When it comes to comparing the work of professionals, whether that person is a businessman, a musician, or a journalist, we usually exalt the giants of the craft. Andrew Carnegie, The Beetles, Edward R. Murrow, we love to talk about what those people did right (or wrong) to rise to the top of their industry, and make themselves into the legends that they are today. When it comes to food, the thought of a professional food critic or a chef sitting in a McDonald’s is something of a jarring, ironic image. Likewise, when we talk about films, the experts are quick to boast of the merits of films like 8 1/2, The Seventh Seal, or the relative merits of Micky Rourke’s role in The Wrestler versus Jeff Bridges’s performance in Crazy Heart.
But the honest truth of it is that not all of us are professionals, not all of us have the developed or cultivated sensibilities of people who “know” what’s relatively better than something else, and we’d be more than happy to settle for a quick burger at a fast food joint or the latest summer blockbuster versus some esoteric foreign film by Alejandro Jodorwosky. You’re not likely to hear completely universal praise suddenly rise up with a passion for anything more than a few steps away from the utterly parochial. But that’s ok; because people have figured out the parochial is exactly what most of us want. It’s what we have time for, it’s what we have the patience to deal with after a 9-5 shift at our job-we-hate-but-can’t-quit-because-we’re-financially-trapped.
Most of us can’t appreciate something beyond the immediacy of our experience; why should the American people expect to care about a war on the other side of the world that most of them know nothing about? It doesn’t effect their lives, so instead we write and talk about the things that do matter to Americans, what some people refer to jokingly as “first-world problems.” The news gets “newsier” when it’s closer to the reader because it becomes more comfortable, less challenging, and more convenient to our already busy lives. But the problem with drifting towards soft-news and “newsier” stories is we begin to blur the line between entertainment and legitimate news. Slowly but surely, a consumer-oriented society unhampered by the burdens of the rest of the planet begins to demand news that fails to suit anything but their most basic, rudimentary needs for some semblance of what used to be a necessary and vital element of the old American ethic of civic involvement. Like Robert Putnam told us in Bowling Alone, all those organizations that tied us together and involved us in our communities fade away as our demands grow more shallow, more “newsie” and less like real news.
That doesn’t mean that the real news has to be boring, stale, dry, or stuffy. But the result of catering to a readers needs is not always in their best interest. Focus groups may have told us that Americans like fatty, greasy foods and the convenience of the businesses that cater to those desires, but with obesity rising, the risk exists that there will be no consumer demand if they’re all dead from coronary strokes. Likewise, though the journalism industry can evolve to continue to suit readers demands after they’re a mere shade of what used to be news, by then they’ll be too stupid to appreciate what’s been lost, and there will be no easy way to replace what’s been lost.