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Why should Catholics care about the present crisis of the American news media?

Why should Catholics care about the present crisis of the American news media? Perhaps a classic film will help explain: Not Citizen Kane. Not All the President’s Men. Not even The Front Page, but John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach.

Stagecoach uses a tried-and-true narrative device: A group of colorful characters make a perilous journey together. There’s a steely-eyed cowpoke bent on revenge; a Confederate officer turned gambler who plays cards with an ace up his sleeve; a shady lady with a troubled past and a heart of gold. Best of all, to my way of thinking, is a drunken doctor, played by that marvelous character actor of the 1930s and 1940s, Thomas Mitchell.

Having botched one case too many, the doctor has been run out of town and is heading west to make a fresh start. Midway through the trip, a young, pregnant woman, traveling to join her Cavalry officer husband, goes into labor. All eyes turn to the unshaven, hung-over physician. He gulps, tosses away his bottle, rolls up his sleeves, and goes to work. Some time later, emerging from an inner room, he proudly tells his companions, “It’s a boy.”

The news media are something like that doctor—seriously flawed but indispensable in a pinch.

Complex Crisis, Uncertain Outcome

American news media are in a crisis, and all of us should care. It is a long-term crisis of transition and change, gradually unfolding and bound to continue for years. Its consequences are unpredictable, but they will extend widely and go deep, not just in the news business but in the larger society as well. Far-reaching alterations in the way Americans receive the news—and in the kind of news they receive—have occurred, are occurring now, and will continue to occur.

A number of interacting factors have come together to produce this complex crisis. They include rapid and dramatic technological innovations, economic pressures, declining audiences for old media, and evolving public tastes and expectations for news. The crisis has been marked by numerous ownership changes, frequent scandals, clear instances of media bias, a growing focus on local news in preference to national and international news, and a continuing drift toward sensationalism and dumbing-down.

Today all of the established news media, print and broadcast alike, are obliged to cope with the implications of the Internet’s spectacular rise as a medium for disseminating information and opinion, including the phenomenal growth of Web logs or blogs. The old media have abandoned whatever thoughts they might once have entertained of resisting the Internet revolution and are now scrambling to find ways of joining it to survive.

Along with changing the way they report news and the sort of news they report, the traditional news media are cutting back. Many outlets have eliminated or sharply reduced bureaus in other countries and other parts of the United States, an economic strategy that leads to increased reliance on wire services, stringers, and canned reports.

Significant reductions in editorial staff have occurred, with daily newspapers especially hard hit. This includes even giants like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. In five years the editorial staff of The Los Angeles Times was cut from 1,200 to 940. When the newspaper’s owner, the Tribune Company of Chicago, ordered further cuts, the publisher and editor objected—and were forced out. Meanwhile the paper’s daily circulation has fallen from 1.2 million in 1990 to 776,000 as of the end of last September.

The question all this raises in many minds is probably: So what? What difference do the problems of news media make to anyone who doesn’t work for a news organization or own stock in one? For a long time Americans, including many in the churches, have had a love-hate relationship with their news media. If the media are in trouble now, with unpredictable and possibly unhappy results down the road, the reaction may well be, “Serves them right.”

Everybody’s Problem

At this point, a long essay about the news business published in The New York Times Book Review in the summer of 2005 deserves our attention. The essay is the work of Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Judge Posner also is a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and an articulate, opinionated man who frequently declares his views on op-ed pages and in various journals. This time he undertook to analyze the crisis of the news media. And although some people in the news business were furious, his mix of astuteness and wrong-headedness invites serious consideration.

“The conventional news media are embattled,” he begins. “Attacked by both left and right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds” (Richard A. Posner, “Bad News,” New York Times Book Review, July 31, 2005). Even so, no one can seriously doubt that the essential function of these flawed but indispensable means of communication is “to inform people about social, political, cultural, ethical, and economic issues so that they can vote and otherwise express themselves as responsible citizens” (and, one might add—though Posner does not—as responsible members of their churches and congregations). The media’s problems are our problems.

Among the problems is ideological tilt, both perceived and real. Of all journalists who consider themselves either liberal or conservative, fully 75 percent regard themselves as liberal. That is far higher than the percentage of Americans generally who consider themselves liberals, which at the time Posner wrote two years ago stood at 35 percent among those with a stated political position. Studies of the media elite who staff national news organizations similarly have shown that journalists are far less religiously inclined than Americans in general. And as if that weren’t enough to send religious conservatives into spasms of fury, Posner adds: “The news media have also become more sensational, more prone to scandal, and possibly less accurate.”

Economic determinism provides the conceptual framework for the judge’s analysis of the news business. He attributes the rise of sensationalism, proneness to scandal, and other such abuses ultimately to a “vertiginous decline” in the cost of electronic communication coupled with a lowering of regulatory barriers. These have resulted in a proliferation of consumer options and heightened competition for audience share. He writes:

Thirty years ago the average number of television channels that Americans could receive was seven; today, with the rise of cable and satellite television, it is seventy-one. Thirty years ago there was no Internet, therefore no Web, hence no online newspapers and magazines, no blogs. The public’s consumption of news and opinion used to be like sucking on a straw; now it’s like being sprayed by a fire hose.

In this environment, news media must compete to stay alive. Competition in the news business has always been a fact of life; but unlike times past, when daily newspapers warred with one another, now old media battle new media. According to Posner, this struggle has become a race to find the lowest common denominator of audience intelligence and taste, which in turn encourages political polarization and sensationalism in reporting.

Note that in this telling of the story, the failings of the news media are not fundamentally their fault. They are caused by factors largely beyond the control of the media themselves, namely, the operation of free market dynamics in combination with the frivolity of crass, self-indulgent audiences. This may be overly generous to the media and overly hard on the American public, but it contains a substantial measure of truth.

[I]ncreased competition has not produced a public more oriented toward public issues, more motivated and competent to engage in genuine self-government, because these are not the goods that most people are seeking from the news media. They are seeking entertainment, confirmation, reinforcement, emotional satisfaction; and what consumers want, a competitive market supplies . . .

Strange to say, nevertheless, Judge Posner concludes his analysis with a rhetorical shrug, as if to say the situation he describes—polarized and sensationalized news media competing for the favor of irresponsible audiences—doesn’t really matter much. After all, one happy byproduct of media proliferation has been to make “richer fare than ever before” available to elitists like Richard Posner, who care about serious news and want diverse opinions. And if elite interests are satisfied, what else really matters? This, it hardly needs saying, is not exactly Jeffersonian democracy at work.

The Papacy on the Press

Where does the Catholic Church fit into this picture? As it happens, that is not so easy to say.

The last public document of the pontificate of John Paul II was an apostolic letter called Il Rapido Sviluppo (The Rapid Development) addressed to “those responsible for communications” and dated January 24, 2005: the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalism. The opening words of the fourth section, “The Mass Media, the Crossroads of the Great Social Questions,” are these:

The Church . . . recognizes the duty to offer its own contribution for a better understanding of outlooks and responsibilities connected with current developments in communications. Especially because these influence the consciences of individuals, form their mentality and determine their view of things, it is important to stress in a forceful and clear way that the mass media constitute a patrimony to safeguard and promote.

These are beautiful sentiments—”a patrimony to safeguard and promote.” But churchmen have not always spoken that way.

Consider Pope Gregory XVI, who in the 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos noted among the signs of “indifferentism” in religion and morality “that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor” (MV 15). The pope declared himself “horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice” (MV 15). Bl. Pius IX, in the 1864 encyclical Quanta Cura accompanying the famous Syllabus of Errors, echoed Pope Gregory on the dangers of freedom of the press. “In these times,” he wrote, “the haters of truth and justice and most bitter enemies of our religion, deceiving the people and maliciously lying, disseminate . . . impious doctrines by means of pestilential books, pamphlets and newspapers dispersed over the whole world” (QC 7).

Jacques Maritain once suggested that in saying these things Pope Gregory and Pope Pius simply meant to condemn the establishment of freedom of expression as an absolute end in itself. While that may be putting too benign a gloss on the texts, it is at least necessary to understand the historical context of their remarks. This was a time when the Church in Europe was besieged by militant secularism (and by militant, sectarian anti-Catholicism in the U.S.), with the press a large part of the problem. Still, the papal rhetoric is an embarrassment today and stands in marked contrast with the view expressed by Bl. John XXIII in Pacem in Terris (1963), which includes among its enumerated human rights “a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and—within the limits of the moral order and the common good—to freedom of speech and publication [and] the right also to be accurately informed about public events” (12).

During the last hundred years, in fact, there has been a notable development in the Church’s thinking about news media. The historian Owen Chadwick holds that Leo XIII was the first pope to understand “that the press, even when it was Catholic, was a fourth estate, and to begin to treat it accordingly” (A History of the Popes, 1830-1914, 329). With ups and downs, this way of thinking gradually spread throughout the twentieth century. Pope Pius XII—grandson of the co-founder of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano—played an especially notable role. He expressed appreciation for the press, praised the service of the press to society, and even acknowledged the need for public opinion in the Church.

As with so many other things, the great turning point in this process was the Second Vatican Council. The Decree on the Media of Social Communication, Inter Mirifica, is commonly dismissed as the weakest of its sixteen documents, but even so, in a passage addressed to civil authorities, it declares that “the progress of modern society” requires “a true and just freedom of information” (12).

The decree also directed that after the council a pastoral instruction on the means of social communication be prepared. This turned out to be Communio et Progressio, written by a team of communication specialists working in the service of the Church under the supervision of the Pontifical Commission (now, Council) for Social Communications and published in 1971. Its line on news media comes down to this: “Modern man cannot do without information that is full, consistent, accurate and true. Without it, he cannot understand the perpetually changing world in which he lives . . . Those whose job it is to give the news have a most difficult and responsible role to play” (Communio 34, 36).

Indifference is Not an Option

Despite many flaws, American news media serve the common good. The central element of this service consists in telling people what they need to know in order to be responsible members of their various communities: civic, religious, cultural, and so on. Related to this function is the role of the press as an instrument of oversight—”creating accountability and deterring wrongdoing,” as Posner puts it.

Yet widespread ambivalence about the news business is found in many places, most certainly including upper levels of the institutional Church. Complaints about the media, common for years, may even have increased there (at least in private) as part of the fallout from the clergy sex-abuse scandal. As Peter Steinfels and others point out, along with uncovering painful truths that needed airing, not a few journalists also were guilty of sensationalism, exaggeration, and sloppy reporting in their handling of this story. Viewing the crisis of the news media, some churchmen no doubt say, “Let them stew in their own juice.”

That is not a helpful response. A series of documents published since 1989 by the Vatican’s Council for Social Communications suggests a more useful approach—in particular, a greatly stepped-up effort by the Church to educate and form an audience for excellence in the reporting and interpretation of news.

Many Church documents commend the idea. Ethics in Communications, published in 2000 by the Council for Social Communications, remarks: “Professional communicators are not the only ones with ethical duties. Audiences—recipients—have obligations, too. Communicators attempting to meet their responsibilities deserve audiences conscientious about theirs” (25). The document goes on to insist that “today everybody needs . . . continuing media education” which, “more than just teaching about techniques . . . helps people form standards of good taste and truthful moral judgment, an.aspect of conscience formation” (25). Elsewhere in this and other Church documents there are statements about the need for media education in seminaries, in the continuing education of priests, and even in on-the-job training for bishops.

Up to now, however, much more has been said than done in the Church about media education. Generally speaking, the subject is treated as fluff or ignored entirely in Catholic schools and parishes. That is roughly equivalent to ignoring printed books a century after the invention of printing.

Usually, too, when people do speak about media education, they mean education in how to watch movies and television. Many diocesan newspapers and other Catholic periodicals meet this particular need—up to a point—by carrying film and TV reviews. But getting serious about media education requires a great deal more. It involves forming audiences as informed consumers of news. What do Catholics know about the history of the American news media? What do we know about how news is gathered, processed, and disseminated, and who the people are who do this work? Precious little, one suspects.

Partners in the Human Race

There are at least two main reasons for educating children and adults in media, including news media. The first is defensive: Educating people is a way of protecting them against exploitation and injury. This is an important purpose and, unfortunately, necessary today in the face of repeated abuses of their power on the part of some journalists.

The second reason is positive. In a society where market forces compel media to respond to what people want, the best way to influence the news media for the good is by forming intelligent, discerning audiences—readers, viewers, and listeners who expect, demand and—through the working of the market if in no other way—eventually will get excellent journalistic performance.

There is nothing coercive about this approach. Indeed, it complements the aspirations of conscientious news professionals themselves. Audiences that share thoughtful journalists’ own view of what the news media can and should be are essential. The Church cannot resolve the economic and technological aspects of the crisis of American news media, but it can do something more important. Through its schools, parishes, and its own media, it can form discerning readers, listeners, and viewers of news who want and will support the best journalism in the new media as well as the old.

Back in 1971, the post-conciliar document on media Communio et Progressio set out a stirring vision in these words:

The modern media of social communication offer men of today a great round table. At this they are in search of, and able to participate in, a world-wide exchange of brotherhood and cooperation. It is not surprising that this should be so, for the media are at the disposal of all and are channels for that very dialogue which they themselves stimulate. The torrent of information and opinion pouring through these channels makes every man a partner in the business of the human race. This interchange creates the proper conditions for that mutual and sympathetic understanding which leads to universal progress. (19)

We could easily dismiss this view as an instance of the unrealistic optimism said to have plagued the Vatican II years. But even though the ideal proposed here can never be fully realized in our fallen world, the continued struggle to realize it is and will remain a high calling indeed.


Tips for the Informed News Consumer

How can you be an informed, responsible consumer of news media? Here are nine suggestions.

  1. Get your news from more than one source, more than one medium, and more than one ideological perspective. If you think Fox News is great, be sure also to listen to NPR—and vice versa. Observing how different news organizations cover stories, including the same story, trains you to make comparisons, and making comparisons is essential to informed analysis of media performance.
  2. Strictly limit your intake of talk radio, blogs, and TV interview shows whose hosts specialize in bullying and humiliating guests. These may be entertaining and occasionally informative, but they are not reliable sources of news.
  3. Read serious books about the news business.
  4. Acquire sound ethical standards for evaluating media.
  5. Now and then invite journalists to speak to your parish adult education program or other group. Let them tell you how they cover the news. Ask questions. Engage them in dialogue.
  6. Discuss the news media with others—family, neighbors, friends. Consider not only what is covered but how it is covered. Consider joining or forming a group for this purpose.
  7. Read intelligent media criticism (if you can find it) in your daily newspaper and the magazines you get. This means more than skimming TV listings and Hollywood gossip. See how professional journalists themselves size up their trade.
  8. Write well-reasoned, polite letters to editors and news directors. Commend them for good work. Offer constructive criticism when they fall short.
  9. Above all, be selective about what you and your family read and watch and listen to. Skip media junk food. Concentrate on high-quality, meaty fare.

Resources for the Media-Savvy

  • Breaking the News by James Fallows (Pantheon)
  • Mediapolitik by Lee Edwards (Catholic University of America)
  • Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann (Free Press)
  • “Ethics in Communications” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications)

Also helpful are other documents of this Vatican agency as well as World Communication Day statements by the last several popes and Pope John Paul II’s January 2005 apostolic letter The Rapid Development. All are available free on the Vatican’s website.

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