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.
Just a few day after Salon published a piece on The World’s Most Inspiring Bookstores, one in my own area closed its doors for good. It wasn’t a little mom-and-pop bookstore fighting the good fight against the big box Goliaths. It was a Borders. Then again, today Borders looks increasingly like a mom-and-pop bookstore fighting against Goliaths.
After lunch today I peered into the emptiness of what used to be a fun place to relax, read, and enjoy a beverage, and I imagined how a conversation between a father and child might go about thirty years from now:
Child: What’s that thing, daddy?
Dad: It’s called a book.
Child (laughing): No it’s not. I have a book here, on this tablet. In fact, I have millions of them. I downloaded them just today.
Dad: This was what books used to look like. They were sold in places called ‘bookstores,’ which were large and yet sort of cozy, and had shelves and shelves of these objects. You could come in and read them and even get a muffin and a hot cocoa and spend the whole afternoon. You could compare the books to see which was better. Or which had better illustrations. You could just browse, letting your mind wander and forgetting yourself on a Sunday afternoon, ending up buying something you hadn’t even thought of when you walked in.
Child: What are shelves?
Okay, I guess I’m as at fault as anyone. I hadn’t bought a book at retail price in that store in years either. Anything, anything I could get there, even sharply discounted, I can get online for the same price or less, sometimes much less, sometimes so much less I’m almost tempted to say to the etailer, “Please, allow me to pay more.” And I feel bad that in this information age, books are becoming devalued because information can be transmitted and stored so cheaply.
I’m also not one to get all sentimental over change. The truth is, businesses, and modes of doing business, disappear. How many people who resist the change and upheaval brought by Walmart or Starbucks refuse to drive cars? Yet those evil things sure put a lot of carriage manufacturers with families to feed out of work.
It’s a difficult situation. We all want our entertainment as cheaply as possible. But the Internet has driven prices on many items so low that it will soon be impractical to expect companies to afford the luxury of storefronts and employees. Throw in greedy landlords who keep upping the rent even in bad times just because they can (and this shopping center was recently taken over by a landlord who has done just that) and we have a recipe of unsustainability.
But aside from creating a huge empty, this gone bookstore (which was not part of the previously-announced Borders downsizing, by the way; this location was intended to stay open, but the landlord, deciding he wanted to try for a more profitable tenant, kicked it out) means there’s one fewer place to retreat from the bustle of life, to settle down, to think. This is something Daniel, my main character in Entertaining Welsey Shaw, laments near the beginning of the novel: the dearth of places to sit and reflect. Someone reading what I just wrote didn’t know what “Dearth” meant. He thought I was referring to a space villain. That, folks, is why we need more bookstores. And to spend more time in them.
They say reading is on the rise, or at least the purchase of books is on the rise, since Kindle and the iPad and other electronic gizmos have come on the scene. I hope so, but I’m not sure this isn’t just a fad that will flame out. For I didn’t realize that having to carry a book, versus having to carry an electronic, easily-stealable, expensive device in one’s bag, was a major hinderance to reading.
I plan to keep buying books like they’re going out of fashion, which they may be. I don’t own an eReader, but even if I get one, and I might, I still will enjoy their convenience only for certain types of publications—travel guides, how-to and reference books, manuals (although much of this same info is available from the Internet). For my pleasure reading, however, I will continue to get comfy on the couch with my big mug of black coffee, and open an old-fashioned paper book. And I’ll continue to haunt old-fashioned bookstores till they kick me out and padlock the doors of the last one.