Wednesday, December 14, 2005

U.S. media have forgotten their mission

The worst to be said of America's major, publicly owned news media is not their ideological tilt, but, instead, the greed of owners and executives who sell out civic responsibilities for high profits.

Wall Street news is riddled with stories of major shareholders pressuring news media companies to either boost stock prices or sell out—as if newspapers should be bought and sold like pork belly futures.

Regardless of what cranky politicians think of U.S. news media, they have been indispensable in the development of the most advanced democratic society in world history. The press is the only occupation mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, so highly regarded it was included in the First Amendment.

Newspapers are the bedrock of information in U.S. society. They're the principal harvesters of news that other media recycle. They provide the best explanation of events. Their editorial and op-ed pages provide the broadest informed opinion.

When families owned America's great newspapers and magazines, profit goals were modest and satisfied owners' needs. Sizable chunks of profits were plowed back into operations.

But tax and estate laws forced most large family papers to become public corporations owned by shareholders and pension funds. Today, security analysts with an eye for higher profits, not social or civil responsibility, influence quality. CEOs whose jobs and bonuses rely on stock price performance, and who lack the disciplined principle of journalists, comply. A profit target of 30 percent is common, the highest of any major public industry.

The route to higher profits in today's newspaper chains frequently means slashing news staffs, reducing reporters' travel budgets, closing regional and foreign news bureaus, and shrinking independence of editors. And yet, more than ever, the U.S. needs robust newspapers free from unreasonable demands of stock speculators.

Rather than gutting news budgets, great newspapers should be providing wider ranging coverage and explanation of events that are reshaping the world. Instead, they are leaving the public largely in the dark about Iraq, the consequences of climate change and U.S. industry being shipped overseas. They are failing to examine a military-industrial complex seeking to dictate social policy. They are reluctant to probe the nation's reliance on military power rather than diplomacy or the creation of an American society with more wildly separated haves and have-nots.

The nation needs a longer view. To survive and prosper, it needs courageous and far-flung news coverage. Without it, today's precious stock certificates could end up being worth no more than the price of the paper they're printed on.

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