The Story Behind the Story Behind the Story
by Peter Zelchenko May 22, 2009

"I am less concerned with the format of [post-newsprint news] delivery than I am with standards and real we do it, what kinds of institutions that we need to do it. ...We need to find a way to pay for, preserve, and encourage the standards of traditional American journalism that have to do with that concept of the best obtainable version of the truth and not commentary...more hard reporting, less opinion."
--Grizzled journalist Carl Bernstein,
stating the obvious yesterday at the Newberry Library

The Independent Film Channel's Media Project With Gideon Yago bopped into Chicago today with an event at the Newberry Library called "Make Media Matter," about how to make news more relevant to consumers in the new-media jungle. (See this great animated video segment of News Junkie to get briefed.)

The TV show itself is good. It mainly gets into how the world of news acts as a filter for the real story, so that by the time it gets to Americans -- if ever -- it's castrated of balance and humanity. Between Gideon Yago's hip-and-horn-rimmed dreamboat intellectualism, and Green Day's "21st Century Breakdown" as the program's theme song, they've managed to line up the sex appeal and licensing rights needed to hold Millennials' attention on this topic. It's Marshall McLuhan meets South Park.

The reporting happens to be very good, if self-conscious and redundant. Consider not only McLuhan, but also Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, the classic documentary film about the seminal book that Chomsky and Ed Herman sent out from left field more than 20 years ago. IFC's analysis is just a big-budget, postmodern revision of the same. Chomsky said pretty much everything that needed to be said. The problem has been pretty obvious for a long time. There is nothing new under the sun.

(Naturally, everyone knows that Green Day's much-touted new title track is itself a modern mashup of Sweet's 1974 hit "Fox on the Run." They just made it political. So, truly, there is nothing new under the sun.)

But if the show itself is good, the U.S. "town hall" tour left something to be desired. The theme for this tour has been to "Make Media Matter." But "Make Pundits Matter" might be more appropriate. There's a lot of this going around lately. Ken Davis hosted a great event in February, which at least highlighted information rather than hype. (See video and audio highlights.)

At the Newberry event Thursday, they lined up eight big names, including our city's biggest publishers. They had America's foremost media pundit Carl Bernstein, probably the only one paid to fly in. They got the editors of the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Red Eye. They threw in WVON's Cliff Kelley at the last minute -- thanks for almost remembering to be diverse for the virtually all-white audience -- and Attorney General Lisa Madigan was the headliner. Their one success was to bring out Marcus Gilmer, the new editor of our friendly competitor Chicagoist, the only outlet not hooked up to the conventional-newsprint-and-broadcast dialysis machine.

Madigan actually sounded like a journalist and a politician simultaneously, talking about her having opened up public information in the state with her office's recent fixing of FOIA and installing a public information officer. (Now, when is she going to investigate her dad -- before he crowns her governor, or after?)

"Town hall meeting"? This was a two-hour event. The box lunch lasted more than an hour. I couldn't stay the whole time, so I was antsy for the program to begin. But by the time they were done with the packaging -- lunch, atmospherics and theme music, lengthy introductions, the video, and Lisa Madigan's gubernatorial stump-speech -- there must have been only around 40 minutes to hear all eight experts.

Take questions and other time out, and that's maybe four minutes for each of these people to get their point across. I know the new generation has a short attention span, but this is a little overdoing it.

I grabbed the Reader's Mike Miner -- arguably the most experienced analyst of Chicago's news industry -- and asked why he wasn't on the panel. After all, I'm sure he knows more about the industry than our attorney general. He laughed, said he was grateful he hadn't been asked, but added that he was very interested in what Gerould Kern, editor of the Tribune, would have to say.

For hundreds of years, journalism was a cottage craft, where people like Ben Franklin would just buy a press and start printing what they saw and overheard. Through the first half of the 20th century, being a newspaper reporter was being one step up from the pool hall. By 1960, radio and TV news had erupted and newspapers retrenched. This caused huge upheavals in the whole industry. Reporting, like many fields, went abruptly from a largely blue-collar craft to a big-money profession that required a specialized degree to break in. The result has been a certain ivory-tower exclusivism in the profession that has had it putting on airs for more than four decades.

Now, in an age where the money has dried up, pundits are trying to find markets for talking about the news industry. With the new media, the industry has begun changing course. The flanks of its massive ship are painted all over with hip new logos (think Red Eye), but it's taking a while to turn and the wave is slapping it broadside.

So. There you have it: MTV producers looking for a way to sort of make media pundits matter to their viewers. They actually have fallen victim to the problems they attack. Their efforts emphasize hype over content, and then -- almost as an afterthought -- they trot out not those who really get it, but the biggest local publishers, politicians, and pundits who aren't really in the trenches at all. Where was Everyblock's Adrian Holovaty? Where was Jay Rowell, tech guru at the City Clerk's office? Where was Gapers Block's Andrew Huff? (Sorry, cheap self-promotion. But, as I said, everybody's doing it these days.)

The boilerplate for the two-hour event promised insightful inquiry by Chicago's top media visionaries. I walked out with one quote on the obvious from Carl Bernstein (see above), itself a debatable point, and an extra roast beef sandwich. I offered my nosebleed seat to Lisa Madigan and left. Thanks a bunch.

Other good IFC Media Junkie videos:

Episode 1.1: "Race" in the News
Episode 1.2: Gate
Episode 1.3: Narcissism and the Internet
Episode 1.5: Personal Hygiene and Digital Media
Episode 2.1: The Truth About Somalia

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