An unformed thought on the modern journalism ritual

mysocialnetwork-800pxWe live in a world where, for some reason, we know what a Kardashian is. That’s disturbing. What’s worse is my MacBook Pro knows the spelling of “Kardashian.” Somebody somewhere thought it was important to include that. Do we, as a species, really deserve to survive? The cosmic Magic 8-Ball has to be roiling pretty hard on that one. Anyway, the Kardashians came to mind as I read this piece from The Boston Globe. 

This is a blog post and not a carefully researched academic paper, but it seems to me that we see more of this sort of thing nowadays. A person who’s famous for whatever reason appears on television and is asked a question. The famous person turns right around and claims that there was an agreement that the question was off limits. In this particular case the question was about Sarah Palin’s son’s arrest when she was on the Today show to talk about her endorsement of short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump. As Globe columnist Joan Vennochi wrote:

But the awkward exchange that played out after host Savannah Guthrie put it to the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee does make a viewer wonder what is said behind the scenes to lure sought-after subjects to news shows ever in search of ratings gold.

“You guys brought me here to talk about Iowa politics and the caucus tonight — not to talk about my kids,” said Palin. “And that was a promise. But as things go in the world of media, you guys don’t always keep your promises, evidently.”

For the record, host Matt Lauer said during the Palin interview that “no specific promises” were made about content. Unless Palin has something written or recorded about conditions for participation, there’s no way to prove her right and Lauer wrong.

But were there non-specific promises? What nudge-nudge-wink-wink went on to set this interview up? I don’t want to focus too much on this one specific instance because there’s some evidence that what Sarah Palin believes at any given moment is affected by the tides, humidity and barometric pressure.

Celebrities, whether of the Kardashian variety or ones that aspire to political office1, can bypass traditional media channel gatekeepers with greater ease than ever before. It’s always been possible through direct mail and,later, things like fax blasts, but Facebook and Twitter are fast and cheap. The initial message reach might not be as wide as some traditional media, but the multiplier effect of email and good old-fashioned conversation can’t be overestimated. Whereas agenda-setting has always been thought of as a mass media function, it belongs to social media now. #TheTimesTheyHaveChanged.

I think the time for implicit credibility in journalism has passed. Brian Williams, anyone? I still trust Walter Cronkite, but mostly because I also know he’s dead. Everyone else is suspect. My very small proposal is that any time a newsmaker — how ever you want to define that term — is interviewed, there should be an explicit explanation of what understanding was reached in order for the interview to take place. I know this happens in some circumstances now, but it’s not routinely reported. I think it needs to be. Who approached whom? How was it decided that this was the best person to talk to about this thing?

In a world where starting a sentence “In a world” is cliché because everyone knows how press releases are written, it’s long past time to show how the sausage gets made. Otherwise it’s hard not to think you’re not just hearing press releases.

1Oh [deity of your choice], please never let a Kardashian run for office.