I remember back in the day when you could buy a great hamburger … a great hamburger as defined as a handful of meat, infused with Tabasco sauce — or a variety of secret family recipes — slapped into the shape of a patty and cooked over a flame.
No two hamburgers were ever the same and were, in every way that matters, constituted of the cook’s lifetime experience.
Alas, along came fast-food joints and hamburgers were offered up cheap and fast … just the way people wanted them. And, by necessity, each hamburger was just like the billions of others.
Force the customers to use baby talk when ordering a burger by naming it something silly, and mop the floors while they sat to eat and then surround diners with cartoon characters and, tragically, any expectation of quality was gone.
The exact same dilution of substance is happening with journalism.
It began with USA Today and its amazing talent to explain away the most complex of issues with pie graphs.
It is a better paper today than it was, but its reason for existence remained and intensified: people wanted quick hits of news unfettered by policy issues and the confusing juxtaposition of “the other side of the story.”
Oh, and hey, make it entertaining, too.
Journalists who only wanted to see their byline and skittish publishers who did not want to take a chance on offering more (time-consuming and expensive) substance, gave the public what they felt the public wanted.
The situation worsened as newspapers were gobbled up by huge corporations that saw these hometown papers as opportunities for “synergy” and “market penetration” instead of the sacred trust they truly are … were.
Today, the slippery slope has brought us to the bottom, inhabited by cable news anchors yelling, news scrolling along the bottom of the television screen, antics of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton leading the nightly news and the pretty lights of the Internet.
Where, in this world, are the investigative reporters?
These are not the one-in-a-million who topple governments; instead, these are the reporters who do not feel their job is done until they have gotten not just both sides of the story, but all sides of the story. They are the wise ones who do not take a press release or announcement at face value.
They are the reporters who speak truth to power and then get accused of being negative.
They are the ones who make someone’s life a little better because a bright light has been shone on their oppressors … but only after following 10 similar stories to a dead end.
Theirs is not an eight-hour shift that results in X number of column inches being written; instead, they are the reason our governments operate in a little more of a self-conscious manner.
If a life unexamined is not worth living, then a government unexamined is not worth living under.
If power corrupts, then unchecked power corrupts absolutely.
But we know all of this already. We know it like we know Mom makes a better hamburger than a fast-food joint. And yet we go for the cheap, mass-produced website written by people who can change their name and website address as soon as the going gets tough.
That’s why I believe a hometown paper is something to be protected. If they are biased and inaccurate, we won’t buy it anymore and it goes out of business. Besides the pride they take in a job well done, this has always been the incentive for excellent journalism.
When you pay for your next small-town newspaper, consider it your contribution to an open democracy that is better because it is being watched with a practised eye.
Remember: you get the hamburger you pay for.
Editor’s Note: My publisher does not agree with my view that the public is at fault for the sorry state of journalism in North America. Next week, she will be a guest columnist in this space to explain why.