NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Richard Reeves, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, visited Rutgers University on March 27 to speak about the dynamic environment of modern journalism.
Reeves is a syndicated columnist and has worked for notable publications such as the New York Times, New Yorker, and Esquire magazine, as well as authored several books.
Reeves' lecture, entitled "The New Minstrels," reflected a journalism industry that he compared to the circulation of information in the Middle Ages.
"[In the middle ages] minstrels – and liars – would travel from prince to prince, king to king, and tell the stories that may or may not have been true," he said.
Reeves likened this to the context of news in the digital age, where the sources of information are so numerous and diverse it can be easy to deceive and misinform the audience.
Reeves' expressed great reservations about the tendency of journalism students, already vastly outnumbered by their public relations counterparts, to accept corporate jobs.
He said what those jobs produced came wrapped in the veneer of news, but that in reality it was closer to advertising.
"We are becoming a nation of cheaters and liars, and nothing could be worse," he said. "To me, it's the end of the world."
Reeves' said there is a frightening tendency to disguise entertainment as news, something he asserted has far-reaching implications for American society.
"Everything is becoming entertainment, even war." he said. "We have a volunteer [military] so war has become a spectator sport."
However, Reeves' said in this case the best cure may well be more of the disease: If entertainment is to be disguised as news, why not disguise news as entertainment?
"I fear entertainment, but I understand its power," he said. “Package the information as entertainment, [like the film] 12 Years a Slave."
A prime example is satire news like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart which does not pretend to be journalism, and yet points out many of the downfalls of modern mass media.
"In the end you have to welcome [these shows] because they do bring perspective," he said. "Politics has always been entertainment – as they say, 'politics is show business for ugly people.' I think [satire] is a necessary part of the mix."
While entertainment may have a part to play, Reeves said journalism could find opportunities in the growing demand for information around the world.
Because of the proliferation of digital devices in emerging economies, Reeves said journalists would find eager recipients of fact-based, unbiased information overseas.
"Journalism is, globally at least, a growth industry," he said.
Still, Reeves bemoaned the actions of cable news giants like CNN, specifically their extensive coverage of the missing Malaysian flight MH370.
"The role of the journalist is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and there's been a lot of chaff in [the missing plane] story," he said.
But, he said the lackluster coverage went beyond poor journalism–it was a reflection of what the audience demanded.
"CNN's ratings have doubled in the last few weeks, and CNN is reporting nothing but the Malaysian flight. They have these bubbleheads coming on with absolutely no idea what they're talking about," he said.
Though it may pass as journalism and command an immense audience, Reeves did not equate CNN's coverage with real reporting.
To resuscitate the abysmal heartbeat of professional journalism as it once was requires a more robust education in ethics and a belief that news reporting is a public service, he said.
"Ethics is part of what we've got to teach," he said. "But we have to show that journalism is a great way to make a living and a great way to change the world."
The difficulties in imparting those notions are great, Reeves said.
"We have to teach more than we now know."