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Journalists Face Brave New World

Alter, Ashbrook, Loth, and others debate new direction of modern media

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WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook says the media is in the midst of a Darwinian-type evolution. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

When Debra Saunders, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, asked how many people read a newspaper every day, a third of the audience at the Tsai Performance Center Monday evening raised their hands. But when the question was, “How many people watch Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show?” almost every hand reached for the sky.

It’s clear that the way news is prioritized, packaged, selected, and digested has changed. Budgets are shrinking, traditional coverage thinning, and the crowd of online voices growing ever louder. This media evolution has become especially pronounced during the current presidential campaign — which, with a viable African-American contender and a strong female candidate, is poised to make history, drawing even greater interest from journalists and the public alike.

Several hundred people, mostly students, turned out February 24 to hear local and national journalists discuss how the media has evolved and its influence on the political process, from 24-hour news cycles to blogs to YouTube. The forum was part of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center’s yearlong Ready To Vote program.

Moderated by John Carroll, an assistant professor of communication at the College of Communication, the panel included, as well as Saunders, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and CNN; Tom Ashbrook, host of WBUR’s On Point; David S. Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix; Ida Lewis (CGS’54, COM’56) of Encore: American, and Worldwide News; Renee Loth (COM’74) of the Boston Globe; and Ernie Suggs of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Does anyone feel you’re competing with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?” Carroll asked the panelists.

“I feel like we’re all competing with Jon Stewart,” said Ashbrook. “Jon Stewart is not just making jokes. He’s making points, often quite strong and insightful points. In a way, he’s setting the bar, and if our stories or columns or conversations are not as challenging or insightful in a more direct way than he is through his vehicle of humor, then we’re not clearing that bar.”

Bernstein added that comedians like Stewart, Colbert, and Jay Leno elevate issues from the “echo chamber,” where journalists and political junkies prowl, to the mainstream. He noted that his piece debunking Mitt Romney’s claim that his father marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., broke during the recent writers’ strike. He speculated that it didn’t get picked up on the public radar because it never served as joke fodder.

Loth, the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe, raised the YouTube phenomenon, from the video debates that threw candidates off-balance with quirky voter questions to viral clips, such as the infamous “Macaca” video that snuffed out the presidential hopes of republican George Allen. The senator from Virginia was captured on film referring to an Indian man from the opposition as “macaca,” an ethnic slur.

“Traditional journalists never anticipated the power of YouTube,” Loth said. “I think the Republican Party would have had George Allen as their candidate for president if it had not been for that YouTube clip, which not only destroyed his presidential campaign, but his political career.”

One audience member asked whether the changes in the media were akin to Darwinism. Ashbrook agreed, suggesting that bloggers, with their dynamic, off-the-leash approach, had already infected mainstream media. He wondered whether in years past the New York Times would have published an article such as last week’s front-page story suggesting an improper relationship between Republican presidential candidate John McCain and a female lobbyist, a piece that media-watchers criticized as weakly sourced.

“They didn’t quite have the whole picture in the traditional way, not the way Ben Bradlee would have had it in All The President’s Men,” Ashbrook said, “and they went with it anyway, because they kind of had the gist of it. They had the story in a bloggy way.”

Saunders said the proliferation of online sources also has a dark side for an informed citizenry.

“It’s Darwinian in that it’s the survival of the cheapest,” she said. “We’re coming into designer media. You can choose only to get the news that you want to hear. You never have to be bothered by the other side.”

Alter echoed her concerns. “Talk is cheap. Reporting is expensive. It costs a tremendous amount of money to have a bureau in Baghdad. But it doesn’t cost any money to sit at home in your pajamas whaling on somebody.”

All agreed, however, that the media is in the midst of a revolution.

“We’re running as fast as we can to catch up, to understand [new media], to harness it in a way that takes advantage of the excitement and immediacy,” Loth said, “but that also brings the responsible editorial professionalism that all of us represent and despair of a little bit not being in this new media.”

Other audience questions included whether Barack Obama was receiving kinder media treatment than Hillary Clinton, if celebrity endorsements make a difference, and why the groundbreaking nature of the election seemed mostly focused on Obama.

“If Hillary were winning at the moment,” Loth said, “we’d all be talking about how it’s a historic election because a woman might become president.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


One Comment on Journalists Face Brave New World

  • Anonymous on 02.27.2008 at 9:43 am

    alternative media

    There are plenty of quality alternatives out there for “nightly” news, my favorite example being http://www.democracynow.org/. This is news with substance backed by experts who know what they’re talking about. The nightly news programs (and newspapers and magazines and public radio) have only themselves to blame if they lose audience to such new media; it is time for them to raise the bar if they want to retain my attention.

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