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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

A Day in the Life   

A topsy-turvy time for the news media


By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

I've mentioned before that my local paper is the Washington Post. I'm fortunate that way, as there's always a lot to read in it. That was especially the case one mid-June morning.

Page one heralded the surprising across-the-board acquittal of Michael Jackson on charges of child molestation and related conspiracy counts. Inside the Style section, meanwhile, tart-tongued TV columnist Lisa de Moraes poked fun at the sideways sagacity of the lawyerly cable pundits, most of whom predicted the King of Perp would be found guilty of at least some of the charges.

The Business lead reported that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a major victory for opponents of media consolidation, decided to let stand a lower court ruling that keeps in place major restrictions on cross-ownership.

The Style front featured a story about Nielsen's new "people meters," and how early results suggest that even fewer people are watching local newscasts than had been thought.

And, finally, inside Style, there was a fascinating little piece on "Who's a journalist?" Turns out the answer, in the public's estimation, is more likely Bill O'Reilly than Bob Woodward.

On the face of it, these stories don't have much in common. But reading them, one after the other, it occurred to me that for journalists there is a sobering common denominator. In each instance, some aspect of our conventional wisdom got stood on its head.

Consider the Jackson case. The testimony seemed to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt what we already knew that Jacko is one weird and troubled dude. But did it prove he's a pedophile? All those tawdry Neverland revelations, dutifully splashed for months all over the print and electronic tabloids, certainly suggested as much. The high "ick" factor led a lot of people to assume Jackson's guilt, even the "expert" lawyers and media consultants who should know better.

But if court-watching tells us anything, it's that juries defy prediction. For all the yammering, where Michael Jackson's fate was concerned, only 12 people had opinions that mattered, and they weren't talking until after the trial. And by then, the media's hired guns were looking foolish again by jumping to conclusions and getting it wrong.

Of course, there's a lot of that going around. Some major media companies assumed that Joe Sixpack wouldn't care about such big-business matters as consolidation of news properties in individual markets. Indeed, they counted on that indifference as they lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to relax longstanding rules against monopoly ownership. But when the FCC finally caved, a funny thing happened millions of regular folks bombed the FCC and Congress with complaints. (See "News Blackout," December 2003/January 2004.) Turns out they know consolidation is bad for news, and for news consumers. And despite the Supreme Court ruling, it's a safe bet those same millions of average folks are still keeping a wary eye on the FCC.

The average person's behavior is not what we think in the living room either, apparently. As Nielsen tries to bring its monitoring of TV viewership into the 21st century, the early test results of its automated "people meters" are bad for TV news. Though we're watching more television generally than the old diaries indicate, fewer of us are watching local news. In the Washington area, viewership of local news programs may be as much as one-third lower than once believed. Talk about a stormy five-day forecast.

That finding would jibe with recent surveys indicating that people are getting their news from lots of untraditional places these days. In the same vein, a recent Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found that quite a few more civilians consider Rush Limbaugh a journalist than, say, George Will. Doubtless some of this can be explained by simple name recognition, but just as surely it speaks to a reordering in the public mind about what constitutes "news," and where it comes from.

What does it all mean? I don't know, but maybe we should start undoing what comes naturally.

* * *

I got to know Gene Miller when I worked at the Miami Herald in the early '80s. Throughout his career Gene took enough people under his wing to fill a C130. He gravitated to me in part because I was the only other Herald journalist who hailed from Evansville, Indiana. Indeed, it might be said Gene and I had a lot in common well, except for those two Pulitzers of his and the fact that I believed in subordinate clauses and he didn't. Gene, who died recently after a long wrestle with cancer, was a great old-school character, and it was typical of him that he wrote his own obituary and that it was mordantly funny. "Excellent health," he noted, "except for a fatal disease."

It was easy to like Gene for many reasons, but one was that his operating credo was refreshingly basic: "There is no substitute for news." There still isn't.