Media blitzed

Today, Reynolds and McChesney address the state of contemporary news media. Later in the week, they'll debate the citizen journalism, media consolidation and other issues.

There's more to life than fluff, hype and horse races

Let's put the discussion we will be having this week in context. Having effective journalism is the necessary condition for a self-governing society, for our constitution to succeed; our Founders, especially Jefferson and Madison, could not have been more emphatic on this point. Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black and Potter Stewart have written some of our most impressive opinions confirming this.

Effective democratic journalism means a news system that:
  • is a rigorous watchdog over people in power and people who want to be in power, in both the public and private sector;
  • provides a wide range of informed opinion on the important issues of the day, and provides an early warning system for issues on the horizon;
  • ferrets out over time truth from lies so liars cannot operate with impunity.
Not all media need do all of this, but in combination a healthy media system should make this information readily accessible to the great bulk of the citizenry. As Jefferson and Madison put it, unless all citizens have easy access to the same caliber of information as society's wealthy and privileged, self-government cannot succeed. That is why our Founders put such emphasis on a series of policies to spawn a vibrant journalism: printing and postal subsidies combined with a commitment to universal literacy, with the striking exception of slaves.

By these standards we should have grave concerns about our journalism, and yes, it is getting worse. Doing quality journalism no longer makes business sense for the handful of firms that dominate the news business.

This can be measured empirically in the sharp decline over the past two decades in the number of working journalists covering stories at the local level, or by the sharp decline in the number of journalists over the same period covering the world for U.S. news media. This contributes to a journalism where we are more dependent upon those in power to tell us what is happening, and our journalists have become more inclined to accept what they say at face value.

It can be measured in the commercialization of news and the softening of news standards to include celebrity fluff and trivia. This gives the illusion of controversy while never antagonizing anyone in power.

It can be measured in the class bias built into commercially driven journalism, whereby the affairs of the wealthy and upper-middle class take prominence over issues affecting the poor and working class. In general, poor people only matter for our journalism when they get in the way of rich people. Labor journalism, only a generation or two ago a staple of American mainstream news media, no longer exists.

And it can be measured in the studies that reveal the profound ignorance of so many Americans around elementary political facts, like the fact that Iraq had no connection to 9-11 and did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps the two most important measures of journalism are how well the press system covers elections and how it covers the decision to go to war. As Martin Kaplan's research [pdf] has demonstrated, press coverage of campaigns has plummeted, and too much of what remains is nutrition-less commentary on the horse race and spin.

As for the press coverage of the entry into the Iraq War, it is now almost universally understood that this episode is one of the darkest moments in U.S. media history. When we needed a vibrant news media the most, it failed us miserably, with consequences that boggle the mind.

The final measure of the deterioration of the news media comes from working journalists themselves. Once the proud defenders of their craft, journalists increasingly are appalled at the commercial assault on their professional standards and prerogatives. Leading journalists like Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register, now argue the system is failing and structural solutions are necessary. We know we are in a crisis of historic magnitude when the heir to the L.A. Times fortune, Harry Chandler, writes a column suggesting that community ownership may be the best institutional structure that can protect journalism.

Two provisos: First, in making this case, I do not mean to posit that we had some sort of Golden Age in the past to which we must return. In fact, my own work has been highly critical of journalism in times gone by. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests matters have taken a turn for the worse. We are in a fundamental crisis.

Second, the Internet is opening up a whole new world and dramatically transforming the possibilities for journalism. Glenn, I know you have strong ideas on this subject, and so do I. I will discuss my ideas in detail in coming days.

Robert W. McChesney is a professor of Communication at the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder and president of Free Press.
Empowering us with our own spare time

Things are changing, as technology levels the playing field between ordinary people and huge organizations. It all has to do with two things—a reduction in the "minimum efficient scale," and the freeing up of "spare cycles."

Minimum efficient scale is the smallest size that you can do things economically. Thanks to technology, it's falling dramatically. A few decades ago, to make a record, or a movie, took millions of dollars worth of specialized equipment and dozens of trained people (that's why record companies and movie companies are called "the studios"). Likewise, television networks needed similar amounts of equipment and personnel to bring news from around the world to viewers around the nation. In both cases, the minimum efficient scale has been reduced by technology to something considerably smaller: A camera or a microphone, a laptop, and an Internet connection. That's a big difference—and already small and medium-sized video production houses (and television news networks, too) are feeling the heat.

"Spare cycles" is a term that may be familiar from charitable computing—lots of people donate the unused processor time on their computers to charitable causes like SETI@home, which uses that spare processing to decode signals from outer space, or similar projects that look to cure AIDS, etc. But as Wired magazine's Chris Anderson notes, we have spare cycles in our own lives, too, and technology lets us make use of them efficiently: "People wonder how Wikipedia magically arose from nothing, and how 50 million bloggers suddenly appeared, almost all of them writing for free. Who knew there was so much untapped energy all around us, just waiting for a catalyst to become productive? But of course there was. People are bored, and they'd rather not be. The guy playing Solitaire on his laptop at the airport? Spare cycles. Multiply it times a million."

Technology lets us do things with that spare time that we couldn't have done a few decades ago, and it lets those who are putting their spare cycles to use to coordinate with others. Sometimes the result is positive—Wikipedia, or, the blogging collective. (Futurist Vernor Vinge thinks that by 2025 collaborative hobbyists will spot emerging epidemics before governments do). In my own life, the podcast series I do with my wife draws hundreds of thousands of listeners to extended interviews that wouldn't work on radio. On the other hand, sometimes the result is negative: Al Qaeda is a kind of spare-cycle collaborative effort, too, and technology certainly amplifies the power of terrorists.

So is this trend good, or bad? The answer, I think, is "yes." It's both. Since I believe that most people tend to be good, I think that the trend toward empowering individuals at the expense of large organizations is a positive one overall. But one place where the pain is already being felt is in the world of media.

Big Media organizations are suffering two different ways. On the one hand, the plethora of different alternatives is fragmenting their audience—the old days of three networks and one or two local newspapers are long gone, and since there are no more hours in the day than there used to be that means someone is losing out. Newspaper readership is down, as is market share for network news. The movie and music industries aren't doing well either. And the other force that's causing them trouble is that the number of their competitors is exploding: When anyone with a laptop, a camera, and an internet connection can go into competition with you, life is bound to be tough.

Big Media have had to deal with real-time criticism and fact-checking, and with the fact that some people would rather get their news and entertainment from a blog or a YouTube than from a traditional source. So far, their response hasn't been especially great: While news media pundits complain about the lack of standards in weblogs, ABC is running dubious stories about a DC prostitution ring, and The New York Times, along with nearly every other media organization, ran with thinly-sourced reports about the Duke Lacrosse rape case, reports that turned out to be devastatingly false. And while YouTube videos of teenage girls shaking their boobs at webcams proliferate, it's hard to argue that they're much worse than what we see on American Idol. And while indie bands who release their work via the Internet may not be the Beatles, neither are the acts coming out on the big labels.

To secure its future, Big Media is going to have to try something it hasn't excelled at in recent years: Producing a quality product. Will it manage? Not, I suspect, under current management. More on that in future installments.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is Beauchamp Brogan distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee and creator of

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