August 19th, 2006 08:43 EST
Just whose preserve is journalism?
Challenge assumptions—that’s one of the most prized dicta of journalism—so let’s challenge the assumption that journalism is the preserve of corporate gatekeepers.
There’s a lot of romance surrounding journalism, but there’s no getting away from the plain fact that most journalists work for businesses whose interests often conflict with the full disclosure of situations voters in a republic need to make informed decisions.
That may be changing, and that is why some corporate interests would like to restrict free access to the Internet. Sometime between Hurricane Katrina and the outbreak of sectarian war in Iraq citizen journalists, using the Internet, came into their own, and by the time the networks tooled up to cover Israel’s incursion into Lebanon they had resolved to assimilate bloggers into their coverage.
They did it as if they had discovered the bloggers, but what they really discovered is that the Internet had given us the means to cover events without network filtering. Instead of tuning back and forth between Fox and CNN and NBC, a new generation of resourceful viewers combs the worldwide web with powerful search engines.
The journalism profession, which one way or another, is always in the hands of someone with enough money to pay someone else, likes to use the words gatekeeping, vetting and editing for the way it selects and filters news, the way, indeed, it decides what is news. But there’s a blunter word: censorship.
We have come to a point in the evolution of our society where we must ask if there is a difference between government censorship of news and corporate censorship. We must ask, too, when they coincide, for their interests are more and more the same as our elected leaders are more and more the bought creatures of special interests.
We must ask ourselves what is not being covered and why it is not being covered. The biggest stories of our time are the ones not being covered or the ones being covered so sporadically as to prevent their sinking into the public consciousness. And here’s another question we must consider: is an important story covered when it is written and becomes a matter of record or when it is revisisted often enough and followed enough to create a reasonable expectation in the press’s collective mind that the consequences of the story have been understood and appreciated? Is it enough to say, Oh, I saw that story in The Wall Street Journal? Or is it important to ask, Does the public really get this story? Within the confines of those distinctions corporate media often hide, claiming they have covered a story but knowing damned well they haven’t covered it enough.
To be fair, they have huge costs to meet, and their advertising revenue is an endangered species. So they—and their book-publishing colleagues—often accept the word of their marketers that what is needed to boost income is more frivolity and less serious news. They have their reasons, but their entire industry is being overtaken by the Internet, and now they are desperate to find ways to use the Internet.
So you have CNN telling you what bloggers are saying, and you have anchors resorting to blogs for coverage their staff was unable to serve up. News staffs are always unable to cover large, breaking events. They do their best, and we get their best, for the most part. But the Internet throws a thousand, a million windows open on the same events. Without editing, to be sure. Without, in most cases, the benefit of journalistic training.
But when journalists decry this absence of professionalism we must take it with a grain of salt, because in decrying it they are doing their money masters’ bidding.
So where does this leave us? Consider this. When the republic was founded the press was largely untrained and scurrilous. There was no consensus about how stories should be covered or written. There was no consensus about how words should be spelled. There was a great deal of what today we would call irresponsible and even libelous journalism. The name-calling was pervasive and preposterous. The agendas were many and far removed from professional restraint. But the republic flourished, and the Fourth Estate that Thomas Jefferson and others thought so essential to the preservation of our ideals thrived.
There were no photographs, no live feeds, no podcasts, no visuals other than drawings. But there was a passion for speaking freely, and any attempt today to restrict the use of the Internet by direct control or by the imposition of prohibitive costs would be contrary to that revolutionary spirit.
We have a lot to concern us, but we have nothing to fear except corporate greed and government assaults on our customary liberties, whether those assaults be in the name of protecting us from villains or whether they be in the name of quality control.