March 8th, 2006 16:00 EST
Driven every which way
All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging conceptions and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
There is the whole case against censorship in a nutshell. — George Bernard Shaw We have become the blinkered horses of media poobahs. They have driven us every which way with tom-toms and graphics, not just delivering the news but defining it. Lately it has been cars burning in France, truncheons flying in Korea, bombers murdering in Iraq. Meanwhile a silent revolution is sweeping the globe: people are taking the news into their own hands.
The first great export of the United States was its thrilling Declaration of Independence. The second great export is the Internet. The Founding Fathers were certain that a fourth estate is essential to the maintenance of the republic. Now the Internet has put the fourth estate into the hands of the electorate. The gatekeepers and tastemakers are being pushed aside by an immense egalitarian wave of information and opinion.
The age of the citizen journalist has arrived, fraught with danger and potential. The caravel was the Model T Ford of the 15th Century, enabling the expansion of the European powers for better and worse. The car and the airplane shortened distances. The airwaves made instant communication a reality. All these innovations were used for making war and money.
The Internet is different. Caravels carried the plague, planes carry bombs. The Internet, even as entrepreneurs try to milk it, carries information, vast quantities, and no one can predict how a human race so sumptuously fed will fare. News executives are fond of saying their news comes with a warranty. It has been vetted, edited, balanced and adorned by editors and producers. Critics are equally fond of saying that is the trouble, the news is handled by people with an agenda. And that is certainly the trouble with a preponderance of Internet information and polemic. But the allure of reading not just what The New York Times says each morning, but what Asahi Shimbun in Japan or al-Watan in Algeria says, is irresistible.
The cultural and political arbiters are being challenged by citizen journalists farming the sea of information and opinion that is the Internet, mining vast data available from a bewildering number of sources. The establishment mysterium is being toppled by a horde of instant autodidacts. More important, the bought-and-paid-for privilege of telling us what is news and what is not is no longer the exclusive right of an elite.
Any citizen, perhaps a young man or woman studying journalism, can enterprise a story and launch it into the blogosphere. If it is poorly written, if its research fails to withstand scrutiny, if it libels someone, so much the worse for writer and reader, but all of this will be decided by the masses, not a media elite. More tellingly, the media elite that has failed to cover two of the biggest stories in American history—the decline of the independent local press and the dismantling of the middle class—hardly deserves to keep its lock on the dam of information. The dam has broken.
The broad outlines of this information revolution began to appear soon after the Iraq war began. While the networks beat the war drums (literally, in CNN’s case), revving up the anxieties of their viewers and ostentatiously failing to question the operating assumptions of an administration hell-bent on taking us to war and tarring dissenters, contrarians were making their views known in the blogosphere. Chat rooms and listservs were raising questions the mainstream media ignored. Clippings from thousands of sources were zipping around the world in an instant.
The tradional media became the mouthpiece of politicians while raw information was running far out in front of the news. Eventually the media caught up with the information, but by that time the public had caught on to the fact that it was no longer abjectly dependent on big media for information. The worm had turned, but even now big media acts as if nothing happened. In fact, a sea change has occurred.
For example, while the media were busy talking about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Arabists and just plain well-read citizens were voicing scores of other concerns about Iraq in the blogosphere: The precariousness of Iraq’s ethnic and religious fabric, for example. We used to fret that television would shut down movie houses and wean us away from newspapers.
In the 1950s more than eighty percent of Americans read newspapers. About 50 percent read newspapers today. Readership and advertising lineage continue to decline. On the other hand, the number of high-speed Internet subscriptions is rising dramatically. In 1955 the book industry pooh-poohed the advent of the e-book—texts downloaded from the worldwide web to hand-held reading devices. Print journals in which the major publishers advertise were equally dismissive. But today the book publishers concede that it is only a matter of time before technology creates a huge e-book industry. How the book publishing scene will look when that happens one can only guess.
Here is one guess:
• Most textbooks and most commercial trade books will be published in e-format. The textbooks can be readily revised and updated in this format. Textbook prices should then fall--good news for students.
• Literary fiction, poetry and other high-art books will become art objects and will continue to be published by letterpress.
The production values of these books will probably improve. But what is more difficult to predict is who will publish books. The big six who now dominate trade and textbook publishing are owned by conglomerates. Their parent companies have been selling them to foreign publishers because they have proven themselves incapable of producing the profit margins their corporate overlords have demanded. But there are more than 80,000 small presses in the United States and a growing number of self-publishers. How will the advent of the e-book affect them? It might well lead to a renaissance in high art books. It is unlikely that traditional publishing will disappear, but it is certain our grandchildren and probably our children will read books in a radically altered publishing environment.
The day may not be far off when binderies no bigger than today’s laser printers will sit on home office tables. Books will be downloaded from the web and sent to these instant one-book binderies. Print-on-demand publishing may well foreshadow such a development. Citizen journalists, home publishers, and a torrent of information will make it increasingly difficult for a powerful elite to regulate public access and to keep information from people in order to customize events.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this scenario is that it is much closer to the vision of the founding fathers, particularly Ben Franklin, than contemporary society in which a wealthy governing class controls and packages information in small doses. That we have arrived at this dicey juncture of vast information flow and tightening media control with little public consciousness of it should alarm us, but we are barely aware of it for the same reason we are not alarmed by the not unrelated dual disappearance of an independent local press and the middle class.
The press upon which we might have relied to heighten our awareness of these developments has, in service to its masters, ignored them. It is almost as if the American public woke up one day in the recent past and discovered its jobs were being shipped overseas, its pensions and benefits were vanishing and its salaries were stagnating. It still has not awoken to the fact that the free press upon which the republic depends has been captured by a relative handful of corporate bottom-liners who have stripped newsrooms bare and substituted cheap infotainment for meaningful news.
According to the 2006 Economic Report of the President, college graduates' earnings adjusted for inflation dropped more than five percent from 2000 to 2004. From 1975 to 2004 college graduates' average earnings rose, but by less than one percent a year. From 1972 to 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income curve rose thirty-four percent, about one percent a year. But income at the 99th percentile rose eighty-seven percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose one hundred and eighty-one percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose four hundred and ninety-seven percent. (Source: Paul Krugman's column, New York Times, 2/27/06.)
The middle class is circling the drain while the salaries of CEOs have become obscene. What is rarely if ever questioned in news stories about CEO salaries, profits and wages is this obvious question: what constitutes a moral, decent profit margin in a moral society? How much is enough? At what point does the amount of money turned over to CEOs and shareholders and withheld from workers and infrastructure become obscene? When Americans offered up their sweat and blood and honor to prevail over communism did they envision a piratical global capitalism without a moral obligation to its country or its employees?
Read almost any story about a labor-management dispute over wages and you will never find an attempt to define a moral profit margin. The answer is the elephant in the room: we all know that our economy defines a profit margin as anything the company can make by hook and sometimes crook, and labor be damned. It is only natural that a press that would not tackle the issue of profit margins will not dwell on the vanishing middle class and thereby discomfort its corporate bosses.
Why are the pulpits that are so mouthy about abortion silent about this disgrace, this triumph of greed over decency and patriotism? The Gannett group of newspapers, the largest chain, owns more than 100 dailies. By the year 2002 forty percent of all dailies were owned by 24 of the largest newspaper groups. Seventy percent of daily circulation belonged to the same groups, and seventy-three percent of Sunday circulation.
The top ten newspaper groups account for fifty-one percent of total weekday circulation and fifty-six percent of Sunday circulation. Four groups—Gannett, the Tribune papers, The New York Times group and Knight-Ridder—enjoed a profit margin of twenty-three percent. Some smaller chains had bigger profit margins but stagnant revenues. Acquisitions in the 1980s proceeded at a breathtaking clip but by 1990 had slowed down. The pace is again accelerating. The facts speak for themselves.
Hundreds of communities have lost an independent voice, but that is hardly the worst aspect of these developments. In order to squeeze out greater profits, newsrooms have been stripped of their capability to cover local and regional news in depth. Outlying bureaus and in some cases state capital bureaus have been shut down. Competition, except in a few large cities, has vanished. Under the circumstances all manner of local and regional corruption thrives, simply because the will and resources to expose it no longer exist. The much vaunted free press that we have so heartily commended to other nations has become a corporate lackey.
The press lords would like us to believe they are giving us what we want—loads of celebrity news and glitz—but they are being cynical. Celebrity news, infotainment, is cheap news. It is spoon-fed to the media by paid flacks. On the other hand, investigative reporting, the kind that exposed the Watergate disgrace and the inflated Vietnam enemy-body counts, is expensive. The press lords are not giving us what we asked for, they are giving us what costs them little and enables them to shape events by choking off information. This is tastemaking at its worst. The people did not ask to be dumbed down. They did not ask for the issues that affect their lives to be dumbed down. The republic is paying the price for corporate greed.
Ask a press mogul today how the independent local press and the middle class all but vanished without much ado and he or she will say, We have been publishing the facts, they’re just not very sexy. Ask a press mogul about pension-fund rape and wage stagnation, and you will get the same smug answer. The destruction of quality of life is just not sexy enough to be reported until the public gets it. But the fact that Tom Cruise loves Katie Holmes (or did a few days ago), well, that must be reported until the most uninformed American appreciates all its ramifications and subtleties.
In the newspaper business, sometime in the 1960s, the corporate bosses realized that you could pay a few good editors to package the news brightly and cleverly to disguise lack of content and then reduce newsroom staffing, butter up shareholders and save money for future acquisitions, for consolidation. The result is that city after city has lost its independent voice to absentee press lords who do not understand local issues and do not care about them. The more entertainment, the more glitz, the cheaper it is to produce the so-called news, and the greater the danger to the republic that it will be led into ill-considered misadventures and that the people will lose their ability to direct its course. Remember that caravel? There was no press then to tell us how it was invented, the way we were told that Henry Ford invented the assembly-line manufacture of automobiles. So for five hundred years the history books blithely informed us that the Portuguese had invented the caravel when in fact all they had really done was refine the design of Arab ships they had been encountering and sometimes fighting for centuries. What would it have meant to us during those five hundred years to know the truth about the caravel? What would it have meant to us to know that Vasco da Gama opened up trade routes to the East that did not need to be opened up because the Arabs had been mapping and traveling them for centuries?
One thing it might have meant is that we would have better understood the Islamic world in which we are now encountering so much hostility. The significance of this seeming departure from our subject is that when information is controlled by powerful people with an agenda, the rest of us are jerked around for the advantage of the few. There was no daily press to find out that Vasco hired an ancient Arab navigator named Achmed ibn Madjid to show him trade routes he later claimed to have discovered himself. There was no New York Times or Washington Post to tell us that the Portuguese actually lost a fifteen-year sea war to the navy of Oman. So for five centuries, until an Australian sailor named Alan Villiers corrected the record in National Geographic, people in the West thought that while the Arabs might have been great cameleers, they were poor sailors.
Anyone trying to fathom the condition of today’s fourth estate and the dangers of concentrating the media in too few hands might well consider the caravel, Vasco, Achmed and the skills of Omani sailors.