Tuesday, November 9, 2010

News when you beg for it

Update (9:56 a.m.) The LA Times updated its story. And the "reporting" only gets worse.
As a former journalist and newspaper editor, I long for the good ol' days. You know, when newspapers really dug into a story. When news organizations reported on stories that people "should" know about, and not the stuff that tickles their fancy.

As circulation declines continue and the corresponding rise of "fluff" appears on local TV news stations, as viewership on the major TV news stations decline, as news magazines grow thinner or simply give up and become an online-only "publications," one has to wonder about the future of news gathering and reporting. And our sensibilities.

As much as I become encouraged that good reporting is not dead - as evidenced by this year's aggressive and solid reporting by the Los Angeles Times in uncovering financial corruption in Bell and other local cities - I come across situations like a mystery missile launch. And, I get depressed all over again.

My journalist "antenna" (you really never lose the instincts) is buzzing with this. So is my disgust.

Last night as the sun was setting (Nov. 8), the KCBS (Los Angeles) television news helicopter records a missile launch off the coast of Southern California. We're used to a few of these a year because of the nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, where sometimes secret military satellites rise above the earth and give us interesting looking contrails. But this missile wasn't coming from Vandenberg. As best anyone can tell, it came out of the ocean south of Vandenberg.

So far this morning, this story is still a minor one in the news cycles. MSNBC is almost laughing it off. From what I can gather (via Google) so far, only an enterprising TV reporter at the CBS affiliate in San Diego has dug a bit to give the curious a hint of what happened. SAN DIEGO! The Los Angeles Times offered only a brief this morning. As of 8 a.m. (PST), there were only 25 stories in a Google search. The story wasn't even on the web site of the TV station that "broke" the story..until just a few minutes ago.

Am I just an aging, former newspaper reporter longing for the old days, or is this lack of reporting an indication of all that ails news today?

The KFMB reporting opens up the door to the bigger story. The President is in Asia. Perhaps the U.S. fired a test ICBM from a submarine just to demonstrate we have a presence in the Pacific? As a visible show of strength to the countries the President is visiting, or near?

On the one hand, it's "comforting" to know we still have a pretty good missile system. But, when was the last time one our submarines "exposed" itself with a test launch? Isn't the whole idea of our "triad" missile system (land, air, sea) to be a bit stealthy in the ocean? One has to assume that the U.S. alerted a few other countries that we were only doing a "test" because an ICBM launch like this would certainly get a few of them on alert.

You can see where my line of questioning would go...if I still had my press pass and a desk in a newsroom.

Just because the rest of Southern California did not get alarmed by this missile launch (the LA Times brief used the word "gorgeous" ! and we were more intrigued by a truck crash that closed a freeway!), shouldn't mean this is a story that gets easily passed over with a "hmmm..that-was-strange" level of reporting.

I go back to this: When was the last time the U.S. fired an ICBM? From a sub? Off the coast of a major U.S. city? While the president was out of the country?

We get better reporting with Hezbollah aimlessly fires missiles into Israel. Here in the U.S., the top five stories this morning included how well Conan did on his opening night return to TV. (The local CBS TV "news" lineup also included another "story" promoting Hawaii Five-O).

So, is this lackluster reporting a symptom, an indicator? In the old days, when news departments felt responsible to give the public the news it "deserves" to know about, the public responded. As much as the public expressed negative sentiment toward the "all you write about is negative news" argument, journalists went to sleep knowing they fulfilled their responsibilities.

Now, when news decisions are based on what "we think" the public wants to know (i.e. which movie won at the box office, which celebrity was arrested), it strikes me as feeding into an overall decline that further contributes to the death of good journalism. And a public without all the news they "should" know.

No comments: