Al McCombs

Al McCombs

In a discussion with friends last week a familiar term was tossed out that I believe is misleading in its application, inferring a left-wing influence on our sources of information.

“Mainstream media” is misused. “Mainstream” to me refers to a common belief accepted by most people. “Media” can mean anything from Facebook or billboards to the print newspaper that has been my life. Nevertheless, “mainstream” has become an oft-derogatory reference by those who feel that the press has become left-leaning--by the current U.S. administration in particular. This makes the term an oxymoron. 

Next week being National Newspaper Week, there will be many attempts by the press to sell itself as the preferred information media. There will also be counter attacks on media veracity (i.e. truthfulness and objectivity). One of print’s biggest competitors is social media. 

Studies show that amid a climate of deepening political polarization and widening views on how well the news media uphold their societal responsibilities, Americans are becoming more vocal in their criticism.  Analysis indicates Democrats appear more concerned with those who are attacking the news media and the adverse impacts on both journalists and our democracy. Republicans tend to believe the problem lies with the media itself. I’m willing to spread the blame both ways.

This divergence echoes Republicans’ more negative assessments of how well the news media upholds American democracy as well as their greater concern with the lack of political diversity in news media organizations, compared to the views of Democrats and independents.

YouTube has become an important source of news for many Americans according to a Pew Research Center study. About a quarter of all U.S. adults say they get news there. And while relatively few of these people say YouTube is their primary news source, most of them say it is an important way they stay informed. 

Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times said the rise of social media amplifies gut feeling over critical thinking. Look at our national Tweeter in Chief.

My contribution to Newspaper Week this year is to kick it in the pants. I agree that much criticism is earned as family-owned community newspapers give way to investors more interested in profit than good journalism. I have my own complaints about this trend.

Basically I’m a 20th Century journalist, trained in the middle of a century where much of the press from the New York Times to the Chino Champion was basically family owned and/or operated according to traditions established between World War I and our 9-11. (Did you ever notice that the two of us have something in common? We both usually use titles of  Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc. with last names.)

 My role-models were people like William Allen White of the Peoria, Kansas Gazette; two California mentors of mine, Lowell Jessen, conservative publisher of the Turlock Daily Journal who took me in as a cub reporter; and Ken Leake of the Woodland CA Daily Democrat who taught me what local news coverage really is. I admired Aggie Underwood of the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner as an example of what a true big city editor could really do. Add in Terry Francke, the state’s open meeting guru who I knew for many years and worked with, who educated both newspaper people and local government on the Brown Act and open meeting laws.

Caught somewhat in an economic bind, the print press has given up some of its ability to force local government to be more “transparent,” the popular term now for “open.” Authorities feel more comfortable now withholding information without challenge. Fifty years ago, two daily newspapers in addition to the Champion covered our city and school district, and reporters were quick to object, often openly at a meeting, if they thought deliberations were being hidden from public view. That pressure no longer exists.

Newspaper editors have slackened, in some cases because their numbers have been cut.                The number of “For the Record” listings in papers like the Los Angeles Times indicates a lack of fact checking. Some papers allow question marks to appear in news headlines, a sign of commentary rather than straight news.

Readers have shorter attention spans, yet news articles are getting longer as the number of items are reduced, leaving much of what happens uncovered. This is a reverse of the old USA Today policy developed in 1982 using shorter items to attract busy readers. But these consume more time. Sometimes long, boring stories take up full or half pages. And even with less pages because of advertising cutbacks, editors run larger pictures to take up space. Local news in the dailies suffers badly.

The size of headlines no longer indicates the importance of the story. They are much larger overall because that fits the preestablished page matrix and makes the stretched editor’s job easier. Stylists have taken over the editor’s job.

That’s my mainstream view.

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