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In a Flyover State: Now I’m Officially Scared

Looking back on the state of journalism in 2011 I find myself worried, to say the least. While there are plenty of exceptions, I fear the journalism industry as a whole over the course of the year got a lot more hurried, and a lot less smart. And given the economic realities of the media business, I don’t see what is going to turn that trend around anytime soon.

Yes, there is a ton more information available to the general public. Social media, for instance, gave us a flood of interface with the Middle East during its revolutionary Spring. And right here at home, usergenerated video, or even that offered by tiny Websites, provided us visuals that major news organizations probably wouldn’t have grabbed even in their fat, halcyon days. Undoubtedly, readers and viewers now have access to more information than ever before.

But, like my holiday-expanded waistline, more is simply not better. And unfortunately, in 2011, context often went the way of the New York Jets’ playoff hopes. And that’s mighty worrisome.

Anyone can tell you what is happening in the news. It takes a level of training to decipher it and place it within a hierarchy of everything else you need to know. That is called journalism. And I am petrified it is on the way to becoming a lost—or a significantly less important—art.

I thought about this quite a bit as I stepped away from my job for a week at the end of the year for some down time. I know…I have no life. But during that week down in South Carolina, as my golf game sucked, I needed to distract myself with something even more depressing.

However, this fear was cranked up a notch or three as I watched television the night of Jan. 3. And no, it wasn’t because I was tuning in to the debut of ABC’s horrific Work It, though I am petrified that more than 6 million people actually watched that crap.

It was because I watched coverage of the Iowa caucuses, with my concern increasing as the night went on. If you like fabricated drama, this was your Super Bowl. As you probably know, the “race” for first place went down to the wee hours of the night between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. And the news networks that stayed with coverage—very much to their credit— late into the night got caught up in the battle.

Except there is only one problem: The outcome of that race was completely meaningless. The Iowa caucuses are basically like an NFL preseason game. It is about who can have a surprise showing to catch people’s eye, and who may not be able to compete at this level. That’s all it is. It doesn’t matter who actually wins, especially when it comes down to literally a handful of votes.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some great work being done over the course of the night. For my money, Fox News won the night with its solid coverage hosted by Bret Baier and the underrated Megyn Kelly. And the smartest line of the night came from FNC’s Joe Trippi, who wondered aloud as the night turned to early morning why Rick Santorum had not taken the stage yet—who cares if he actually had won or not, this may be his one chance to speak to much of the nation on the heels of a big success story. I also appreciated the comparisons made—in many media circles—between the entire number of people involved in the caucuses to a crowd at a University of Michigan football game.

Throughout the night, some pundits on different networks would come on and try to calm everyone down and point out how little Iowa does matter (for instance, John McCain finished fourth last time around en route to the nomination).

But once it came down to a handful of votes with just a few precincts to go, anchors playing up this “hotly contested race” were really doing their viewers a disservice. Iowa wasn’t about who “won,” it was simply about who would live to fight another day, period. And maybe about how pissed off Chris Christie must be that he didn’t get in this comically winnable race.

There were some lighter moments throughout the night (the Edith Pfeffer vote-tally phone call being a highlight). And there were downright strange ones, such as CNN’s decision to use two large screens, between which anchors could “flick” graphics back and forth, a toy more suited to the Consumer Electronics Show this week than coverage that night. Anderson Cooper actually wondered aloud at one point about the flick wall and the network’s social media metric, probably speaking for many of the viewers that were still watching in the wee hours.

I’d love to say as we head to New Hampshire this week, sans Michelle Bachmann, that I hope the media catches its breath and steps back a touch. But whom are we kidding? Journalism has quickly become a sprint to parts unknown, as they say in the wrestling business. And perhaps that is a fitting comparison, as we in the industry start the New Year grappling with what to do next.

Many of the business models of old simply don’t hold up anymore, or are taking on water fast. Much of journalism— especially as practiced by those who cover the TV business—still rushes for scoops that last about 10 seconds these days, and many of those scoops are hardly worth the “Exclusive!” tag attached to them.

Real journalism outfits simply can’t outrace the new world order, where anyone with a smartphone can provide pictures or information to the masses. But we can still be smarter. We can provide context and hierarchy. That is what separates journalism from a kid with a phone. Here’s hoping we remember that—even a little bit—as we race more deeply into 2012.

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