Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Bad Journalism Shuffle

A journalist.  I think.
NPR is in the news again for controversial comments and behavior on the part of its staff.  A longtime public radio and television supporter, I've largely kept my comments to myself as this has unfolded.  The media in this country makes me angry, and anger usually prevents any attempt at rational discourse.  This blog is in part about peoples' perceptions of things, and in an era of mass communications and the internet, the media plays an even greater role in public discourse and opinion than it did before.  So as I ponder the arrival of fascism in the heartland (yes, I went there), I feel the time has arrived when I can no longer be silent on the sorry state of America's news media.

First off: James O'Keefe is a sociopathic slime ball who contributes nothing to society and in fact takes so much away.  Regardless of his methods, Ron Schiller's comments should really have come as no surprise.  But the issue here is larger than just public radio.  This is a matter of whether or not we want to have an objective, independent media in this country, or whether we'd all just rather have our beliefs confirmed regardless of what's really going on.  To that end, let me posit a question: why is Gawker, which is owned by Playboy, the only reliable source of American investigative journalism left, and why is a Comedian, Jon Stewart, the only reliable news man left on television?

The way I see it, the media in this country has a real problem, and the problem is money.  Let's leave Fox News and their bizarro alternate universe alone for the time being.  Their flaws are obvious, and trying to debate the obvious with somebody who does not see the obvious is like debating a brick wall -- it's a waste of everyone's time.  Everybody knows how newspapers are getting squeezed by the internet. Cable TV is largely obsolete, and on its way out.  Whatever the reason, the media is in an outright panic, and engaged in a pretty devastating Darwinian competition for its very survival.  The public attention span is about thirty seconds.  90 million American adults are functionally illiterate.  As much as we may not want it to be, circumstances have turned the industry into a zero-sum game.  And most major outlets have figured out that opinion journalism brings in advertising revenue, so that's what they run with.

So what's an inquisitive and earnest person to do in this sprawling, sticky morass of journalistic bilge?  You'd better be damn sure you know your source and what motivates them.  When Roger Ailes says in an interview "These people we're [fighting] are basically Nazis," and not apparently intended ironically, that's when you change the channel.  Even the AP, that stalwart of independent journalism, has succumbed to the crippling need for political expediency.

Generally speaking, I find that news outlets that react to a narrative, as opposed to actively cultivating a news narrative, to be more reliable than those seeking to contextualize a story themselves.  Whenever news occurs, it occurs in a specific context.  Part of the journalistic process is finding that context and presenting it to the public.  What we have now is an industry machine that manufactures its own contexts to suit its own particular point of view (something virtually no news media save for the critics and satirists themselves has escaped).  Even worse is to present said news in no context, which leaves the individual consumer to decide it for themselves -- a feedback process that has produced some of the worst excesses of rumor, speculation, and baseless claims.  We Americans have collectively lost the ability to keep up with the amount of contextualization, analysis, and synthesis required to function in today's global society.  And until I see some proof that that's changed, I simply don't trust the news consumer themselves to hold informed opinions anymore.  Go ahead and call me an elitist, but at least I'm honest.  I hold myself to these same standards as well.  The political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon calls this an ingenuity gap (and his book of the same title is an excellent read, if slightly dated).

What are we going to do about this?  I don't know.  A good place to start would be in our school systems and universities, which need to return to the curriculum of civics and mandate coursework in basic media literacy (this current emphasis on testing is fundamentally flawed, though that's for another entry).  Second, we -- all of us, liberal, conservative, young or old (but especially old) -- need to collectively chill out.  Our country and the world are changing very quickly, and I understand that scares a lot of people.  The problems I see in our society today are as psychological as they are ideological.  And of the two potential solutions, that's going to be the far tougher nut to crack.  Absent a charismatic leader or leaders who can bring us together (which of course many hoped Obama would be, but rather he turned out to be the face of this massive change), but without an objective, independent media such a figure is unlikely to arise.  So the problem thus becomes circular and feeds back on itself.

These are not easy problems, nor are they simple.  But despite it all, I still maintain there is cause for optimism.  The solutions, while difficult and complicated, are also logical inevitabilities: the system will break down unless they're implemented, and a breakdown in the system will directly lead to their implementation.  So, there is cause for hope.  What comfort that brings progressives like me in the meantime is pretty small, I admit, but then nothing is simple or easy in life, either.

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