The Archive

Is our Free Press Being Dumbed Down? 

... MIT Editor Addresses Quality of the News

by John S. Driscoll

Former Melrosian John S. Driscoll, retired editor of the Boston Globe and now Editor in Residence at MIT's prestigious Media Lab, questioned the quality of news being delivered into American homes recently, speaking at a public forum at the Milano Center in Melrose.

Of significance were his comments about the transformation of what traditionally has been a family- or privately owned media into a corporate system where news value succumbs to profit margins. The following is the text of Mr. Driscoll's prepared lecture. A second section dealing with a lengthy question and answer period will be published shortly.

The program was part of a monthly series sponsored by the Council On Aging.

"In this era of giving confessions, I must admit that the rather awkward title of this talk is pretty dumb. It was sort of an off-the-top-of-the-head response to a request for a title.

But since then... President Clinton and the Starr report have given new meaning to the word dumb.

Nevertheless, I consider the topic I have chosen to be of serious importance to everyone in this room and in this country.

Is our free press being dumbed down? And -- to set the record straight-- I'm not just talking about the Melrose Free Press.

Moving right along...

At a time when the general public is becoming smarter in this country could it be that the press is becoming dumber?

My answer to that is: no and yes.

I say no, because the people who own and work for news organizations are smarter than ever.

I say yes, because the content they are serving up to you is indeed being dumbed down.

Therefore we would have to conclude .... that the media s smart to be dumb.

What am I talking about here? First of all, I should define the press as being all forms of media----newspapers, radio, television and the internet.

Although I will confine most of my comments to newspapers----since that's what I know best ----they are all guilty to one extent or another And there are precious few news companies that are exceptions.

Let me further define my terms by explaining what I mean by dumbing down.

It is a process by which you are being served up a preponderance of pandering prose and poetry pictures.

The decision makers think they should give you more of what you want rather than what you need.

And the big problem with that approach is that they are just plain misinterpreting what the public wants.

They are reaching for the lowest common denominator type of story. It's as though they were making off to be legitimate theater by showing you a soap opera.

This morning's Wall Street Journal provided further evidence that the media is misinterpreting the intelligence of the audience.

A Page One story reported that "Americans are buying serious books in dizzying numbers", they're flocking to the theater and to movies based on classic dramas, they are turning to white-cloth restaurants instead of fast-food outlets, etc

The Journal concludes that over the last decade (quote) "the lowest common denominator of American culture is rising rapidly "(unquote).

I bet you didn't even know how smart you are.


Meanwhile, taking the lead from television, all of the media are dwelling on the sensational. That means more crime and violence, more sex and more entertainment news.

A perfect example right here in Boston is Channel 7. Once they started the hyped up crime and grime approach, the other local channels followed suit.

What's behind all I this is "bottom-line journalism". The wall between the business side of news companies and the newsroom is quickly coming down.

What's behind "bottom-line Journalism" is the loss of independent, often family-owned enterprises that are being replaced by giant, faceless corporations.

Ben Bagdikian's first edition of a book called Media Monopoly came out in 1984. Bagdikian is a former Washington Post editor who became dean of the journalism graduate school at the University of California in Berkeley.

In that book he stated that 50 corporations controlled more than half of all media outlets in this country.

The book's fifth edition came out in 1997. Bagdikian wrote that "the number of media corporations with dominant power in society was now closer to 10." From 50 to 10.

With this ownership concentration comes corporate-formula journalism It's pretty bland stuff. And it doesn't take as many reporters or other news personnel to produce.

Did you read earlier this week that CBS News and CNN are talking about combining some of their news resources? Poor CBS! Poor CNN! They're so poor

One friend of mine calls today's approach to news "cotton candy journalism". His name is Jim Rissey, who won two Pulitzer Prizes as a reporter and now runs a journalism program at Stanford University. He's a first-rate professional and a first-rate person.

Jim defines "cotton candy journalism" as being "bright, attractive and pleasantly sweet, yet so devoid of substance.... that it dissolves as soon in you bit into it."

You think he's exaggerating?

A study was done recently of almost 4000 news reports.... these were reports on network news, in major newspapers and in weekly news magazines in the years 1977, 1987 and 1997. It showed that straight news declined from 52% to 31%.

Features-----having to do with celebrities, human interest and scandal -- increased from 15% to 43%.

Entertaining news is in; we are reading less and less about important issues. The dean of USC says, "This is less true of the daily newspapers, but with more and more people getting their news from the other media, you probably have a movement toward a less well-informed electorate".

Some of you may have seen a special advertising section that was run in the New York Times earlier this week. In it was a piece by Nancy Hicks Maynard, a respected journalist who used to run the Oakland Tribune with her late husband, Bob Maynard.

Here's what Nancy wrote:

"Although survey after survey concludes that most Americans get their news primarily from television ---- the surveys do not capture the fact that most television sections and networks get their news from newspapers --- often without attribution".

An exception to the rule when it comes to television is a news operation right in our backyard called New England Cable News.

The person who runs that operation has been a journalist in Boston since 1967. His name is Phil Balboni, a straight shooter and a straight talker.

He's the first to admit that ratings are important, but he quickly adds: "The problem is that the business imperatives have today become so dominant that they drown out virtually all other considerations. They have become the determinant of content and direction, and that is simply wrong for the news".

Warming up to my subject, Balboni asks, "Why do you think all the news looks the same? Because everyone is afraid that too much focus on purely journalistic concerns, or for that matter on real innovation in producing news, would hurt ratings, which in turn would hurt revenue and profitability.

"It takes exceptional courage to sail against the tide. That's why we have so few true news leaders today. Instead we have decent men and women who live mostly comfortable lives of strangled aspiration, accepting the status quo for which they see no real alternative."

However --- before we let newspapers off the hook, let me convey some interesting statistics from a book by Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune. He says that in the 1960s and 1970s some companies spent 15 to 20 percent of their revenues on news gathering. By 1990 that expenditure was down to 9% --- maybe lower.

An outside perspective is provided by The Economist. In its July issue, the following point was made:

"The news business used to be a craft, but now it has turned into a manufacturing operation. Look at the quality of NBC's output: over the past two years it has gone up from 3 hours of television news a day to 27 hours a day, plus a constantly updated website. And that is with only a few extra reporters. Like the next factory owner, NBC has thought hard about how to screw more output from its workers."

And finally, let me quote one other person who doesn't mince words on this topic. He's Pete Hamill, a well-known New York journalist, who decries the rise in meddling by many publishers:

"They meddle most directly by haranguing top editors about stories, the play of those stories and even the writing style. They have never been reporters, have never stood for hours in the rain waiting for a detective to tell them what really happened.

"They know nothing about the city where the paper is published or the ordinary people who live in that city, but they are convinced they know more than the talent in the city room."


And so, you might rightfully ask, what about the Boston

Having given them the better part of 40 years of my life, I can't claim to be totally objective. Let me say that I worked under two publishers who were the grandson and great grandson of the founding publisher.

It doesn't get better than that. And they don't make publishing families better than the Taylors. So I have been blessed And you as readers have been blessed.

But now they too are part of a conglomerate, namely the New York Times Company. To quote Bill Taylor,"we couldn't have found a better dancing partner".

Indeed, the Sulzbergers are a first class publishing family. I know Arthur and I know his father, who recently retired.

But the Times has its hands full. And my fear is that it is the corporate middle managers in New York who more and more will be influencing the direction of the Globe.


Jim Carey of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism is considered to be an intellectual with both feet on the ground.

At a conference at Harvard recently, he said, "The problem that people increasingly worry about today is that the first amendment ceases in the eyes of many to have the implication of a public trust held in the time of a wider community. Increasingly, it seems more to refer to a property right, establishing ground rules for economic competition."

It's nasty of me to throw out a problem without a least taking a crack at a solution.

What I'd like to see more of is a recognition that the public cares about serious news. A television station in California recently got a rude awakening when it broadcast a debate between candidates for governor and saw their ratings double.

This was pretty eye-opening because the station had virtually ignored the campaign, according to one news account, concentrating its resources on the vital car chases of the day. Why? Because it was sweeps season --- you know, the period when you try to drive up the ratings so you can increase ad rates for the next six months.

I am convinced that the public will respond to a serious approach to news coverage. I'm not suggesting that there isn't place for humor and features. Don't get me wrong.

But the media should be covering election campaigns and focusing on issues. They should do more on education and religion. They should do in-depth stories and investigative pieces. They should do analysis. They should make local coverage their first priority. They should .....

Well, don't get me going. I'll get off my editor's soapbox. After all, I am retired ... sort of.

But I do want to share with you a serious point made in a letter to a trade magazine this month by the publisher of the Seattle Times, which incidentally just bought the Portland Press Herald in Maine. This goes to the issue of solution.

Frank Blethen, who is the Seattle publisher, believes that the problem of ownership monopolies that has suddenly emerged in the past 20 years or so is caused by two issues: (1) the federal estate tax that discourages family ownership and (2) the lack of a public policy to restrict concentration.

The Taylors didn't sell the Boston Globe because they wanted to.

And so --- I say something is wrong, and it needs fixing.

Time Magazine celebrated its 75th year of publishing a few months ago. Among other things it published an essay reflecting on the philosophy of its founder, Henry Luce.

The essay concluded: "Journalism can be, at its best, a noble endeavor. It can make people think --- and make them think differently. It can be empowering and liberating. And, of course, it can be fun and exciting".

You can search below for any word or words in all issues of the Melrose Mirror.
| Return to section | The Front Page | Write to us |

Write to us