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FROM THIS EPISODE

A Furnace of Babbling Heads

For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

I read a bit of nostalgia this morning in the New York Daily News, and it rang all too true.

Columnist Denis Hamill wrote that he vividly remembered, 30 years ago, watching the movie All the President's Men, which "immortalized two rumpled young reporters with heel-worn shoes, dog-eared notebooks, ballpoint pens and boundless tenacity who helped take down an arrogant President who had run roughshod over the Bill of Rights."

After that movie came out, he said, "a stampede of kids entered journalism schools across the land, hoping to change the world."

In the three decades since the resignation of Richard Nixon, "the state of American journalism has plunged into terrible decline," Hamill said. It's because people get more and more of their news from the Internet and from 24-hour cable news, which Hamill calls "that insatiable furnace of babbling heads screaming for attention as they hawk their books instead of providing the public with hard news. They might as well be Fuller Brush salesmen."

In the mad quest for ratings, Hamill wrote, "TV 'news' executives plop non-journalists in front of microphones, point cameras at them and tell them they are now journalists. Few of them have ever climbed three flights of stairs at 4 a.m. on Christmas Eve to interview the family of a murder victim, trying to make order out of the chaos. Few ever made notes about the sights and smells and sounds of a blackout in the ghetto in midsummer.

"None of them ever knocked on the same door four times the way Woodward and Bernstein did, meeting frightened secret sources in the wee hours of the night, piecing together scraps of information into a puzzle of investigative journalism.

"Now all of them want to be regarded as members of the same guild as real reporters like Woodward and Bernstein... These glorified flacks are never after the truth. They are after one thing -- ratings."

Several other writers this week also addressed the theme of journalism's decline.

Peter Beinart, in The New Republic Online, went after the cable news networks. Fox News, for instance, "constantly trumpets the 'war on terror' but conveys little actual information about events in the Islamic world.

"Instead, it uses 'foreign policy' to endlessly retell a story about the United States, in which Joe Six-Pack faces off against the appeasing, beret-wearing, blame-America-first liberal elites."

As for CNN, Beinart said, "take a look at its February 14 offerings: adolescent wrestling, dangerous dog treats, a teenage murderer, an interview with Judge Judy, and a woman who says her dog discovered her cancer."

On Salon.com, Farhad Manjoo wrote that, "Facing a slow death, newspapers are desperately trying to reach young readers with dumbed-down tabloids full of stories about Kobe, Britney and dental bling."

Manjoo used the example of Hilary Brown, a 20-year-old junior at Northwestern University and currently an intern at San Francisco magazine. "Her goal, she says, is to work as a magazine writer. But for all her interest in journalism, Brown has never warmed to reading a daily newspaper. And when she does read a paper, she's not reaching for the New York Times or for her big local daily, the Chicago Tribune, whose coverage she calls 'repetitive.' There's too much else to do, she says, for her to read the news in such detail.

Manjoo said Brown gets her news from three main sources: The Daily Show, which she says provides her with 'a good grasp of what's going on'; an occasional look the Sun-Times, Chicago' tabloid paper, "which she likes for its size" and a free, daily commuter paper called RedEye, aimed at Chicago's young people.

It's not much, and it doesn't go deep.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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