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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Should the government get into the news business?

I can't believe I'm even asking that question, but the grotesque over-coverage of the Michael Jackson* story has me really wondering.

The 24 hour news channels completely lost their minds about this story. It's as if there has been no other news for the past week -- you literally couldn't find out what's going on in the world by turning on the news channels for 55 minutes out of every 60. And the network news is so bare-bones to begin with, when you start doing five-minute lead Michael Jackson stories, you're left with, what, 15 minutes for everything else -- and everything else always includes human interest and other uninformative filler.**

And the thing is, I really believe that news matters -- that an informed public is necessary for a democracy to work.

The commercial news channels are run like any other business trying to sell something -- they put out the cheapest product they can that they feel people will consume, and it's far, far cheaper to send a few crews to LA for a week than to send a lot of crews to a lot of different places for that same week. The eyeball-catching power of a major celebrity death means big returns for little investment.

So one obvious question is, who's at fault, the consumer who buys the crap or the producer who makes it? When I thought about it that way I realized you could compare it to other businesses, like, say, mortgage lending. People should definitely take responsibility for their own finances, do their homework, and not borrow money they aren't likely to be able to repay. But if experience shows that many consumers can't be trusted to do that, and lenders certainly can't be trusted to protect people from themselves, I believe that for the good of the economy as a whole, the government should build in regulations that prevent people from making terrible mistakes.

But not every industry is the same. Take food. People should be responsible for eating healthy foods. The health problems caused by bad eating habits end up putting a strain on the medical system and a financial burden on society as a whole, not to mention that it seems immoral not to save lives. But on the other hand, it seems  like an unreasonable infringement on personal freedom to pass laws that forbid people from eating too many fast-food meals in a week, or to ration cake, or whatever. So in that case, the government mandates that certain information be provided to make it easier for people to make good choices, and, in the case of kids in taxpayer-funded situations (aka public school), they actually regulate the food itself. This all seems reasonable to me, too, though when I really think about it, it's hard to come up with a logical defense for treating money and food differently. I need to think about that some more.

But anyway, news. I believe that it's detrimental to a democratic society to have an uninformed population, but I don't think it's practical to issue required reading lists and subject the public to pop quizzes. But there does need to be a way to make it as easy as possible for the public to access information about politics, world events, etc. Just as the free market can't be relied upon to make healthy eating or responsible borrowing easier, experience indicates that it can't be relied upon to provide the information the public needs to remain well informed. 

So -- does the government step in? My first reaction is that this is a terrible idea -- that government-provided or regulated news is the antithesis of the free flow of information in a free society. But then there's the BBC -- it's damn hard to argue with the BBC. I mean, they're not perfect, but I listen to the World Service many mornings, and I learn more in a week about what's going on around the world than I would in a year of CNN. Of course, that's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, because 24 hour news channels have so much time to fill that, when you tune in at a random hour, you're not necessarily getting the big picture -- and then of course there's also the fact that cable news has completely blurred the line between opinion and news, so that subjectivity colors actual reporting. One hour of World Service is designed to give you everything the editors consider to be most important at that moment in time, with an effort to present a balanced, objective story. Imperfect, certainly, but much better than the alternative. (I believe that the journalistic values of balance and objectivity, while unattainable ideals, are much better than the alternative -- the abandonment of all attempts to be objective.)

I guess I really do blame consumers for gobbling up stupid news hour after hour, but I also believe that we've reached the point where the public is completely uneducated about WHY they need to know other stuff. It's hard to recognize that you're not making informed decisions when you don't even know what information is out there. The commercial news media are failing to inform, and I don't believe the internet has provided a viable alternative because of problems like a lack of news-gathering resources, the unreliable credibility of sources, and lack of general standards.

It still really rubs me the wrong way to say that the government should tell news media what kinds of information they have to provide, let alone that the government should get into the news business itself. I may be a leftie who hates all the right-wing "government is evil" rhetoric, but I'm not crazy enough to believe the government is good at telling the truth, either. OTOH, why is news not like food or money? It's something we all need, and if we do it wrong, democratic society falls apart. The government can provide funding with a set of general outlines for the news product to be produced, but also with strict rules about not ever interfering in the reporting itself. The funding would free news gathering agencies from the commercial decisions that drive them to do 24/7 Michael Jackson coverage, but the regulatory limits would prevent the authorities from controlling the specific information produced. Wouldn't it?

Tough questions.

* Full disclosure: I think MJ was creepy and his music is well-produced, catchy pop. I think Thriller is a brilliant video, I cringe every time someone compares MJ to John Lennon, I wouldn't have left my kids alone with the guy for all the money in LA, and I think it's sad the guy never got the help he probably needed. I think it's cool that white kids liked his music, but I also think it's bizarre to laud him for breaking down racial barriers without taking note of the bizarre cosmetic surgery and the terrible message that sent.

** I'm a great defender of newspapers, but I'm not even bothering to bring them into this because a) I don't believe you can get enough people to read them, and b) they're so hard up for cash that they've all gone down the crapper anyway.