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Monday, April 9, 2012

Mike Wallace Is Dead & So Is The News Media


Mike Wallace, one of the most significant media personalities of the last half-century, died at the age of 93.  It’s not a surprise that he died.  It’s also not a surprise for those who remember his body of work to praise him and reflect fondly on his journalistic style for CBS News and for 60 Minutes.  He was a legend, an institution, a real pursuer of truth with a strategic, prosecutorial, interrogative style of interviewing that should be studied by today’s journalism students. 

But Wallace is like a foreign currency in today’s glut of pseudo media.  The exchange rate is not clear because the media of today lacks an easy way to measure the value of Wallace.  Today, people look at the number of YouTube viewings, Web site hits, and Twitter followers.  They look at TV as old media and as media that is no longer significant or dictating today’s conversation. 

But there was a time when 60 Minutes ruled the news media landscape.  And Wallace was its poster boy for a brand of journalism that looked hard at the facts, that researched and reviewed them, that asked tough questions of major people, that used its influence and ratings for good—to inform the public and to use investigative journalism to not only uncover wrongdoings, but to correct them and to help us understand the complex world around us.

His passing makes me wonder aloud:

·         Who is a tough interviewer these days?
·         Who reports real news rather than analyzing it?
·         Who reports real issues rather than honoring celebrities?
·         How much news comes in a Tweet?

As a practitioner of the art of public relations, as a news junkie, and as a concerned citizen, I’m embarrassed by, angered over, and disgusted with the low level of a shrinking quality media.  Here’s my scorecard of things:

1.      The news media is diluted.  There are few media outlets that draw a big audience, listenership, and readership.  Their service is diminished against an increasing amount of choices.

2.      Not all media outlets are equal.  The quality goes down remarkably once you get past a few of the giants—all of whom are not as big as they used to be.

3.      The influence of the major media outlets is decreasing.

4.      Citizen journalism is creating a void, not filling one.  We get preoccupied in watching amateur video and blog rants—which distract us from focusing on the important issues.  In fact, social networking media merely trivializes things, rather than report on real news in a serious and useful way. 

Don’t get me wrong, everything has tradeoffs and because of smartphones, social networking media, and the internet, our society is growing, learning, and communicating at a more significant pace than any prior generation.  But if we don’t act soon, the chatter will just be media spam and not much of substance. 

We live in a world where tabloid journalism is in the mainstream.  Many of us enjoy when the news reported like The New York Post: gossip columns, good sports coverage, a few oddball stories, catchy headline, a picture of a half-naked woman, and an expose of some scandalous figure.  But who is doing real reporting—digging for stories, challenging authority, shaking up the status quo, seeking truth, and hoping to create a dialogue, controversy, and an awareness to the parts of life few of us give thought to?

I’m tired of advocacy journalism.  Why should Fox immediately report news through right-wing glasses or MSNBC filter it’s news through a liberal lens?  When did using the same three commentators to debate tired issues or stories with few facts become the norm?  The news is no longer news.  It’s snooze.  It’s sleaze.  It’s infotainment.

I weep not only for the loss of Mike Wallace today, but for the reminder that with the passing of his kind is the loss of our media.  The PR industry is winning over the world of journalism.  I’m afraid one cannot trust the media, if not for political and commercial reasons, but because it is inept.  It plays to the minds of the masses that fixate on nonsense.  The news media may be corrupt—whomever owns it dictates its editorial content/slant—but what really poses a danger to the media is itself.  It keeps thinking it has to dumb down to the YouTube generation rather than elevate us to something of intelligence and usefulness.    

Only about 20% of the U.S. adult population has a 4-year college degree.  That includes crappy schools with kids who barely maintained a C-average.  It includes people who majored in gym.  And still, that means 80% didn’t get a diploma.  No wonder why our news media caters to the 80%.

But doesn’t the 80% want substance, want truth discovered, want to be informed, want to have assumptions challenged and thoughts provoked?  Who doesn’t need a reprieve from surfing though Angry Birds, tweets from Lady Gaga, postings from your closest 3000 Facebook friends?  How about discussing a real issue?

Maybe the public is tired of confronting bad news, of discussing issues that can’t be settled, of delving into problems that lack simple or painless solutions.  But we can’t just give up—can we?

I feel like the astronomers who scan the galaxy seeking signs of life or deep sea divers exploring the depths of the ocean for pirate treasure.  We are driven to question, to reach out, to search for the unknowable, unobtainable, unfathomable.  I search for news media that can inform, enlighten and inspire.

Will the public demand such a news media as well?  Will we finally go on a media diet and purge ourselves of the crap that fills our minds and takes our attention away from life and death, purpose and passion, curiosity and humanity?

We don’t all have to watch PBS and BBC all the time or only read The New York Times and Business Week.  But we can’t let the news media establishment just turn its back on us—even if society had abandoned serious media outlets in droves long ago.

Goodbye Mike Wallace.  You represented the very best of the news media when it was at its peak.  On your tombstone it may be added, “He shed a light on the parts of our world that were covered in darkness; now the media covers us in darkness.” 

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, a leading book publicity firm. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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