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What's wrong with the news business?

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz tells us news people are quitting the business in droves these days out of frustration with a craft that just isn’t what it used to be.

To which, I say, “Good news.” The more the merrier. The exit doors are clearly marked. Don’t let them hit you on your way out.

“It’s a business that grinds people up and doesn’t hug back,” says Deborah Potter. Gee, I don’t remember anyone telling me that hugs were part of the deal.

“It was clear to me there was something dysfunctional in this whole arena,” complains Paul Taylor. Yeah, there’s something dysfunctional, all right. Look in the mirror, pal.

The snivelers, Kurtz tells us, are fed up with their industry and want to reform it. They’re being attracted by big salaries at do-gooder foundations bankrolled by the Pews, the Rockefellers and others who have done their level best to ruin other cultural institutions. Now they have their sights set on the press.

But, it’s funny, when you look around at the folks who are leaving — or, at least those who are getting the attention for leaving — their complaints about the news profession ring hollow. In fact, they seem to want to take the press further in the direction that has proved so damaging to the institution already.

“The defections suggest the degree to which the news business is racked by self-doubt,” Kurtz writes. “Multiple crises — sensationalism, downsizing, profit pressures, deceptive tactics, racial tensions, dwindling audiences — have filled many newsrooms with angst. Journalists have plummeted in public esteem in the past decade. Polls show growing frustration in increasingly middle-aged newsrooms.”

There’s something really pathetic about all this self-pity. Who do these people blame for the dwindling audiences? Why do they think the public holds them in such contempt? And what’s at the root of their frustration besides their own inability to fool all of the people all of the time?

The public is turning away from the establishment media because they are not meeting their needs. It’s that simple. Sure, many of the problems with the press are created by the corporate culture bred by the likes of Gannett. But that’s not the whole problem — not by a long shot. Journalists themselves are an integral and equal part of the disaffection. And the longer it takes them to realize it, admit it and do something about it, the more damage they do to their craft. Instead, the “reformers” only blame others.

Quite simply, for a generation now, journalists have lost their way. They have lost sight of their central mission — their chief responsibility. And what is that? Easy. The most important role of a free press in a free society is to serve as a watchdog on government — to be the first line of defense against official corruption, fraud, waste and abuse.

Is there any argument with that? The Founding Fathers of this great country understood how critical that function would be to their new country. It’s the very reason they invented the First Amendment. That’s right, folks, it wasn’t to protect Larry Flynt, it was to protect our freedoms.

Instead of this noble crusade, journalists have decided their primary mission is to be a watchdog on the people. So they preach to us — daily. Am I exaggerating? OK, when was the last time you saw an investigative report on the front page of your daily newspaper that actually questioned the expansion of government, that demonstrated the failure of federal bureaucracies (other than the military), or that broke a story about wrongdoing by a high public official?

It just doesn’t happen anymore. Incredible as it seems, the reporting isn’t being done. If you doubt me, just keep this in mind as you’re watching the evening news or reading your local bird-cage liner for the next few weeks.

Watchdogging the government isn’t the only role of the press, of course, but it should be the first. If they can’t get that right, what hope is there that they will do anything else worthwhile?

But the quitters don’t get it. Listen to Bill Kovach, former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for instance.

“We bitch all the time, but the working journalist feels more and more frustrated that these complaints aren’t going anywhere. There’s a rising level of concern about the degree to which work in the newsroom is pressured and shaped and interfered with by the pressures of the marketplace. It’s mutated into a virus that’s begun to destroy journalism.”

The pressures of the marketplace? These are the words of a guy who thinks he’s owed a job running a daily newspaper — a man who just can’t quite accept that he’s out of touch with mainstream America.

What marketplace? Another big problem with the press today is that there is no competition. How many cities in this country have competing dailies? What real difference is there between the major television networks and the way they tell the news? A dose of market economics would be a great antidote to the viruses infecting the press. Instead, we have government-sanctioned monopolies doing their best to control the flow of information.

I have walked away from more exciting jobs in the news business than any of these crybabies. The first time was in 1987 — long before the current wave of self-doubt and whining. Twice I have been enticed to come back and direct daily newspapers — operations than ran counter to all the conventional wisdom of the industry. But there is a tremendous amount of opposition to any real innovation in the press — and most of it comes straight from these “reformers” who, when you get right down to it, really can’t tolerate anyone thinking differently from them.

Follow this kind of thinking and every news organization in America will read and sound like National Public Radio. Would that be an improvement?