Driven by pressure to perform for profit-takers, the print and electronic press seem to be moving away from the very direction they should be going towards. Throughout the 20th Century you could rely on newspapers, radio and then television to give you the latest news. That has changed. The Internet can now get the news to you faster. In fact, private citizens can send the news photographically and textually around the world in seconds.
But in general newspapers and electronic media have responded to this revolution by ramping up the amount of coverage, if you can dignify it with such a term, of bad celebrity behavior, so that O.J. Simpson’s latest tribulations receive more attention than a roller-coaster stock market, which most of the press corps doesn’t really understand anyway, or any number of other truly important stories.
In other words, the media are not responding to a technological revolution but rather to demands from owners and shareholders for more money, demands representing short-sighted greed which may sign the death warrant of the printed newspaper. In fact, the media are not even giving readers and viewers what they have clearly said they want in poll after poll, namely more coverage of natural and man-made calamities and more coverage of money stories. (You may remember that I’ve tried to make the case that in a capitalist economy almost everything is a financial story.)
Well, they’re doing that and we’ve said that, so what should they be doing? All I have is an educated guess based on a lifetime of having written for newspapers and edited them. I don’t get paid by a think tank to have big thoughts; I certainly don’t get paid to entertain big thoughts in behalf of anyone else. I never ran The New York Times or any great metropolitan daily, but I did run a few daily news operations and I did work for a few big ones. I think the models the media should be following have been there under their noses all along. No newspaper or television network today can do what Internet news can do with the help of citizen journalists, and there is no use trying. What newspapers and television stations can do is exactly what they’re not doing—they can provide us with perspective, the big picture, the way, for example, The Christian Science Monitor has tried to do since its inception in 1908. They can tell us what the news means. Let me give you a small example. Everyday news anchors across the country say things like, Whoopee, the Dow Industrials Average is up, or, Uh-oh, the Dow is falling. They never say that the Dow, following thirty industrials, means a lot to big-time investors, but very little to the average investor. In fact, the Standard & Poor 500 means much more to the small investor because it indexes a much broader sample of the market. And this is just one small way in which the press misrepresents and withholds the big picture. After all, people investing in the Dow hardly need the TV anchors to tell them anything about it.
But I have a more telling example in mind. I’m going to avoid current affairs, because we’re all hot and bothered about them right now. I want to put some distance between the heat of today’s events and my example. But not too much distance. So let’s go back to the year 2003, the month before we invaded Iraq on March 20th. The February issue of National Geographic Magazine featured at the very beginning of the book, Iraq: The Sum of Its Parts. It was a short essay accompanied by a brilliant graphic showing Iraq, its geography, its demography, and its history. Anyone contemplating that graphic would have concluded that we should think twice before sending an expeditionary force to Iraq without an articulated postwar plan. If that graphic, or something like it, had appeared in every major newspaper, if its implications had been explored on the nightly news and in all the Sunday think-pieces, it’s just possible, although not likely, that Congress would have had the spine to reject the Iraq war powers resolution. Why? Because it was apparent in the graphic that Iraq as constituted and clearly shown in the graphic was a disastrous piece of colonialist meddling that could not possibly withstand a foreign spoon stirring its volatile ethnic and religious components. Even a grade-school child would have looked at that graphic and those demographics and said, Wait a minute, wouldn’t Iran get mixed up in this? What about Turkey and the Kurds? What will happen to the Sunnis, since there’s no oil where they are? In other words, it wouldn’t have taken Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to lie to us about what would happen, because a child could have grasped it in a few moments of study. And if that graphic or something like it had been run every day with every Iraq story, the way newspapers always run trivial graphics to decorate stories in print and on screen, it would have reminded readers and viewers every day that this was an extremely poisonous pot of soup we were stirring. But instead we got so-called breaking news, and the big picture remained out of view and out of mind. Now it is rather voguish to ask how could the Neocons who got us into this mess have been so stupid? And it is even more voguish to answer, They weren’t stupid, they were conspiring to make money for the oil companies and all their other rich buddies. Either way, decent and consistent journalism might have kept us out of this fiasco, which has bankrupted us financially and morally while enriching a handful of people who were already obscenely rich.
The same February 2003 issue of National Geographic offers another example of where newspapers might fruitfully go in the age of the worldwide web. They can no longer compete for speed with cellphones, text messagers and laptops, but they can offer depth and breadth, the very qualities their shortsighted managers are running away from as fast as they can. The National Geographic in 2003 prepared a spectacularly detailed and compendious article called The Oldest Civil War in the World. It described how Sudan is divided, not unlike Iraq, into three parts that have little to do with its history but happened to suit the ambitions of meddling colonial overlords. The northern part of the country is largely Arab or arabized and has deep attachments to the Arab world and its concerns. The center contains the ancient Nubian civilization that once ruled Egypt, the Darfurians to the West along the border with Chad, and a number of other ethnic groups. The south, which is subtropical and borders on Eritrea and Ethiopia, is home to a number of ethnic groups whose beliefs are animist. The article explains how since independence from the British in 1956, the Arab north has been fighting to impose its will on the oil-rich nation. It explains the stakes, economically and culturally. If you read this article you would understand that what is going on in Darfur, which has been much in the news, is only a piece of a much larger picture in which oil and religion play dominant roles.
But instead of offering this kind of broad perspective, the mainstream press goes on reporting dribs and drabs of the Darfur story in the same way it would cover a fire or a riot. And while hundreds die and thousands starve every day, the cable networks give us round-the-clock coverage of O.J. Simpson’s follies in Las Vegas. The press does this not only because it’s easier and cheaper to cover the benighted Simpson, but because it has bet its money on its misguided assumption that trivia is what the public wants, even when the most reliable polls, as we have said in previous podcasts, show that this is not what the public wants. With such a wrongheaded press it’s no wonder we get into wars that bankrupt us and destroy our credibility in the world.
We need to understand issues. We need to understand why our economy seems to consist of making bad loans to each other with money borrowed from China. We need to understand why the dollar has lost so much of its value. We need to understand why globalization is threatening middle class affluence, if indeed it does. We need ideas for addressing these problems. But what we’re getting is round-the-clock trivialization of everything. We need—to offer a current example—to understand the significance of Judith Regan, a deposed publisher at HarperCollins, saying in a lawsuit that the News Corporation, which owns HarperCollins, is devoted to promoting the career of Rudolph Giuliani. Think about this. An insider is saying that one of the major media corporations in the world, the owner of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, is promoting the career of one of our candidates. It deserves some attention, but what it gets is the usual treatment: a breaking story so that, when asked, the press can say, Oh sure, we reported that on November 13th, 2007. What about the implications? What about the lawsuit as an open invitation to inquire into the allegations? Don’t look to the press to do its housekeeping in public. In fact, don’t look to the press to do any housekeeping. What Regan is saying may or may not be true, but if it doesn’t deserve close and broad scrutiny, then Dick Cheney’s connection to Halliburton and the Bush family’s connection to the Saudis and to the Carlyle Group of investment bankers probably didn’t deserve any scrutiny either. And if such matters don’t receive scrutiny, the republic cannot stand for long, because it will rot from within.
When you think about such matters, even if you don’t agree with me, you probably will concur that such online groups as Accuracy in Media, Fair, FactCheck and MediaMatters, whether they belong to the political left, middle or right, are healthy developments and would not have flourished were it not for the Internet. And this is another reason why the traditional mainstream media should be reexamining their role in our lives and striving to give a bigger, broader and fuller picture of what is going on. We have never before been able to challenge Big Media. But now we can, and we can do it worldwide, whether we define Big Media as Rupert Murdoch’s empire, or the vast government-censored Chinese press, or The New York Times, we can challenge them all. That certainly ought to suggest to Big Media that it’s past time to reexamine its function in this rich electronic environment that is licensing mere citizens to take part in the exchange of information and ideas and to challenge the various agendas that try to shape opinion.
This is an exhilarating time in the history of information. The press ought to start getting with the program instead of launching web sites that vaguely resemble 19th Century newspaper models and emulate antiquated conventions. The Internet is not add-on journalism, it is the new journalism, but it doesn’t mean print is dead. It means we must reconsider the role of print journalism. The way to greet a revolutionary new technology is not to co-opt it. We must learn how to maximize its advantages. What we’re talking about is an era of steady-stream journalism that is forcing us to reconsider well developed models that don’t quite fit into this new environment. A good place to begin our reconsideration is to admit that we’re still reporting the news as if we were in the age of the teletype.
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