October 31st, 2010 18:56 EST
The Press Gives Us What Press Lords Want, The Web Gives Us What We Want
The miracle at our fingertips
As newspaper advertising bases began to crumble in the 1980s the endangered species known as publishers turned to reader focus groups and newsroom committees to help them give what they presumed readers wanted. Like democracy, it was messy and inefficient. It gave suck-ups in the newsroom a stage on which to show off and shoot down their competitors` ideas. It encouraged office politics, and politics is the enemy of culture.
But the alternative is oligarchy, and the oligarchic model had failed. The problem wasn`t just content. Newspapers had always insisted they were giving the reading public what it wanted, and they were lying, just as they do now. Newspapers and the other media are commercially censored, a form of censorship just as pernicious as state censorship but not as naked. Worse, focus groups, like people being polled, often lie and mislead.
These groups did shed some light on news content, but the findings were quickly distorted by media owners to justify news lite, a trivia shower that continues to pelt us today. The desire of readers for more upbeat news was twisted into trivia, the forced jocularity we get from TV anchors, the torrent of inconsequence peddled as news. Good news is viewed as relief from the mainstream of bad news, a cynical and deeply flawed supposition on the face of it.
And yet I think there is a committee model that can work. It might work this way: a challenge is posited and solutions are invited from outside the committee. Say six solutions, six creative ideas. The committee then deliberates on these submissions and chooses one of them. This would discourage grandstanding within the committee and it would compel the committee to choose and get something done.
I never saw a newspaper committee operate this way. What I saw is a great deal of one-upmanship, put-downs, maneuvering for position, and an obsession with process that sabotaged the outcome. Process, of course, is what provides the grandstand. Moreover, it is inherent in the business that ambitious newsroom operatives second-guess owners in order to promote their own careers. The more the industry is subsumed by giant corporations the more idealism circles the drain.
If a committee is set up so that one of its members or a clique of its members triumphs over the remainder, a formula for inconsequence and failure is put in place. The committee should be the servant of the creative process, not the initiator.
In the 1980s as the business side panicked and blamed the newsroom for cultural changes that we have watched accelerate ever since, the newspaper committees I saw slapped together quickly identified themselves as part of the problem, not the solution. They never intended to use focus groups for any real purpose other than to justify their own notions, which largely involved cutting payroll, savaging the news operation and trivializing the product. American culture has yet to reckon the cost of this phenomenon to itself and its ideals. We are not watching the news, we are watching manipulators.
Indeed the triumph of the mad ranters on the airwaves is the opposite of the result envisioned for the focus groups. What focus group ever told Fox or any of the other trivializers and propagandists that it wanted angry men and women raving at it 24/7? What focus group ever said, Give us smarm, give us rage, give us intolerance? So much for listening to the public.
What I noticed year after year in journalism is that newsrooms were parsed between journalists who were very good at their jobs and journalists who were very good at getting ahead, and the latter usually ended up running the newsrooms. Some of the latter were good journalists, some not, good always being a subjective matter.
My experience in churches and elsewhere also convinced me that committees work only when their method of operation is prescribed and they look outside themselves for the creativity needed to respond to their missions. Otherwise they become poisoned wells in which someone wins. No one should win on a committee. Only its mission should win, and that means that nobody should emerge from a committee waving the bloody flag while others must hoist the white flag.
Committees are meant to empower the democratic ideal, to involve as many people as possible in decision-making. The danger is always that a committee will produce something thoroughly mediocre while a Lorenzo de Medici or a Vladimir Putin will produce a masterpiece.
The only possible precaution lies in the structure of the mandate. But whose mandate is it and how was it formulated?
These questions go to the heart of our modus operandi as a people. Our politics should enable and release our creativity, not immobilize it. But as we see with Congress, that mega-committee, grandstanding readily paralyzes the nation`s energy and rips up its social contract. These circumstances force the artist to be a solitary rebel, like Jean-Michel Basquiat painting graffiti on New York`s walls and fences or Arthur Rimbaud flinging his breathtaking poetry in the faces of the establishment or Allen Ginsberg declaiming Howl. " No committee will espouse a Basquiat or a Rimbaud, but there will be individual champions, and the future of our democracy is as much in the hands of these champions, whether they be a George Soros or a Bill Gates or a Garry Wills, as it is in the hands of its blabbermouth committees.
Just as Russia, in her quest for greater freedom, tries to balance the power and guidance of a Putin with her more democratic impulses, so we too must balance the forces of wealth and influence with the desire of the people to be heard.
I believe this quest for such a balance would be frozen and thwarted in time by the corruption of our politics were it not for a new and as yet enigmatic force in our lives, the Internet. The people are expressing themselves on the Internet, and they have never before had the means for such instantaneous and exciting self-expression. Not only are they expressing themselves, but the software designers are finding ways to organize this expression into recognizable schemata.
For the first time mankind is able to navigate vast seas of information and contrary opinion and data that have not been forced through sieves of various kinds of censorship. And mankind is reveling in the experience, accounting for the popularity of electronic devices.
I am as excited as most people by this marvelous turn of events in the history of mankind, but I fear that the oligarchs have noticed it with a keener eye than most of us and are plotting even now to gain control of the Internet in order to shut down this fantastical orgy of information and opinion. They will use state security as their excuse, as the Obama Administration has already begun to do. It will be a tragedy of immense proportions.
The gift of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, the putative inventor of the worldwide web (the now familiar www prefix to URLs) to mankind is comparable to and perhaps surpasses the Gutenberg press. Indeed it is more comparable to invention by the Hindus of the zero and its development by the Arabs. But Berners-Lee is the enemy of the oligarchs, of politics. He is a cultural hero, and politics has no use for culture.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com