Imagine if the press in America were truly free—if journalism cost absolutely nothing to produce. What would reporting be like if it were unencumbered by the need to make profits, if a news operation’s survival didn’t depend on generating clicks, ginning up subscriptions or depositing asses in front of TVs?
What if our media were also free of the greed for power—free of a corporate owner’s desire to please a politician whose actions could affect the company’s bottom line, of reporters who ask only friendly questions in order to retain access to the highest levels of power, of newsroom workers who have fixed their compasses on moving up at the expense of making a difference?
Would our stories be more aggressive and our questioning of politicians, of all stripes, more adversarial? Would more whistle-blowers be willing to step forward? Would newsrooms be more inclined to launch risky investigations, tackle difficult subjects and take on projects that require more time, manpower and money than they’re able to commit now?
We all know the answers.
When I became a journalist, I didn’t do it because I wanted to get rich quick, or even slowly. I did it because I believed I was joining a kind of church, a cult that worshipped curiosity and the First Amendment, whose members believed we were performing a public service integral to our way of life. We were there to represent all Americans, to be their eyes and ears, and to bring back to them the gritty details of how government really worked, how our leaders behaved behind closed doors and how our tax dollars were used.
That is what I believed profoundly when I took my job at CBS News in 1989. I lost that job almost 16 years later in a political firestorm triggered by corporate fear and partisan political attacks after Dan Rather and I broadcast a challenging 60 Minutes II story about the sketchy military record of then president George W. Bush.
What I didn’t realize when we aired that story was that in the years between my first day at CBS and the day I was asked to leave the building and never come back, our media models had devolved into something much less than a fully free press. They’d become profit-first businesses built on the belief that freedom of the press simply wasn’t worth the cost. That thinking has been behind the decades-long drive of corporate owners to cut corners in news coverage, lay off a generation of reporters and shutter news outlets that weren’t meeting unrealistically high profit margins. At some point, profitability and the First Amendment became mutually exclusive.
If our media universe were a restaurant, American news consumers would be undernourished.
Once upon a time, we had very few outlets for news and information. Now, though we seem to have more choices, it’s a digital delusion. In 1983, 50 companies controlled 90 percent of our media. Over the next three decades, the Federal Communications Commission relaxed or eliminated multiple rules limiting media ownership. Today, thanks to consolidation, mega-mergers, hostile takeovers and financial hard times, the number of controlling companies is down to six. And those six companies—Comcast, Walt Disney, News Corp., Time Warner, Viacom and CBS—have made callow choices about what Americans should be able to see and learn about the world around us.
If our media universe were a restaurant, American news consumers would be undernourished. We exist on a steady diet of intellectual junk food—cotton candy, Cheez Whiz and chicken wings—with an occasional hunk of raw red meat thrown into the mix. Like children whose every meal is delivered through a car window, we’re getting exactly what media executives think we want, not what they know we need—and not what we deserve.
That’s why a blustering reality-TV star has seemed to so many Americans a viable candidate to lead the country. And the media has facilitated Donald Trump, the Honey Boo Boo of Campaign 2016, by giving him free, unfiltered access to American audiences—not because he’s brilliant but because he’s ratings gold.
It’s not as easy as it used to be to stay informed, but it’s more important than ever before. That leaves the onus on American citizens to curate our own coverage, to serve as our own editors in compiling a go-to list of news sites, newspapers and television programs. We have to read international news and consider analysis from people with whom we fundamentally disagree. We have to try new things, such as journalistic start-ups that operate as non-profits. We have to protect whistle-blowers, support websites and editors that rail against the status quo and champion reporters who regularly earn the wrath of the rich and powerful.
We all know the future of our news media is digital, but we aren’t there yet—not by a long shot. We’re still chimps in command of a jumbo-jet cockpit, thrilled to be along for the ride but not quite sure where we’re going or how to get there.
We can use our desktops as windows into the universe, our laptops to learn about the world and our smartphones to access the wisdom of the ages—or we can use them to take pictures of our genitals and text them to one another.
Maybe it’s time we stopped dicking around.
Mary Mapes is a journalist, author and Peabody award–winning television news producer.