Prestigious U.S. media have taken some serious body blows over the past few months, and critics have quickly fingered the cause of these missteps: capitalism, or more precisely, the lust to capture readers and viewers in a hypercompetitive marketplace.
But the critics have their thinking caps on backward. The competitive processes of today's marketplace were what led to the rapid exposure and resolution of these journalistic shenanigans.
Rather than denigrate capitalism and the search for profits, media critics should praise market processes for providing a public service. The desire to discover the truth, and to place reputation first, exposed all the frauds.
LET'S RECAP the notorious goings-on. The New Republic fired an associate editor, Stephen Glass, after discovering he invented sources and subjects for more than two dozen stories written for the magazine.
The Boston Globe dismissed columnist Patricia Smith after finding out she created fictional characters to deliver polemical messages in her "reporting" about life on the streets.
Then the newspaper forced the resignation of veteran columnist Mike Barnicle, citing reportorial lapses in a 1995 column about children with cancer and "the duplicitous way in which the story was written." Indeed, the children may have been fictional.
Cable News Network and Time magazine made a dramatic public apology and retractionóand fired two producersóafter jointly airing and publishing stories alleging that the U.S. military used deadly nerve gas on American deserters in Vietnam.
THE CRITICS have been having a field day. In the Los Angeles Times, Marvin Kalb, a former CBS and NBC reporter who is now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, blames "profit-centered, business-oriented news" and the "24-hour-a-day news cycle with nonstop demands for 'profitable news.'"
In Intellectualcapital.com, media critic Eric Alterman faults the "culture of celebrity worship" and "the notion that the actual information in any given story is less important than the entertainment package it helps create."
"The business of journalism," complains Wired's Jon Katz, "has become dominated by large conglomerates whose only interest is profits, who have no ideology other than mass marketing."
JOSEPH PULITZER and William Randolph Hearst must be cackling from their graves.
A century ago, the two icons of that era's prestige journalism drove the nation into a frenzy–and a war with Spain–over their sensationally exaggerated accounts of Spanish oppression in Cuba. Their goal was to sell newspapers with what became known as yellow journalism.
From the Colonial pamphleteers who fomented revolution against the British to the frontier editors who would publish any slander to sell papers, "newspapermen" and broadcasters have always sought bigger audiences and fatter profits by offering information and entertainment.
THE CURRENT controversies are different in one important way: How they were exposed.
Glass' follies were made public by an editor for the on-line publication Forbes Digital Tool.
Adam Penenberg discovered that a "high tech" company mentioned in a Glass article didn't exist. Penenberg approached New Republic Editor Charles Lane with this information. After conducting a thorough investigation, Lane gave Glass the heave-ho.
In Boston, Patricia Smith's fabrications were discovered internally, but the Globe wasted little time getting rid of her in a very public way before she could further damage the paper's credibility–and its bottom line.
BARNICLE FIRST got into trouble when the Globe's competitor, the Boston Herald, discovered that one of his columns lifted 10 one-liners without attribution from a book by comedian George Carlin.
The paper initially suspended Barnicle for two months. But when management found out that Barnicle may also have fabricated a rather maudlin column about sick children, Globe Editor Matthew Storin said Barnicle's departure was "the best thing for the paper."
WHEN OUTRAGED veteran groups and skeptical military analysts flooded CNN and Time with questions about their story on nerve gas attacks in Vietnam, CNN–a relative newcomer in the media business–feared that its reputation as a respected source of news might be irreparably damaged.
CNN's founder, Ted Turner, announced the creation of an ombudsman-like office that would vet future investigative stories before the network aired them.
But the controversy continues, primarily because CNN didn't fire correspondent Peter Arnett, who reported the story on-air but later claimed he had nothing else to do with it.
NOT SO LONG AGO, most people got pretty much all their news from the big three networks and their local daily newspaper.
Many who work in today's prestige media prefer the old regime. Now, laments Kalb, NBC and its cable outlets MSNBC and CNBC offer 27 hours of national news every day; most network affiliates add two to three additional hours of local news. And that's just one media group.
Plenty of additional viewing and listening options are offered by C-Span, CNN, Fox, Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio and local radio stations offering news and talk shows. The rise of the Internet has seen further competition from Web pages that link to wire services. In short, a 24-hour market now serves news junkies.
AUDIENCES accustomed to channel (and Web) surfing are less likely to accept what they see without question, especially when hundreds of alternatives bid for their time and attention.
There's actually more pressure on reporters and editors to be careful in verifying stories before airing them. If a media outlet gets something wrong, there are countless competitors eager to point out mistakes before their news-hungry audiences.
What Marvin Kalb decries as the "nonstop demand for profitable news" actually offers a great public service. It encourages dissemination of the truth.
THE CEASELESS QUEST to maintain credibility leads media outlets to investigate their own work, for in the marketplace, reputation is one major factor that separates prestigious institutions from fly-by-night operators and other fast-buck artists.
Competitive forces have broken up the near-monopoly powers major media providers once enjoyed. As with the end of any monopoly, consumers–in this case, news lovers–are the ultimate victors.