Wednesday evening, the ACLU of Indiana hosted one of its “First Wednesday” programs. These are brief, hour and a half presentations focused on current civil liberties issues. This one was titled “Election 2016 and the Media: Free Press or Free for All?”
John Ketzenberger moderated the panel, which consisted of two television reporters, Russ McQuaid and Marc Mullins, the opinion editor of the Indianapolis Star, Tim Swarens, and Mary Beth Schneider, who recently left her job at the Star, where she had been their long-time statehouse reporter.
Rather than focusing on the coverage of the 2016 election, as the title had suggested, the panel mostly bemoaned the challenges of today’s media environment, particularly the impact of digital media on longstanding business models. In response to an audience question (posed by my husband), they did agree that Trump had “played” the press to his advantage for much of the election cycle.
Despite the focus on the challenges posed by the Internet, most of the conversation avoided recognition of the actual state of traditional media. At one point, one of the broadcast representatives did note that media companies had become too dependent upon young reporters with little experience in lieu of (more expensive) seasoned journalists. But there was absolutely no discussion of the constant, punishing newsroom layoffs by Gannett, the loss of reporters like Mary Beth whose work was informed by institutional memory and deep knowledge, and the utter lack of print coverage of state and local government.
At times, Tim Swarens seemed almost delusional. He made the point that newspapers can gain/keep readership if they provide consistent, high-quality journalism (no argument there), then repeatedly and proudly claimed that the current iteration of the Star produces such journalism. There was no acknowledgment of the evisceration of the paper’s news staff, the dwindling ratio of actual news to sports and entertainment coverage, the virtual absence of reporting that used to be routine–stories about school board meetings, City-County Council committee deliberations, agency decisions and the like. (On the rare occasion that there are such reports, they tend to lack the context and background necessary to understand their significance.)
Our local business paper, the Indianapolis Business Journal, actually does a much better job on that front, recognizing that area businesses need to know what their government is doing.
The panel did recognize that the frantic competition for “clicks” and eyeballs too often drives coverage, posing a danger to the accuracy and completeness of stories.
I certainly don’t have a remedy for the very real problems journalism faces in an era of rampant on-line news and propaganda, declining revenues and outmoded business models. But I do know two things: 1) Americans need reputable news sources that tell us not just what we want to know, but what we need to know; and 2) you can’t fix a problem if you refuse to admit you have it.