cutting back on its facility for covering international news, it is channelling increasing resources into opinion. The economic and cultural causes of this shift are well documented, including on this blog. But what is not often canvassed are the possible consequences - not just for the media but for politics - of the now routine branding of opinion as news.
Making some valuable insights on this issue recently was Ted Koppel, one of the icons of the classic era of American television journalism from the 1960s and 70s. Koppel spent four decades at the US network ABC and was most widely known for his coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and his long-term anchor role with the late evening news program Newsnight. Now 70, Koppel retired from ABC in 2005 and these days provides occasional analysis for the BBC (he's British-born) and National Public Radio.
In a a guest column this week in The Washington Post, Koppel muses on the irony of outspoken MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann (a sort of left-wing bizarro world Bill O'Reilly) being suspended by that network for making political donations to favoured Democratic candidates. As Koppel says, one could have imagined the outrage if, back in the 1960s, Walter Kronkite had been caught writing cheques for the Republicans. But in an age when journalists are encouraged to share their political opinions with us before they even learn to be reporters, this controversy seems rather, well, quaint.
But Koppel's bigger point is to muse on the effects of the shift in the sense of news from the old ideal of a public service aimed at a mass audience to, now, a corporate profit machine targeting niche markets with versions of opinionated "reality" that are tailored to their own particular world views.
"The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me," Koppel writes "While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's oft-quoted observation that 'everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts' seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts."
Of course, there is a counter argument to this that the post-war, optimistic, cosmopolitan liberalism that foreign correspondents like Koppel, his colleague Peter Jennings and our own George Negus represented was always an ideal embraced by a small elite disconnected from the cares of the "ordinary" folk. And, as is depressingly familiar, the likes of Fox and, here in Australia, Murdoch's local mouthpieces such as Janet Albrechtson gleefully exploit the notion that the "liberal elite" is out of step with the majority. (Janet's paper says of her in her bio that says she is "roundly disliked by judicial activists, the human rights industry, old-style feminists and assorted rent-seekers. None of that troubles her.").
But away from the mischief-making of professional contrarians and hit-seeking online columnists, the media's wholesale closures of foreign news bureaux and the reporting of international news through reliance on wire pictures and local, poorly paid stringers does have real world effects. And those effects relate to our ability to come to grips with the deeply complex international issues now confronting us - irreversible climate change, a fragile financial system, a retreat to nationalism and protectionism and the global movement of people. (Strange, isn't it, that the Right proclaims with missionary zeal the right of capital to cross borders, but turns xenophobic when people attempt to do the same thing?)
As Koppel says, as the media becomes ever more willing to sell its niche audiences a version of the truth that suits their own prejudices, the need for facts and context (the old currency of journalism - however unfashionable it might be) becomes ever greater. In the absence of that need being met, one shudders at the consequences for this world.