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By William Powers

Yes, journalism is under fire like never before, but that's not the whole story.

July 16, 2006|William Powers | William Powers is the media critic for National Journal.

AS YOU'VE PROBABLY noticed, American journalism is going through a rough patch. At the old establishment outlets, circulation and audience numbers are sliding. Newspapers now routinely run shock-horror headlines about themselves, sob-sister tales of shrinking profit margins, rampant job cuts and the exodus of classified ads to Craigslist. In television, the news is just as bleak: The first week in July was "the least-watched week in recorded history for the four biggest broadcast networks," according to the Associated Press.

But the media's crisis isn't just financial. A long string of professional scandals -- everything from plagiarism to fabrication -- have shredded the public standing of the news business, along with its self-image. Twenty years ago, journalism was a revered, downright glamorous calling. Watergate still lingered in the collective memory with its image of reporters as dashing, heroic truth-seekers. Network anchors strode the Earth as gods.

Today, reporters shuttle in and out courtrooms where their own work is under investigation. The most talked-about journalists of the day are not so much the ones who reveal corruption as those who are accused of misdeeds themselves: the Judith Millers, Jayson Blairs and Dan Rathers.

In the latest round of nastiness, several leading newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, have been denounced for publishing stories about a secret government counter-terrorism program. President Bush called the stories "disgraceful," and one congressman has suggested that perhaps the New York Times should be prosecuted under the federal Espionage Act. In Washington, words we tend to associate with the 1950s -- "treason" and "traitor" -- are back with a vengeance, and they're being hurled at journalists.

The media's image has arguably hit a new low, though one hesitates to say that about a business for which fresh nadirs have become a way of life.

The point is, how did we get here? And is there any hope of redemption?

If you listen to the media's ideological critics, the fault lies entirely with the journalists themselves. The left believes that the mainstream outlets are gutless wonders, patsies for the White House. The right says those same outlets are rotten with liberal bias, determined to undermine everything this administration says and does.

Of course, these arguments can't both be true at the same time, but that's beside the point. For ideologues of both stripes, the media are just cannon fodder, a bottomless source of evidence that the other side is taking over the world. For such hopeless Manicheans, it will ever be thus.

But if you really want to understand the media's predicament, you have to look beyond ideology. These problems are all rooted not in substance but structure. We are living through a time of dramatic flux in the world of information. Familiar hierarchies that defined the news business for generations are being dismantled and rearranged before our eyes.

In the second half of the 20th century, the news business was dominated by three powerful television networks and a handful of important newspapers. It was a nice world in many ways -- profitable, predictable, easy to comprehend and navigate. More important, it was the only world we knew. For minds shaped by that era, my mind and probably yours, those institutions were almost indistinguishable from the news. Then, poof, in what felt like an instant (though it was more like a decade), they were gone.

Particularly crucial are two tectonic shifts. First, the media marketplace has become more competitive. Technology has unleased a breathtaking profusion of new media outlets -- cable, blogs, satellite radio, podcasts. Every few months a new option seems to arrive; the latest is YouTube.com, the red-hot website on which people post their own videos. As a result, the familiar old outlets no longer have the huge guaranteed audiences they used to take for granted, or the influence and profit margins that went along with them. What once was unthinkable has come to pass: the powers that be are no longer the only game in town. They are vulnerable.

The second shift is transparency. Thanks partly to technology, and partly to all this competition, news outlets have been forced to open up the sanctum, to reveal how news is stitched together and to answer for their mistakes. The wall that separated (and protected) the media from their audience has become porous. Remember when the letters page was the only way of talking back to the media? Journalists are now on the griddle all the time. Watching them squirm has become a kind of national sport, NASCAR for the brainy set.

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