The Dark Side of Corporate Journalism  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2000

The Dark Side of Corporate Journalism   

Drive-By Journalism: The Assault on Your Need to Know
By Arthur E. Rowse
Common Courage Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Drive-By Journalism: The Assault on Your Need to Know
By Arthur E. Rowse
Common Courage Press
300 pages; $29.95


TODAY'S MEDIA HAVE TUMBLED into the clutches of soulless conglomerates who worship profit and neglect public service. This is bad. It is so bad that we now have a huge new genre of literature documenting and bemoaning the trend.
But is there anything left to say about it?
The answer, as regards "Drive-By Journalism," is a qualified yes. Veteran reporter and critic Arthur Rowse makes at least two valuable contributions here. First, he ably presents the particulars, leaving little doubt the media have turned a dark corner. If you want a thorough one-volume critique of corporate journalism, this is a good choice.
Second, Rowse convincingly demolishes the myth of the liberal media. Though many working reporters and editors tilt left of center, Rowse shows a steady overall drift to the right, especially among pundits and broadcast personalities.
What "Drive-By Journalism" doesn't offer is original thinking about how to combat the problems it identifies. Rowse essentially hopes to shame news executives into better behavior. "This book is a call for help from those who run the news business," he writes. He exhorts journalists "to do what they claim to do and what the Founding Fathers expected them to do: exercise their obligations as well as their freedoms."
Lots of luck, some may respond. What chance do romantic ideals of social responsibility have of penetrating the hearts of the Wall Street crowd? What power can quaint notions of service journalism have in the face of, say, the proposed Time Warner-AOL merger valued at more than $100 billion?
Maybe none. But maybe more than we might think.
In wrestling with the problem, Rowse follows and for the most part credits some distinguished predecessors, notably Ben Bagdikian, whose "The Media Monopoly" is in its sixth edition. The growing company of critics also includes James Fallows, Michael Janeway, Bill Kovach, Nancy Maynard, Robert McChesney, Michael Parenti, Jay Rosen, Tom Rosenstiel and others.
For the most part, miracle remedies remain elusive. Rosen has offered perhaps the most creative counterproposal: civic journalism. But it draws little more than a single semi-dismissive paragraph in "Drive-By Journalism." Clearly, corporate journalism is an easier trend to identify than to arrest.
Rowse at least raises the debate's passion level.
"Today's media complex is drunk with economic and political power," he writes. "Making money seems to come before making sense of the world."
Even his chapter titles seethe: "Corrupting the News with Business Mergers," "Exploiting the First Amendment for Profit," "Censoring the News to Please Business," "Chasing Ratings with Gotcha Journalism."
He submits dozens of examples of conflict of interest, stifled diversity, news staff cutbacks and regulatory rollbacks. He documents an epidemic of kowtowing to big business and advertisers. He criticizes the media for "blurring news and ads" and surrendering editorial independence under a business-side onslaught.
Like many colleagues, Rowse worries about the damage all this is doing to democracy. Citizens now receive a "constant stream of news and comment that has ridiculed and downgraded Washington and government," ranging from the politics-bashing of talk radio to the cynical drumbeat of misleading issue ads.
Like others, he finds a softened "news lite" everywhere, less serious news, more sensationalism, and what he calls "a new level of aggressive reporting that involves badgering vulnerable personalities for embarrassing stories designed to boost audiences."
Rowse ties this trend to what he sees as growing conservative domination of the media, especially in commentary. His figures show columnists Cal Thomas and George Will having the most newspaper clients, Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh having the top radio audiences.
A juggernaut of business-supported "media gadflies, think tanks and associations" now generates relentless news and commentary supporting conservative agendas and assailing any signs of media liberalism. As advertiser and business influence grow, media fear being perceived as liberal and move even further rightward.
Worse still, Rowse contends, "As interest in the news and knowledge of public affairs decline, people inevitably become more vulnerable to demagogues" of a more extreme nature, including those Rowse styles as "right-wing radio pontificators" who are "spreading hatred on the air." To stave off "democracy's funeral," Rowse wants to re-mobilize the constituencies that produced the landmark, post-World War II Hutchins Commission report, which launched the modern social responsibility era.
It is a worthy suggestion, although the market has changed radically in the meantime. For the past half century we have told ourselves that quality sells, that responsible journalism is both proper and profitable. If these beliefs are true, then the marketplace itself--that is, the people--must also weigh in, pronto.

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