The Decline and Fall of Commercial News Media

With each year that passes by, I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the serious overall decline in the quality of news reporting by all forms of the commercial news media in general, and by the decline of commercial TV news reporting in particular. These days it seems as though most commercial TV news networks and stations often don’t make a serious effort to inform the public about some of the more important news events of the day, and they seldom produce high quality in depth news reporting to describe and explain these events, most of the time. Often they don’t even bother to report an important news story at all, unless they think the story will attract enough viewers to achieve higher ratings and more advertising dollars, enough to be worth the air time it takes to report it. Keeping their viewers well informed is often not part of their decision making process at all, as far as which news stories they choose to run, and the ones they choose to ignore.

The commercial TV national news networks of today often resort to filling their air time with cute and amusing YouTube videos, instead of legitimate news stories. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember whether I’m watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart parodying the actual TV news networks… or NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams parodying itself. Yes, it really is getting that bad… and not only just some of the time – it’s now most of the time, during many commercial TV news telecasts, whether on the original TV news networks, or on the cable TV news networks.

As a result, I’m now getting most of my TV news on public television by watching PBS News Hour and from TV news documentaries like Frontline. I also get much of my news information from non profit National Public Radio. I know that I’m much better informed by these public news sources than I would be, if I relied only on the commercial news media instead, since I often see and hear detailed reporting of important news stories via PBS, that are either barely mentioned by the commercial news media, or often not covered at all.

Since the news programming on PBS News Hour and NPR is not profit driven by viewer and listener ratings, these public news sources are more likely to take the time and make the effort required to do the in depth reporting about the news events that are genuinely important for their audiences to be aware of and to understand – since these events may have a substantial impact upon the lives of their viewers and listeners, and on their ability to make informed decisions that will affect the outcome of their future, both individually and together as a society.

This is unlike the commercial news media, which frequently spends much of it’s air time running news stories that often don’t provide the most valuable information to keep the public well informed, but instead are the stories most likely to attract the most public attention and create an ongoing public fascination to keep as many viewers watching, listening and reading for as long as possible, in the constant quest for higher ratings to increase advertising revenue and profits.

I still have a lot of respect for the traditional news print media, and I’m impressed with the quality of reporting I can read in newspapers like The Boston Globe, and news magazines like Time. But as most of us know, the news print media is being slowly but surely killed off by competition from the internet. While most of the traditional news print sources also have online versions, very few of these online versions are making enough money for their entire news media business to economically survive long term.

So where does that leave us with the internet as a news source? My personal opinion is that we get a confusing array of multiple online news sources, all reporting the news in almost real time as it happens, but what is reported is often unreliable information when it’s originally reported in a rush to get the story out immediately, and it often requires readers to do their own fact checking. Sometimes I have a hard time believing that this is really making “progress” with the advance of the news reporting technology of today.

And again in my personal opinion, with a few exceptions, genuinely real journalistic talent, high standards and the skills that are only acquired after years of experience working as a professionally trained journalist reporting the news, is seldom found in online news reporting, when it isn’t connected to a more established offline news media source.

A recent example of the type of “news” story that I find reprehensible when it is given a high priority by the commercial news media, is when Kate Middleton was photographed using a powerful long distance lens, while she was sunbathing topless at a private estate in a location far from the view of the public, resulting in her topless photos being sold, published and then spread all over the internet. What disgusts me is that the story wasn’t reported only by the usual trashy tabloid celebrity gossip and scandal rags. It was also frequently and repeatedly reported by the major national commercial TV news networks in the US, while other far more newsworthy events were completely ignored.

While true that these alleged “news” networks used the pathetic excuse of the “blur” technique to hide the full exposure of Kate’s bare breasts on their telecasts, they still contributed to her worldwide and undeserved public humiliation and her victimization by professional voyeurism for profit.

I like Kate Middleton – She is a beautiful and vivacious woman who seems to have that rare ability to be elegantly Royal with lots of class, while keeping her ability to be down to earth and lots of fun. She didn’t deserve what happened to her, and I am very offended by it.

This disgusts me, because I remember a time when the biggest national TV news networks in America featured the very best of news journalists, who had genuinely high ethical standards, like Walter Cronkite. In Cronkite’s day, these TV news networks would never have lowered their standards for news coverage by abusing their air time by spreading around disgustingly parasitic paparazzi stories like the photographic sexual assault on Kate Middleton.

Walter Cronkite – a man who represents a time when TV network news still had dignity and a sense of decency the public could respect.

It is also true that back in Cronkite’s day, that the CBS, NBC and ABC television networks were all large corporations in business to make a profit, and their success or failure was also measured by a competition for higher viewer ratings and more advertising dollars. But the ways in which these networks competed for more viewers to watch their TV news reports, was not by using cheap and disgusting sensationalism and excessive hype, but by striving to get a major news story on the air faster than their competition, while providing their viewers with a highly accurate and more thoroughly detailed reporting of the news story, better than what the other TV news networks were capable of producing.

Back then, the competition was won by being faster and much better at reporting major news events than the other networks could do it, and a well informed public was the biggest winner of all. Instead of the type of competition we have today, in which commercial TV news networks and stations try to win the most viewers by airing the most over hyped and sensationalized stories, often with the highest level of appeal to the worst of human nature.

The stories that often have very little useful information to keep viewers well informed, but instead, the stories with lots of appeal to much of the viewing public’s morbid curiosity about graphic violence, a fascination for celebrity gossip, dirty laundry, and sexual scandals involving the rich and famous. The stories that appeal to viewers with lazy minds and short attention spans, who are more interested in being entertained than being well informed, and who often prefer light infotainment that doesn’t take very much heavy mental lifting to understand and enjoy.

Unfortunately, these are the type of stories that are more likely to keep the most viewers watching, instead of in depth news reporting that requires viewers to pay close attention to the details in order to understand what the news report means, and then to actually think about how what they are watching could affect their own lives, the well being of their nation, and the future of the world they live in.

This is more of an intellectual investment than many viewers are willing to make, and every commercial TV news network is all too aware of the reality today that if they risk boring their viewers by trying to keep them well informed, many of these viewers will quickly turn them off and turn away as they pick one of the thousands of other choices they have out there online, or on another TV news network in the supersaturated market of the endless 24/7 news cycle, that will give them news programing that is less challenging and more entertaining to watch.

If too many people continue to send a message to the commercial TV news media that many of their potential viewers would rather watch crap, instead of watching genuinely informative news reporting, then crap is just what the news media will continue to serve them, when people reward them for it by watching even more of their crap.

It becomes a mutually self destructive cycle in which the viewers and the news media continue to propel each other into a downward spiral of increasingly poor quality news programing, as a result of the large number of viewers who don’t want to make the effort to watch and understand news reporting that would keep them well informed if they actually bothered to pay attention and watch it – resulting in a news media that is no longer motivated to keep people well informed, but to just keep them watching… or reading and listening to the inferior quality of news reporting being offered to them.

The final result can be a news media that no longer provides vitally important information to the public, but promotes public ignorance instead, and the kind of mass ignorance with the potential to cause gravely serious consequences for our society, our civilization and our entire world.


About Chris Sheridan

I’m a 56 year old guy who is young (and immature) at heart, and I love humor and laughter. Married for 22 years, but still enjoy all the glories of womanhood everywhere, even while dedicated to one woman only - and I hope my wife never finds out about her!
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20 Responses to The Decline and Fall of Commercial News Media

  1. Ankur Mithal says:

    I think the last three paras capture the problem. Too many people asking for it. And that, in some ways, is one limitation of capitalism.

    • Thanks for your comment, and I agree with you Ankur – one of the limitations of capitalism is that people in business are sometimes profit motivated to give a large number of people what they want by popular demand, without any guarantee that all people will get what they actually need – like a reliable source of news media in order to stay well informed. Sometimes the herd mentality of market demand can result in an inferior quality of supply to meet the low expectations of that demand, and then everyone is poorer as a consequence.

  2. Deliberately Delicious says:

    I am a devout CBC listener for the same reasons you’re attracted to NPR, but here in Canada, even the CBC is threatened by government cuts. What then? It’s frightening.

    • Hi there DD! :-) Thanks for stopping by, and sorry to hear that your CBC is also threatened by government cuts, just as NPR is also constantly threatened by government cuts to PBS here in the states. But the real reason why PBS is threatened by cuts to it’s Federal funding is what I find the most frustrating of all, because the motivation to cut funding for PBS is being fueled by a totally false perception. The false belief held by conservatives here in the US, that PBS promotes a liberal bias in it’s programming and news reporting…

      The truth is that PBS is one of the most politically unbiased and impartial news sources in America. Which is why the conservatives hate PBS… because PBS will always report BOTH sides of an issue. PBS will report the position that conservatives agree with, as well as reporting the position that conservatives don’t agree with, and they HATE that!!! Seriously… Which is why I will always vote only for candidates who are NOT obsessed with cutting funding for PBS, because of pressure by conservatives – who are the ones who are really biased, and who hate PBS for not being biased in the same way that they are.

  3. RFL says:

    Yes, this. “If too many people continue to send a message to the commercial TV news media that many of their potential viewers would rather watch crap, instead of watching genuinely informative news reporting, then crap is just what the news media will continue to serve them, when people reward them for it by watching even more of their crap.”
    Great post, Chris.

    • Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comment and compliment, Rachelle. It’s encouraging that I didn’t lose everyone with the length and content of this post, so your comment is all the more appreciated.

  4. GOF says:

    Well said. Australia’s commercial television news services are woeful. If there is no ‘vision’ available then it’s not ‘news’. A local car crash will receive higher priority than 10,000 refugees fleeing from violent regimes in the middle east simply because better quality dramatic film is available. Fortunately we have excellent quality non-commercial radio news services.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read my post, and for your positive comment, GOF. I understand all too well what you mean about a local car crash getting a higher priority of coverage than the mass humanitarian tragedy still ongoing in the Middle East, for no better reason than the video of the car crash seems more dramatic and a more powerful draw for getting viewers to watch the TV news network showing it. We have the very same problem here with commercial TV news in the US. But I’m glad that you also have excellent quality non-commerical radio news services in Aus, as we also have with National Public Radio here in the states.

  5. Elyse says:

    Right on, Chris. I was super disappointed by the MSM’s dismissal of Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama, and the concern he raised over the neocons advising Romney on foreign policy. Yup, old news…. Ridiculous.

    • Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting Elyse. What you just mentioned is not only a ridiculous lapse of judgement by the MSM, because in my mind, it borders on criminal negligence for any branch of the news media to NOT make sure that every American is fully informed of Romney’s plans to appoint some of the very same neo-con foreign policy advisers who advised GW Bush Jr. to rush forward into invading Iraq in 2003, on a quest to destroy weapons of mass destruction that were never found, because they no longer existed in Iraq, and didn’t exist in Iraq long before the US invasion began.

      Since these same neo-con foreign policy advisers were too clueless to recognize the looming danger of a powerful Iraqi insurgency about to be fought against the American occupation with guerrilla warfare tactics and armed with deadly RPGs and IEDs, these “advisers” and Bush Jr. held a “Mission Accomplished” delusional fantasy celebration in May of 2003, to celebrate the end of a war that was really only just beginning, and would last for another nine years.

      These were also the same foreign policy “advisers” who literally didn’t understand the difference between an Iraqi Shiite Muslim and an Iraqi Sunni Muslim, and the high likelihood of Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis fighting a civil war against each other, once Saddam’s regime was no longer in place to prevent them from killing each other, and also killing Americans as causalities of the collateral damage caused by their civil war, after it began.

      And these are the very same people that Mitt Romney wants to pick as his foreign policy advisers… I can’t even begin to understand how Romney could ever possibly think that doing so would be a good idea and a wise choice for him to make. At least Time Magazine featured an article around two months ago, that revealed Romney’s plans to bring back Bush Jr administration neo-cons as his choice for his foreign policy advisers, and I was just as shocked then as I still am right now.

      • Elyse says:

        Romney isn’t getting ready to pick these guys, he already has picked them. This is where he gets his info from.

        Dangerous times, my friend.

        I am urging everybody to make phone call — you can do it from home (

        • I’m now joining you in urging everyone to make that phone call, Elyse, since these truly are very dangerous times. I’ll be spending this coming Sunday canvassing for Massachusetts Democratic US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, and on election day, I’ll be in New Hampshire to help get out the vote for Obama in that battleground state.

  6. benzeknees says:

    I so agree with you on this Chris! I have stopped watching news because of the way news is being treated nowadays! Every time I see news on TV is superficially treated & covered continuously. No one takes the time to tell you how this particular event will effect you as a person in the next week, month or year. As the baby boomer generation ages, these people will want to actually understand the news – we lived through the cold war with fear every day, bomb drills, bomb shelters & all the rest of it. During the cold war, even as a young child, I understood why Winnipeg was such a target for bombs. If Russia wanted to knock Canada out of the war for a while, they would bomb Winnipeg (where I grew up) specifically because it is the gateway to the east & the west. All rail & truck traffic goes through Winnipeg, radio & TV lines (back then everything went through lines instead of satellites) went through Winnipeg. So with a few bombs strategically landed in Winnipeg, Russia could cripple Canada, one of the USA’s best allies. And where did this understanding come from – TV news! CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) had excellent coverage of the ramifications of the cold war.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Lynda. I don’t think that it’s an overstatement to say that a repeatedly superficial treatment of news reporting that leaves the public ignorant instead of well informed, can literally have deadly consequences.

      Since you and I are around the same age, I also have some memories of the cold war era that are similar to yours, but until I read your comment here, I had no idea of the strategic importance of Winnipeg during a Soviet nuclear attack of North America, and the grave danger faced by Winnipeg residents like you and your family, as a consequence. Very interesting reading, and I can see that the CBC did an excellent job of reporting the ramifications of the cold war for Canadians while you were growing up during the cold war era. Thanks again for your very informative and interesting comment here, that taught me some history I previously didn’t know about.

  7. jbw0123 says:

    I’m with you about T.V. news. I never watch it. Don’t forget though the biased and silly news reporters back in Cronkite’s time. Who helped propel McCarthyism? Remember Reagan turning his campaign into a winner by proclaiming: Panama Canal! We built it, we paid for it, and by God we aren’t going to let any tinhorn dictator take it away? That the Russkies had 4 times as many missiles and 3 times as many nuclear weapons and were winning the arms race? Such hogwash. Even John Wayne wrote to him to tell him to stop the claptrap, but the press picked right up on it (so eloquent!) and a majority of Americans swallowed it whole and elected him twice.

    The good news is that a lot of people, particularly young people, get information from other sources. I love the fact check websites, and the proliferation of bloggers (!) who take time to research, explain, discuss, and as you point out, the public news sources. There are a lot of people who are happy with pablum, but I believe an equal number are hungry for truth, as close as we can get to truth anyway. Best we can do is what you’re doing, read, write, talk, compare sources, and have faith. Hard sometimes on that last one.

    • Hi Julia! :-) Thanks for showing up and reading my post, and thanks as well for your thoughtful comment. I guess there have always been biased and silly news reporters, ever since Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press in 1440, and probably even long before that. So thanks for your reminder that they existed in Cronkite’s time as well, since it also reminds me that when I start sounding like an old fart talking about “the good old days” of the TV news networks, that maybe I should also check to see just how much my arteries have hardened. Lol :-)

      I honestly don’t know specifically who it was that helped to propel McCarthyism, and I won’t cheat by googling for the answer. But I do know who played a major role in shutting down McCarthyism, and it was a guy named Edward R Murrow – a personal hero of mine, even though his prime time came before I was born, and I have PBS to thank for much of my knowledge of Murrow, although I did also enjoy George Clooney’s movie about him.

      A fearless war correspondent and veteran of news radio reporting live on the scene, during the height of the bombing of London in WWII, Murrow had serious concerns about television’s potential for both educating and dumbing down the public, and I’ve often thought about what he said back in 1958, with regard to television that “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box… and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate…” Murrow also said in the same speech that “…during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.” Actually, I think that Murrow’s entire 1958 speech is fascinating, so here’s the link:

      I’d love to be able to ask Murrow what he thinks of television today in 2012, and also his opinion of the internet, but unless his ghost shows up for our Halloween party, I don’t think I’ll get the chance to speak with him, and what a shame. Sigh!

      The news media loved Reagan, because so unlike Nixon, Reagan loved the news media and he always gave them a good story. So yes, the news media often gave Ronnie a pass when they shouldn’t have, and they knew better. So thanks for reminding me of relatively recent history that I should be able to remember. :-)

      Do you think that I was overly negative about the internet as a news source? Well, maybe I was, but I did say that there were some exceptions, and there’s even a very informative as well as entertaining blog right here on WordPress that I really enjoy reading as well as commenting on. (of course! lol) I’ll even be a decent guy and give you the link, since you may also enjoy visiting there too.

      I have to stop my reply now, Julia, and sorry if I was overly brief… (snicker!) But my wife just came home, and if she walks in and sees the length of this reply, well, she may think that there’s something extra going on with us… especially if she checks out your blog and sees that you are a yoga teacher. The woman I almost married before I met my wife, was also a yoga teacher… and enough said, because I think that you’ll agree that I’ve said far too much already, and in so many different ways! LOL :-)

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