By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2009; C01
Are you better off, as a media consumer, than you were 10 years ago?
Having lived through the Awful Aughts -- which began with news organizations vowing to get serious after 9/11 and ended with Jon and Kate, Octomom and Balloon Boy -- do you feel better served by the news establishment?
The easy answer, of course, is you must be kidding. Shriveling news operations seem increasingly seduced by the sensational, at least when they're not boring people with inside political baseball.
But tilt the picture just a bit. On Jan. 1, 2000, there was no Huffington Post or Daily Kos or National Review Online or Politico or Facebook or Twitter. There were a relative handful of bloggers -- I joined their ranks that summer -- but nothing like the tens of millions who permeate cyberspace today. If you had a BlackBerry, it was a two-way pager. The iPhone was but a glimmer in Steve Jobs's eye. The only mass medium for downloading music was six-month-old Napster. The fledgling Google was covered mainly by tech writers.
Fox News was the third-place cable network in prime time, averaging 248,000 viewers. Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather drew nearly 30 million viewers. In short, while the Internet had delusions of grandeur -- AOL was 10 days away from swallowing Time Warner in that ill-conceived marriage -- the old gatekeepers still reigned.
There are many reasons why the 2000s have been hard on the dinosaur media, but I, for one, would not want to return to the days before instantaneous search, smartphones, online video, Wikipedia and the rowdy, raucous arena known as the blogosphere. This eruption has drawn the masses into the maelstrom, enabling them to do what the pros do, sometimes faster and better.
But first let's examine what Time, in one of a spate of similar pieces, calls the "Decade from Hell." The media scorecard wasn't all bad. Chronicling the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks helped reassure and comfort a shaken nation. Newspapers exposed George W. Bush's domestic surveillance program and secret CIA prisons abroad and the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed. The aggressive approach to Hurricane Katrina revealed negligence and ineptitude on a stunning scale. And war correspondents have shown incredible bravery, in some cases paying with their limbs or lives.
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But the two biggest disasters of early-21st-century coverage remain a permanent stain on journalism. The failure to challenge the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq -- and an accompanying tendency to dismiss antiwar voices -- is now regretted by the news organizations themselves. And having served mainly as cheerleaders for the tech bubble that popped in 2000, the press fell way short on the housing and lending bubble that nearly sank our economy in 2008. I know a few financial journalists sounded warnings, but, collectively, the media did far too little to spotlight a shadow banking system built on preposterously exotic risks and federal regulators who blithely looked the other way.
It was complicated and dull, yes -- much like the year-long effort at health-care reform that finally passed the Senate on Christmas Eve. I would credit the media with a valiant attempt to explain and examine this legislative morass, even to the point of declaring that the high-decibel charges about death panels were bogus. But polls showed that many Americans believed the kill-Grandma theme nonetheless, just as a stubborn minority persists in believing that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii, despite the media's dismissal of such nonsense.
If news organizations have lost much of the public's trust, some have themselves to blame. Over the past decade, the breathtaking fabrications of Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today revealed dysfunctional newsrooms that missed the flashing red lights. Rather's reliance on suspect documents in challenging Bush's National Guard service, which cost Rather the CBS anchor chair, was a huge setback as well. That story was driven in part by conservative bloggers, just as the scandal over Alberto Gonzales politicizing the selection of U.S. attorneys was galvanized by the liberal site Talking Points Memo.
Partisanship is unabashed on the Web, and increasingly on cable, as is evident from the prime-time parade of Republican lawmakers and commentators on Fox and Democratic lawmakers and pundits on MSNBC. This has fueled the fragmentation of a business that can benefit by reinforcing what its followers already believe. At the same time, the media mainstream played a central role in fostering sky-high expectations for Obama, which, inevitably, crashed into the messy reality of governing.
The rise of niche journalism is taking place as old-line organizations more frequently chase tabloid melodramas. Cable television and morning shows breathlessly pursue narratives involving missing white women, a runaway bride, a mom with octuplets, a beauty queen who opposes gay marriage. Reality television manufactures faux stars -- remember the media mobs over Paris Hilton's brief jail term? -- who wind up on real newscasts. It is a mind-set that breathes life into celebrity deaths -- such as the two-week frenzy over Michael Jackson's -- and gorges on misbehavior by the likes of David Letterman and Tiger Woods. (Imagine if all the reporters chasing Woods's many mistresses had been assigned to study whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.)
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As fate would have it, all this has coincided with the collapse of the business model that sustained mainstream outfits for generations. The digital revolution has killed off several newspapers and sent those in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore into bankruptcy; the Washington Times, which is cutting nearly half its staff, has just ended its weekend print run. Plummeting revenue has killed off numerous magazines -- Portfolio, Gourmet and Vibe among the latest victims. And when Comcast struck a deal to buy NBC Universal, the television network itself was treated like scrap metal.
If the declining health of the traditional media is the barometer, the '00s have been an unmitigated bummer. But the past decade has also brought such digital delights as Twitter, where I learn new things every day. Those posting there provide links to stories that eluded my radar, striking observations about the news, zingers in ongoing debates, and perhaps a funny line or two. Many of those I follow are journalists and pundits, but some are regular folks who have dived into the rolling conversation, no credentials necessary.
Sometimes I think back to the cumbersome business of information-gathering when you actually had to call people rather than pinging them by e-mail. I can remember searching for ancient newspaper articles on microfilm; going to the Justice Department to pore over lobbying records; visiting C-SPAN to watch videotapes of campaign commercials from far-flung local races. Now huge storehouses of knowledge are available with a couple of mouse clicks.
What a head-snapping contrast: a low moment for old-fashioned journalism and a soaring moment for instantaneous information. Now those of us in the news racket have to figure out ways to exploit and organize this treasure trove while somehow getting people to pay for what we produce rather than Googling it for free. That's a big mountain to climb, and if we have another decade like the last one, we may be permanently stranded in Death Valley.
Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."