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Fourth Estate Gone Missing
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What Has Happened To The News?

By James Donahue

We watched the recent face-off between MSNBC commentator Rachael Maddow and the Comedy Channel’s politically oriented comedian Jon Stewart with great interest. They explored their personal roles in the field of reporting the news and in the process, touched on the way the presentation of news stories has dramatically changed because of cable television news services and the Internet.

Stewart volunteered to appear on Maddow’s show November 9 after Stewart and fellow comedian Stephen Colbert staged a pre-election rally Oct. 30 at the Lincoln Memorial that drew over 200,000 people to Washington. Both Stewart and Maddow also have been trading friendly barbs at one another on their shows, thus stirring a debate over just what their roles should be within the news arena.

They failed to reach any definitive conclusions on November 9. What they did agree on was that the creation of a multitude of “talking heads” expressing news commentary on just about everything being said about even minor events has changed the dynamics of today's reporting of news.

To paraphrase Stewart, he worried that we have all become addicted to 24-hour news and we become disappointed when we keep hearing the same news story repeated over and over again. Thus the talking heads on all of the so-called news channels like MSNBC, CNN and FOX are quick to grab at anything they might use to put a fresh light on old stories, or plunge into editorial comment.

There also has been a tendency to pick up on statements made by political, famous and infamous people, even turning accidentally recorded and nonsensical remarks into outlandish issues that make headlines when, in truth, they should never be considered part of the news picture. Thus the talking heads get caught up in sometimes distorting the story.

Stewart carefully defined his role as a comedian who specializes in carefully designed barbs at political events and the outlandish things going on in Washington. Maddow saw herself as doing similar things, but following the more strickly controlled role of a news reporter on her show. She also has proven herself to be skilled at using humor to tell her stories and make her points.

Stewart does not declare himself a reporter of news while Maddow does. Yet both manage to use their television time to make editorial comment about political events. From an old newspaper reporter’s viewpoint, we question just where this is going.

I personally find something important missing in the reporting of news in America, and especially in Washington, D. C.

There has been a major shift in the way news stories are reported since I first got into the business as a cub reporter for a weekly newspaper while still in high school. Those were the days when the basic rules of journalism were to report the story objectively and save personall opinions for the editorial page.

Young reporters worked their way up the chain, learning their skills at writing and covering news stories from the professionals they worked under. We were taught to not only get the story, but find out how the event impacted the readers. If there was controversy we went out of our way to get both sides of the issue. We dug for the truth and never fabricated. And if, heaven forbid, we made a mistake, to our shame we admitted it and published a correction in the next day’s edition.

Newspaper reporting did not always involve the big story. What we did was keep a daily log of everything important that was happening in our community. That involved hours of often boring work. We sat at and took notes during hours of city council, township board, school board and county board meetings. We covered court arraignments and trials. We scoured over stacks of police reports. We studied government budgets and assessment rolls, writing about how these documents would affect homeowners. It was difficult sometimes finding ways to write these stories so that they would not only be of interest, but clearly understood by our readers.

That was the way I learned journalism. We were still operating that way on the weekly newspaper I worked for prior to going into full retirement. By then the daily newspapers around us were fighting for survival as television and Internet news gobbled up advertising revenues and the attention of busy people rushing to and fro in a changing world.

In what I saw as a last-ditch effort to salvage the newspaper industry, the daily papers were turning away from the tedious job of reporting government news. They were concentrating instead on feature stories and sensational news events. They appeared to be trying to compete with the nightly television news that gave us only the highlights in short, concise packages. This was a mistake.

The newspapers have always been considered the “Fourth Estate.” That is, the presence of journalists, constantly watching and reporting what happens in the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government puts transparency on everything that happens in government, from city hall to the nation’s capital.

I believe the trouble in our government began after newsmen and women stopped being the watchdogs they were always meant to be.