October 19, 2015

These are sad times at the Boston Globe. Thursday the paper laid off or bought out nearly forty full and part-time news room staffers. Saturday the newspaper headlined its own commissioned poll of New Hampshire voters. I was jarred by the juxtaposition of the deteriorated ability to deliver real news with the promotion of the poll’s pseudo-news.

As a media critic my ignorance is both broad and deep. But as someone who cares about the Globe – I go back to George Frazier’s search for duende  – I count myself as one of the many who have enormous concern about the atrophy of the civic role of newspapers.  The market demands that the media business deliver more of what we want to see rather than what we need to know; and to do it with fewer resources.

The Globe has enormous impact. Two examples: in 2014 the paper won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing.  In 2003 the Globe won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church – that reporting literally changed the world.

Not every story changes the world but many stories deserve to be told. The Globe’s Andrew Ryan provides consistent coverage of Boston City Hall (probably to the regret of many city councilors). In 2014 MassPoliticsProfs Jerold Duquette, Peter Ubertaccio and I attended the Massachusetts Republican Party convention. We hung out with some fine professional journalists many of whom, like us and all the delegates, left after Charlie Baker’s acceptance speech. The Globe journalists remained and reported that behind closed doors the party attempted to flim-flam Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher out of his rightful spot on the primary ballot.

Thus disheartened by the layoffs, my slumping spirits sunk further with the Saturday pseudo-news of the Globe’s poll of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters.  As Tom Rosenstiel wrote in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2005, “Polls are a form of marketing for news organizations.” I suppose that as one who wants a real news outlet like the Globe to survive and thrive I should accept the marketing imperative. Still, I can’t escape the judgment that a media poll is pseudo-news.  In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America Daniel Boorstin described a pseudo-event as an event that is staged solely so that it can be reported upon.

A media poll is a classic pseudo-event. The Globe commissions its own poll and then reports on the poll; it creates the news and reports on it. (I am unaware of any news organization that has commissioned a bank robbery and then reported on it). Quite a few other news organizations are doing the same thing - and by the way, none of their horse race findings are likely to correlate with the primary results.

We should feel bad for the laid off Globe staffers, many of whom have families to support and are cast out into a world that is not clamoring for skilled journalists. But let’s shed a tear for ourselves as well. Democracy requires that citizens have access to real news, not pseudo-news. These are sad times for us all.

Boston, Globe

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