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Monday, April 18, 2005

MSM's Pro-Govt. Reporting Hurts Circulation, Encourages Narrowly Focused Reporting

Jon Ham was managing editor of the Durham Herald-Sun for 15 years and swears he was not the cause of his paper's circulation decline during the period. Ham's paper was far from unique in suffering declining circulation. The Los Angeles Times has lost six percent or more than 50,000 paid subscribers just in the first quarter of 2005.

Ham thinks he knows one of the least-discussed reasons why dailies are declining - newsroom myopia. Most MSM editors and reporters have a presumption in favor of government programs and believe those programs are actually solving our society's major problems. Unfortunately for the MSM, that fascination is at odds with both reality - no government program is succeeding in solving any of our major social problems - and with the interests of most normal people.

The result is dailies that devote too much attention covering things readers don't care about or don't think are as important as a lot of other issues and events:

"You’ve all seen them, especially around the holidays. Editors seem to think this activity is the essence of American life. Except for the advertising, a newspaper reader from another planet would never know there was a private sector. Editorial content is skewed heavily toward the activities of the welfare state because that’s the sector that reporters and editors identify with.
"Unfortunately for newspapers, most people have nothing to do with the welfare state and its many mechanisms, except for funding it with their tax dollars. The private sector is where they live.
"They go to work, raise their kids, pay their taxes and don’t ask anything from the government except for national defense, good schools, garbage pickup, water and sewer hookups and effective police protection. They don’t want to be hit over the head with stories designed to make them feel guilty for not needing government welfare."

Having spent more than a few years as a managing editor myself, I can attest to the accuracy of Ham's observation, at least within my own realm of experience. I realized this preoccupation and its effect on journalists' perception of what is news when a couple of reporters suggested in a morning news meeting that since it was the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision we should interview "pro-choice advocates on how much better it is now that women don't have to get back-alley abortions."

There was a stunned silence when I responded by suggesting that we should also interview women and men who have had to undergo post-abortion counseling to deal with guilt and post-abortion medical care to deal with health complications. None of the reporters even knew such people existed.

The same sort of ignorance that there might actually be a contrary view was often expressed whenever a news story was proposed on some aspect of the welfare state's local manifestation and I required the reporter involved to seek out experts with alternative views.

Ham had the same exerience because he describes it so well:

"Newspaper reporters and editors have always covered the public sector. But while they used to cover it as a preventative to corruption and abuse of power, they now cover it as a partner in the effort to get government more involved in people’s lives. Implicit in government coverage these days are that non-defense government programs are good and the more people are attached to some government program, the better society will be.
"Just look at your local paper. Most stories about government programs are reported on in glowing terms. Grateful recipients of public largesse are interviewed and tell how good it is that taxpayers are paying for the program. And to head off any future effort to cut the program, the recipient or the program director predicts dire consequences for the community should the program ever be discontinued.
"Reporters and editors love these stories. They play into the standard journalism template that the private sector has questionable motives, i.e., profit, whereas the public sector’s motives are pure, i.e., altruistic. Often ignored in reporting is the view that it’s easy to be altruistic with other people’s money, which is all the government has at its disposal."

You can read Ham's complete piece here at the Carolina Journal, of which he is now the publisher.