The perils of free (or cheap)
The whole country’s talking about it today. The whole world is talking about it, actually. A San Francisco Bay Area television station made what surely will go down as one of the most embarrassing blunders in broadcast history yesterday (July 12th) when it read names of four “airline pilots” on the air that were clearly fake as well as racist pranks.
The names were said to be of the pilots on board Asiana Airlines Flight 214, which crash-landed last Saturday at San Francisco International Airport, killing three people. But a quick glance should have revealed they weren’t.
The station, KTVU Channel 2, which quickly apologized, then apologized again, then took to its web page to apologize further, and as of ten o’clock last night was still apologizing, was once considered the best local TV station in probably the whole U.S. Some people chose to take jobs there instead of going to ABC, NBC or CBS network news. The writing was smart at KTVU, the journalism professional, objective, and accurate. Why do I know so much about it? Because I used to work there, albeit in a relatively small capacity. But I was dang proud of it. We all felt we were on a mission, the sort all television news people believed in back in the days of Murrow. (See the movie Good Night, and Good Luck if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
Since those glory days, however, KTVU—along with most other traditional media—has taken a hit. Stretched resources, downsizing, and most of all the preference for talent straight out of college or small markets over veterans has resulted in a very noticeable decline in quality. And yesterday this mentality of cheaper-at-all-costs came back to bite hard. Thirty years of trust was lost in thirty seconds. Everyone is piling on now, ripping the station in comments sections of blogs everywhere.
I wonder how many of them stop to reflect, however, that the mentality of “I don’t pay for news anymore, I get it on the net for free,” along with “$19.99 for a book? I downloaded it for four bucks,” and “I haven’t bought an album in the last ten years,” contributes to, if not outright creates, this situation.
Few seem to realize that when you buy the book, you’re paying not just for pages and ink and glue but for the writing, research and editing. When we get something as a free or super-cheap download, someone who normally contributes to the quality of that product is being denied a wage. Yet the same people who exclaim they got something cheap on the internet bemoan the fact that the ebook is filled with typos, formatting errors and factual mistakes, asking,”Where were the editors?” Or, in the case of the news broadcast yesterday, “How could this get past so many layers of checks to make it on the air?”
It got past because those layers largely don’t exist anymore. The “gatekeepers” as they used to be called have been laid off. I laugh (bitterly) when someone demands to know where the editors are. They’re pulling shots at your local Starbucks, that’s where. They haven’t been doing their real jobs in years.
This is the price for cheap or free.
Recently I watched an online trailer for a new movie I might want to see. Someone said in the comments, “This looks awesome! Can someone recommend a site to watch it?” Try your local cinema. If it looks awesome it’s worth eight bucks. How do you think these awesome people make a living?
Traditional media has been suffering for the last ten years as the internet takes over. I know you can’t turn back the clock, and I don’t know what the best overall solution is. But I do know the next time you hear, “How did this get past all the editors?” you’ll at least know the answer. In a society that values cheap or free above all else, you tend to get what you ask for. And as they say, careful what you ask for.