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The late Gene Patterson, who was then editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in 1963 wrote an editorial in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that was a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Speaking to his fellow Southerners, he said it was too short-sighted to blame only those who blew up the church; it was the fault of everyone who allowed racism to persist in the culture:

It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

This column was also read aloud by Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News.” It was a time when news media leaders condemned not only those who directly perpetrated acts of terror but also those in society who let racism persist. I’m saddened by the fact that today not only don’t we see this kind of condemnation from some news media leaders for systemic causes of what happened in Charleston, but instead we see from some overt attempts to find alternative explanations other than racism for this act of terrorism.

As I sit reading weak-ass editorials from some of our nation’s largest newspapers — decrying the shooting in Charleston as “tragic” and “incalculable” while barely if at all acknowledging our collective cultural complicity in allowing such racism to occur — I am relieved that at least we still have someone in the professional media who plays a role as our collective moral compass. Too bad that person is a comedian.


Newseum. Photo by David Monack. Used under Creative Commons license. (

Last weekend, I visited one of my favorite places in Washington, D.C. — the Newseum. I like visiting the Newseum not because of its focus on journalism, but rather because I think it does a pretty good job at being a modern (mostly American) history museum. I think the idea of a museum of news is a great one, especially for journalism geeks like me.

I’ve been to the Newseum five or six times since it re-opened in D.C. in 2008 (from its original location across the Potomac in Rosslyn). Each time, I still enjoy myself, especially the new exhibits. In fact, this time we barely made it through half of the museum in the three hours we had to visit (Luckily, thanks to a Groupon deal, I am now a member of the museum for the next year, so I’ll go back).

A new feature – and disappointment
The News History Gallery — usually one of my favorite spots, with its collections of printed material going back centuries and well-produced educational videos — had a new section about “Newspapers Fight for Survival.” In fact, I was initially excited about seeing this feature, as I think that this important topic isn’t well-presented to the public most of the time, so a discussion about the structure of the NEWS BUSINESS could really help provide a fuller picture of the history and status of journalism, beyond the idealistic picture found in the rest of the museum.

The text of this section says, “Revenue and Circulation Decline, but It’s Not Over Yet.” It goes on to say, among other things:

What went wrong? For years, newspapers generated most of their income from classified ads and other advertising. The Internet changed everything by giving advertisers and readers more options, and more Americans now get their news online.

What this section suggests is that there are two main causes to the newspaper industry’s decline:

  1. Decline in advertising dollars, due both to lack of classified advertising and the current economic recession, and
  2. Decline in print circulation, due mostly to the Internet and readers’ changing habits of news consumption.

Don’t be mistaken. These two issues are major ones, but they are only part of the story. Moreover, I think by focusing on these two issues — and nothing else — the Newseum suggests to visitors that newspapers’ only saving grace would be either an increase in advertising or a society where people pay for online information. Those are the only options.

Some unanswered questions: What about the fact that newspapers are still very profitable, just not at the level that corporate owners and Wall Street expect? What about the fact that newspaper profits are still higher than most other Fortune 500 companies, but just not at the 20-percent margins of yesteryear? What about the fact that newspaper print circulations are actually steady or increasing in much of the rest of the world? What about the fact that the big metro papers in the most trouble were bought by big conglomerates using credit before the recession, and now those big corporations can’t pay their debt obligations?


One of the principles of journalism, say Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and the Committee of Concerned Journalists, is to be “comprehensive and proportional.” They use the metaphor of a map, that at the heart of truthfulness is that notion that the map shows me how things really are, without misconstruing certain features over others. If this is a map of the newspaper crisis, then I might think I’ll soon be falling off the edge of the world.

Of course, the Newseum isn’t a news organization, per se, but considering that it is run by many former journalists, I think I can expect that same level of commitment to the truth. That being said, I was looking at this exhibit in the News Corporation News History Gallery, which is upstairs from the Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery, which is down the hall from the Time Warner World News Galley. And of course the Newseum is run by the Freedom Forum, formerly the Gannett Foundation.

My point is this: Part of the story of the news crisis is the role of corporate owners. Can that story be told in a museum heavily funded by some of these same organizations that might be complicit in exacerbating the crisis? I’m not suggesting that anyone is intentionally trying to suppress some bit of information. But if part of the story of the newspaper crisis is based on structural components of the news business, we need to recognize that it might be hard to tell that story when surrounded by the very structure to be discussed.

This post is about a museum, but clearly these controls apply to the news business as well.

This past weekend I finished reading “Mediating the message,” a classic mass communication theory book that explores factors of the media environment that influence content. It was nice, then, when I saw on Sunday the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace, talking about his take on the source of the bias in news media.

While Wallace admitted to there being a conservative slant on FOX, he said it exists as a “counterbalance” to the mainstream media outlets, which he says display a liberal bias. Stewart disagreed, saying that perhaps MSNBC has become an outlet with a clear liberal slant (though only after the success of FOX’s business model), but most other news organizations have no clear political bias.

It seems what Wallace is trying to suggest that the liberal bias comes mostly from individuals acting as activists. Stewart, on the other hand, suggests aspects of organizational structure and routines that influence the content. “The bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict, and laziness,” he says.

In “Mediating the message,” authors Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese suggest a theory of influence on media content, focusing somewhat holistically on both micro- and macro-level factors. These factors exist, according to the theory, on five levels: individual, routines, organizational, extramedia, and ideological. Stewart’s last comment on the biases toward “sensationalism, conflict, and laziness” speaks to qualities that exist within several of these levels, and in most cases, they are very deeply embedded in the media outlets both hosts are discussing.

Let’s take sensationalism and conflict, for example. Most news organization — FOX News included — are vying for audiences that like entertainment programming and the easy-to-follow stories that go along with it. Or at least that’s what we think we know about them. So, we tend to gravitate toward coverage of stories that can be told in an narrative that has characters, conflict, etc. Take the Weiner coverage for example. Congressman does something devious, gets caught, lies, comes out with truth. That’s pretty easy to follow. There are characters. There’s a conflict. There’s a resolution. The end.

In fact, the structure is so biased to such coverage that after Anthony Weiner resigned, as Stewart mentions in his appearance on FOX, all of the 24-hour news channels went to Nancy Pelosi’s regularly scheduled press conference. They expected her to talk about the Weiner story, but when she said she wouldn’t be answering any questions about it and would instead be talking about jobs and Medicare, all the stations dropped the live feed.

I remember once in grad school in 2006 I was watching one of the cable news channels cover an insignificant story that had narrative appeal (I can’t remember the exact story). I asked myself when this all started, meaning when did journalism become so sensationalistic.  My roommate at the time (Nick Geidner, who is also a media scholar), always the comedian, decided to answer my obviously rhetorical question with a very short answer: “1994.”

What Nick meant was that 24-hour news showed its strength in the late 80’s and early 90’s with coverage of the Gulf War. After the war ended in 1991, audiences had fewer reasons to turn to the channel as much as they might have during the war. That is until 1994, and ensuring OJ Simpson mania. The realization that this new medium could cover even insignificant yet conflict- and narrative-filled stories all the time changed the nature of what news is. The Internet — and the so-called never-ending news cycle — has only exacerbated those routines. Jon Stewart on FOX News Sunday said something similar:

24-hour news networks are built for one thing, and that’s 9/11 and the type of gigantic news event that the type of apparatus that exists in this building and exists at the other 24-hour (news networks) is perfectly suited to cover.

In the absence of that, they’re not just going to say, ”There’s not that much that’s urgent or important or conflicted happening today. So we are going to gin up; we’re going to bring forth more conflict and more sensationalism because we want you to continue watching us 24 hours a day, seven days a week — even when the news doesn’t necessarily warrant that type of behavior.”

Wallace seems to think that the individual political perspectives of those who work at mainstream media organizations is liberal (maybe slightly, according to some research on the topic). What he fails to see, however, is that the other factors are far more influential on news content. It’s the heavily commercial structure of the media system, which values stories that produce more eyeballs regardless of their service to the public interest. It’s the routines of frequently using the same sources. It’s the technology that pushes us to get news out faster. It’s all of these factors and more influencing each other and, in myriad ways, content.

While Wallace is probably right that some personal political beliefs influence coverage, it’s the core parts of the media structure that more greatly affect what we see on the news. Of course, those antecedents are much more complex. And more difficult to blame so easily.