on the notion of “media elites” deciding what is important and then propagating a presumed progressive agenda that “real Americans” are too stupid to figure out. Actually, I don’t have a problem with that at all. I’m not Ivy League, but I always thought I was smarter than the readers I was writing for and was doing them a favor by both reporting concisely and understandably about important government actions and presenting newsworthy material in a way that either explained the unexplainable or even offered a smile or two.
People who entered journalism over the past hundred years or so were actually spawn of the lower classes, had dirt under their fingernails, had an outlook on life representative of the commoner and had a passion for the underdog. Journalists knew what the people wanted because they were of the people. (A common aphorism that is still partially true today was that the definition of news is “what happened to the editor today.”)

Blame it on Watergate, which was broken by guys of no particularly great educational or social standing. After that, there was money and fame to be had. By the time I got to the White House in 1983, the rising stars in print and television came from money and New England schools and identified with the pain of high taxes, the importance of private schools for their kids and who got to play tennis or go to dinner with their presumed equals in governments.

A Brief History of Slime
Television news had already been sold down the river of greed when networks realized they could actually make a profit on it instead of using news as a loss leader. Print journalism had begun becoming professionalized. We student journalists, and later as paid journalists, began calling ourselves professionals. That was always a self-serving myth because there is no specialized training, board exam or licensing requirement. We were, in reality, people having the times of their lives snooping around and making life difficult for those in government, or out, who were unfairly taking advantage of people who did not have our access to information.

So many things have changed that I cannot now bear to watch more than the first five minutes of any newscast, local, network or cable. There is the matter of broadcast outlets hiring people who cannot write and cannot read. How often have you seen the “crawl” at the bottom of the screen, or the chyron describing what you are seeing and notice basic words and names being misspelled? How many times have you heard a ponderous anchor read something and jerk your head up and say, “huh?” How much longer must NBC employ the queen of nonsense, Janet Shamlian, who never fails to impress listeners with her vacuity – and sometimes her bent for the absurd, such as when she said, “A heat wave has a chokehold on the nation’s midsection?”

Why should I or anyone care about a two-bit bank robbery hundreds of miles away? Or a car chase on the other coast? Or a granny slamming a robber with her purse? A tire fire in West Virginia? The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the vids. Matters of real importance are ignored unless they appeared in one of three newspapers that morning. And then the TV thieves pass off the information as their own, with no context whatsoever. Despite a multiplicity of broadcast and internet venues, all news comes from a handful of sources: the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. If local news is big enough to go national, you might add the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

To my further dismay, what is written about or broadcast in most outlets is picked up from and credited to competing organizations. There is no attempt to independently verify much less even cover someone else’s story. The “news” you read on line on portals such as AOL, Yahoo, Huffpo -- and even some of the more prestigious online outlets – is frequently repurposed or merely linked to someone else’s report of a report. This use of someone else’s enterprise used to be a journalistic sin of the first order.

Competition from the Internet has rendered irrelevant even such a venerated organ as the Washington Post, which is so thin you can literally tear the non-ad portion of the Sunday paper in half. The daily version would blow away on your lawn if it weren’t tied up in plastic.

It is an old axiom in newsrooms that sex, violence, children and animals do automatically qualify as news. But, it also had to be local or of some national significance. Nowadays, every commercial television news program wallows in violence, fire and prurience that happens anywhere in the world – so long as video of it exists. Many stories are broadcast as “breaking news” for as long as two days after the event happened.

Online and on the air, there is zero quality control over news judgment. No one asks questions.

Scott Brown and Lara Logan
Sen. Scott Brown pitches a revelation (for his own pecuniary and political interests) that he was sexually molested by a camp counselor although it was never “consummated, so to speak” and although he will not protect other victims by actually prosecuting the offender.

I have never seen Lara Logan’s reporting to know whether it is good or bad, but I sure have heard of her, because this former swimsuit model has a penchant for becoming the story both within journalism and in the bedrooms of other journalists. Yet she becomes a national tragedy for, according to CBS, having been brutally sexually assaulted in Cairo.

Without minimizing the terror and injustice of it all, it appears from other accounts that she was stripped, hit with flagpoles and pinched. This is abominable, but if true, this – along with the headlines generated by former Cosmo nude model Scott Brown – falls short of the disgusting images that were intentionally meant to titillate us.

To whatever degrees Scott Brown and Lara Logan were defiled, why on earth is it any of our business? Because they are both in the business of selling themselves, the media are in the business of selling depravity and we consumers are in the business of lapping it up.

Wheat and Chaff
I, for one, want people smarter and possessing a broader knowledge of the world than I telling me not what I should think but what I should know. That used to be the foundation of any education. It used to be the true value of a newspaper or magazine – the placement of information you would never have thought to look for amid the funnies, sports and lingerie ads.

Not anymore. As I look over media jobs that are available, the requirements do include an ability to multitask at a reasonable level of proficiency with the language, but the prime attributes that news organizations are seeking are (as described in a recent ad for a reporting position with USA Today) experience with “SEO, audience metrics, promoting audience interaction.” On more than one job-listing site, journalism positions are to be found under the category “Industry: e-commerce.”

I am not naïve. Journalism has always been about money – publishers having all of it and reporters having too little of it to live on. But there was always the pretense of providing the public with an honest service and, for the most part, free from the publishers’ rapacious capitalist biases.

Today, with the advent of interactive Web sites and sophisticated metrics, editors and producers are capable of selecting as “news” only what people tell them they want. The old saw is truer than ever: editors separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff.

Yes, I believe – as do all politicians – that the public is stupid and self-destructive beyond measurement and that better-educated and fair-minded people ought to tell us what is important -- which is exactly what happens when we hire hire lawyers, accountants and plumbers.

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