Christmas often brings on the blues, and nowhere more so than in the news business. Take a look around the media landscape and what do you see? Darkness and ruination. Circulation and ratings are down, not to mention profits. Quality is giving way to crap. So says the bah-humbug conventional wisdom.
But like George Bailey on the bridge in It's a Wonderful Life, we often fail to see the upside of things. Every unpleasant thought the culture is having right now about the media can be turned on its head. It's all a matter of attitude, of how you frame things:
Hostility. There's a lot of ugliness right now between the press and the White House. In the midst of the recent contretemps about whether Iraq is having a "civil war," New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller went on National Public Radio's "On the Media" and said: "In the constellation of things that we have to do that deal with Iraq, including, you know, keeping a large number of correspondents safe and making sure that the story gets well covered and figuring out what the geniuses in Washington propose to do about the war, the discussion of whether or not we use the words 'civil war' or not to describe it, you know, don't rank high on the list of priorities." Ouch. The bit about "the geniuses" tells you all you need to know about current Bush-Times relations, and that more or less represents how things are going between the administration and the media at large. But this tension has a real upside for news consumers. The days when much of the daily Washington coverage of the war had an inert, embedded quality are long gone. Emboldened by the administration's defeat at the polls last month, the news business is on the warpath about the war, as the "civil war" turn made clear. Acrimony can be salutary.
Leaks. The public doesn't much like them, according to the polls. The administration finds them treasonous. White House Counselor Dan Bartlett called the leak of the memo from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley "egregious." When leaks lead to messy, impenetrable scandals like the Valerie Plame business, it's bad news for the media's image. But when the country is in a losing war and everyone is still trying to figure out why, leaks can be just what the doctor ordered. The more that reporters air out this debacle, the better. For the media, and the country at large, this wave of leaks looks like redemption.
Celebrification. Britney Spears makes headlines every day. Her name was just declared the most-searched term on Yahoo! in 2006, the fifth time that's happened in the past six years (at least news outlets are not responsible for that). But what you might not have noticed is that celebrity coverage is not as slavish as it used to be. Much of it looks and feels like a morality play. Think of the Mel Gibson/Michael Richards scandals. Or of Spears herself, whose recent exhibitionist adventures were covered with widespread jaundice. "Britney Keeps Making Fame Look Sleazy," said The Sacramento Bee, succinctly. Celebrity coverage is no longer all softball all the time. This is the age of TMZ.com, and the most sought-after celeb photo is the mug shot.
Dying Newspapers. Well, yes. Every day there's fresh evidence of rigor mortis. But every day also brings news of plutocrats who want to buy the flailing newspapers and revive them. Speaking of celebrities, one Hollywood figure is angling to purchase what is arguably the most endangered of the great newspapers, The Los Angeles Times. "I'm not interested in buying things simply to make money. I'm interested in doing something that's going to be valuable for the community, where I can make a difference," entertainment billionaire David Geffen told The Wall Street Journal, channeling the most ardent owner fantasies of desperate journalists everywhere. "Los Angeles needs a better newspaper," he said.
"I would devote my resources to building a first-class national newspaper."
Come down off that bridge, people. It's almost Christmas and, even in the media, nothing is really as bad as it seems.