A response to Mass Media and Society (James Curran and Michael Gurevitch), Chapter 10
Daniel Hallin argues in “Commercialism and Professionalism in the American News Media” that the decline of journalistic professionalism due to commercialism is not necessarily bad or good but instead a complex change. He agrees with one side of the debate that it may lead to a more democratic media, but says that the old school worry about declining standards and less public-affairs information is probably true as well.
Hallin traces the development of professionalism in the media by citing a 1940s-era Commission on the Freedom of the Press report that reflected concerns similar to those we have today. The commission found that the political leanings of media owners and concentration of ownership required that journalists consider their work as a public service, not just a job. On the other hand, more recent developments have pushed for more market-driven journalism. Forces such as competition for viewership with television and public (stock market) ownership of media companies have made many newspaper executives advocate market-driven reporting. In television, increased competition, deregulation, the rise of local news and reality-based programming and large media-corporate mergers have pushed away from professionalism as well. Hallin says that despite all this, pro-market editors and owners have not won the argument-professionalism is still alive on the individual journalist level. More to the point, he believes that neither side is right. For example, though market-driven shows like Hard Copy, Larry King Live and Jerry Springer may give voice to individuals with controversial minority beliefs that would never be touched by hard news reporters, these shows are more interested in exploitation and fear-mongering than discussion of issues. Hallin says that old-style professional reporting leads to regrettable practices like accepting the government’s official version of events and covering news more important to the elites. On the other hand, the market-driven ideology might lead to information-rich media for elites and information-poor media for the masses-which is hardly democratic.
I agree with Hallin, although I think many of the faults he finds with the professional media may have been faults of the culture of the 1950s and 60s instead. The tendencies to focus on Washington, accept the official line, and cover foreign affairs in terms of national security were more due to World War II and the Cold War than professionalism in general-it was in the name of professionalism, not marketing, that Watergate was exposed. Also, many of the things that may be attributed to marketing, like the drive for diversity reporting, are as much part of a shift in professional ideals as anything else-Hallin even gives the example of professionals wanting to cover the inner city even though suburbanites are more interested in champagne prices. He’s right that the last 20-30 years have been a mixed bag for the mass media and information consumers. There are more shows bending the line between entertainment and journalism than ever before, but on the other hand the market has created hundreds of television channels where there were just three, including 24-hour news coverage.