OPINION

Major Media Ignore Science, Tech at Own Risk

Here are just a handful of the big stories that CNN and other news organizations won’t be able to fully cover over the next two to three years:

  • An economic rebound spurred by renewed investments and new developments in technology.
  • An Internet available to more people in more far-flung parts of the U.S. – for free.
  • The digital revolution’s continuing impact on movies and TV shows.
  • The battle over green technology leadership between America and China. (Hat tip to Thomas Friedman and “Hot, Flat and Crowded.)
  • The battle in cyberspace between Russian criminals/Islamic terrorists vs. Western intelligence agencies.
  • The battle between Microsoft and Google for your bleary, Web-heavy eyeballs.

Pink Slip Peril

The reason CNN and a lot of other companies charged with bringing you the news — over the air, in print or online — won’t be able to do justice to these stories is because they’re using the recession as an excuse to dismiss some experienced reporters and producers with a real passion for science and technology coverage. CNN did it last week, blowing up a sci-tech unit that I got to know very well during my time in Atlanta. PC Magazine did it a couple of weeks before that, shutting down its print version to concentrate all its efforts online.

Tech bloggers are being let go; freshly unemployed newspaper reporters are wondering if they should go into PR or explore the joys of freelancing. Hell, the Hollywood Reporter just laid off a reporter and a columnist who focused on technology’s impact on entertainment. Why in the world would you sacrifice the staffers who had the contacts and knew how to make sense of all the digital changes impacting our leisure time? What, Internet film piracy, Hulu.com, “Lazy Sunday,” Blu-ray and a writer’s strike prompted by new media revenues weren’t enough to convince you that the media business is changing?

Just because the wheels are falling off the economy doesn’t mean that technology will slam on the brakes; in fact, Americans will turn to hardware and software for relief, release and reward as the money gets tighter. Wireless broadband adoption will allow more people to work from home; trips to the cinema get replaced by a Roku set-top box streaming Netflix; video games give more “Halo” plasma-rifle bang for the buck; e-commerce continues to make people disappear from formerly crowded malls.

It would be nice if someone from traditional media would help put all of those developments into context for average folks. But those traditional media types are currently updating their resumes.

Memories From CNN Center

File this next section under Full Disclosure/Self-Indulgent Background. The last part may smell of grapes that have gone bad. Draw your own conclusions.

After three years as a tech correspondent for CNBC and one year covering technology for CBS MarketWatch — which included a few stories for CBS’s “Early Show” — I joined Headline News in September 2001 as a technology anchor. In addition to those duties, I was soon also contributing tech pieces for CNN. I was that network’s first host of its weekend sci-tech show, “[email protected]” It was my introduction to the very smart and hard-working producers in the sci-tech unit.

They all know how to make good TV and how to help illustrate difficult science and technology concepts for a wide audience. I remember watching up close as the unit snapped into gear for the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

I worked with the same unit in March 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. I had the overnight/early morning shift, interviewing generals, telestrating troop movements and reporting on the lethal high-tech weapons systems lighting up the skies over Baghdad. The sci-tech producers had to deal with shifting deadlines and rapidly changing developments on the ground.

I worked with some of them for coverage of International Consumer Electronic Shows in 2003, 2006 and 2007. Anyone who has ever been there knows how much fun it isn’t to navigate the mammoth Las Vegas Convention Center floor, elbow-to-elbow with tens of thousands of khaki-wearing geeks, hustling tech company executives and desperate PR pitchpeople. Now try doing all that while setting up interviews, worrying about satellite/microwave signals and filling last-minute line producer requests for live shots. The sci-tech people made it happen and made it look easy.

During my last couple of years at Headline News, I was focusing more on anchoring, but tiring of car chases and celebrity bad behavior stories. So when CNN’s tech reporter left for a broadcast network job, I made a last-ditch attempt to get back in the TV tech game and applied for his position. The new executive regime was underwhelmed, to say the least. Clue No. 1: The execs made me put together an audition tape, even though I had a six-year history of providing tech content for CNN, Headline News, CNN.com, CNN Radio.

One told me that the network was looking for “the Sanjay Gupta of technology.” (Ohhh-kay.) I then found out from sources within the sci-tech unit that the execs were looking at other candidates, including a blogger, an MTV News type, a young gadget reporter from one of the broadcast networks. I checked backgrounds; I had more overall journalism and tech reporting experience but couldn’t compete in the youth/looks/hipness/hair gel departments.

I moved on. CNN ended up giving Miles O’Brien the job, in addition to having him report on science, NASA and the environment. That was last year.

CNN let O’Brien go last week.

The Need for Tech Coverage

CNN threw everything at its coverage of the 2008 elections — even pseudo-holograms — so it should know that President-elect Barack Obama will be considerably more technology, science and environmentally-friendly than the previous White House occupant. He’s already promised greater broadband access, more green-collar jobs, online health records.

But Robert Thompson, professor and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, tells me that even if a new administration wasn’t coming into power with tech-heavy priorities, “I think we desperately need mainstream journalists to cover this kind of stuff. When you look at all the really jaw-dropping, revolutionary stories that have taken place over the past generations, technology is at the bottom of every one of them. Terrorism and the ability to make dirty bombs, cell phones, the Internet, the change in our entertainment regime, the whole bioethics business, it’s all technology.

“You would have expected CNN to announce a new 24-hour sci-tech channel. Instead they cut back. It does seem that a collapsing economy trumps everything.”

The sci-tech unit became expendable in part because environmental coverage is now being driven via the network’s award-winning “Planet in Peril” series. Thompson’s not buying it. “The ‘Planet in Peril’ series is a fine series, but that would be like saying ‘we’re going to deal with all presidential politics with our Politics in America series’ or something like that. These technology stories are daily, minute-by-minute stories. They reach into the White House, they reach into issues of class.”

As I mentioned, it’s not just CNN putting the ax to those experienced in tech issues. Other major and minor news outlets are facing ad revenue drops that necessitate cutbacks. It will send more people to the Internet for their tech news, but Thompson says that’s no excuse for abandoning a vital area of public interest. “If ever we needed mainstream journalism, it’s now more than ever. We need a place where we can trust the source, where someone will tell us whether the story we’re hearing on the Internet is true. The more we get to this democratized news mentality, the more you need places you can really rely on.”

At some point, viewers who have come to rely on CNN or other news organizations that are making these kinds of cuts will notice a change in quality. Instead of seeing a familiar face or byline breaking a story on cyberwarfare or a major technology company merger or a dangerous new computer virus, they’ll notice yet another talking head guest, international wire service byline, or link to some other reporter somewhere who is still contacting sources and working the phones. They’ll wonder what happened to so-and-so, and maybe they’ll turn their backs on the Most Trusted Names in News.

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