James Joyner at Outside the Beltway has a very thoughtful post, "The News Business is a Business," in which he writes:
Austin Cline laments the fact that the news media is giving an “undeservedly large amount of attention” to the death of Anna Nichole Smith and the ensuing legal wrangling and to trivial matters such as Britney Spears’ decision to shave her head. While our politics are virtually 180 degrees apart, we agree on the relative merits of these stories.
The bottom line, though, is that the business of journalism is business. That for-profit businesses lead with the news that they believe, correctly it turns out, that their audience is most interested in should hardly be surprising. That’s how they sell advertising, keep and expand their audience, and ensure their employees can feed their families and pay their mortgages. The fact that “corporations are now pretty much in control of the network news divisions” is nothing new. Further, General Electric and Time Warner are more able to absorb losses than would be a small group of private owners.
More importantly, these fluffy stories pay for the stuff Cline and I find interesting. There’s hardly a dearth of good reporting on matters of war, international affairs, and domestic public policy. Indeed, there’s more of it than most of us can keep up with.
I think that's a pretty reasonable analysis of what's going on, including the appeal to a tradeoff at the end that naturally resonates with an economist. But I think there is something more to it. Even if there is "no dearth of good reporting" (a point on which I do not agree), so-called news organizations are drowning it out with their pre-occupation with non-newsworthy events. We cannot find the signal amidst the noise.
The news media help set a national agenda in this country for topics of broad conversation. Being on that agenda increases the amount of discussion in the public. Being off the agenda decreases the amount of discussion. More discussion leads to more information being made public.
When I read this post at OTB, I found myself thinking back to the summer of 2001, when, with the benefit of hindsight, the news media might have been usefully employed in aggregating up the disparate pieces of information that led to 9/11. Instead, what were the big stories that summer? The ones I remember most were the mania associated with the TV show "Survivor" and, even more so, the disappearance of Chandra Levy. The question is not so much what these so-called news entities were showing, it's what they were not showing because they were showing this other stuff.
The preoccupation with Chandra Levy's disappearance that summer was so consuming for these so-called news organizations that some people have theorized that her disappearance must have been related to 9/11. Want to convince yourself? Do a Google search for "Chandra Levy." As of this writing, the top five hits are the entry in Wikipedia, two stories at CNN.com about her body being found, and then these two from conspiracy theorists.
There is another problem. The news business is a business, to be sure, but it is supposed to be a serious business. These sagas of missing or crazy people just don't rise to the level of seriousness required of a news organization. It is beneath them, and they should recognize it as such. And people notice this lack of seriousness--they begin to impart that lack of seriousness to the whole brand, even when something big happens and we really then do need a serious news organization. And we are all worse off for it.