Brokeback Media

Perhaps it's just me, but news seems to be coming our way faster and with a greater fury than ever before. A tsunami of "breaking news " bulletins course through the veins and ganglia of what passes for an information system. A corporate news machine then pumps it out on a plethora of platforms dedicated to "more news in less time" -- in the press, on the web, on TV, on the radio and now on the phone. It's hard to escape the deluge.

Before we have time to digest, or understand, a story's implications, it's on to the next, making it more and more difficult to focus on any one item or connect it with another. The author Larry Beinhart of Wag the Dog fame speaks of the proliferation of "fog facts" in which important information systematically disappears from view.

No wonder a paralysis of analysis has set in with "on message" spin machines making it harder and harder for us to assess trends objectively, construct meaning or let us think for ourselves. Rather than inform, much of the news often disinforms, distorts and deceives. Rather than strengthen our society by talking truth to power, our media system increasingly undermines democracy by making a civil discourse harder and harder to practice. The loud-mouthed partisans in the punditocracy turn substantive debate into noise. Heat, not light, proliferates.

We are all under attack -- some from bombs, others from bullet points. The media system has become a battlefield of competing values and often the absence of any values.

2005 was a year in which the media not only brought us news but also became part of the news as scandals usually associated with government and politicians rippled through the media companies, their boardrooms and newsrooms.

Everyone tainted by the Valerie Plame affair took a hit. The New York Times' Judith Miller went to jail, returned a media hero and quickly became a zero when her own newspaper forced her out. The publisher of Time turned over a reporter's notes to a federal prosecutor over his objection. Robert Novak, who first leaked the name of a CIA employee, sputtered "bullshit" on CNN. Forced out on grounds of arrogance, he has now been put back on the air at -- where else -- Fox. Soon the Washington Post's famed Watergater Bob Woodward was also being called to account for being too busy to tell a prosecutor what he wanted to know about the crimes of the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, out of public view, Pentagon subsidized Information warfare specialists spent hundreds of millions to monitor media outlets, execute "rapid responses," plant news and pump up government policies. The war in Iraq is often more of a media war than a military conflict in a world where perception trumps reality. GOP operatives meanwhile reshape public broadcasting more to their liking.

The old media maestros are fading away as Mark Jurkowitz observed in the Boston Phoenix: "In a year of jarring transition, 2005 may be best remembered for the roster of major media players who left the scene. Dan Rather gave up his anchor chair, Ted Koppel departed Nightline and Peter Jennings lost his fight with lung cancer." Koppel and Tom Brokaw, who also retired this past year, acknowledged that the press is often trapped in its own hubris and arrogance, and is not connected to the audience it serves.

Journalists die and journalism is dying

It was a year in which more media workers died in Iraq (the toll there is higher than the whole of the Vietnam War), with most media companies not even protesting, and in which journalism itself seemed to be devolving before our eyes in spasms of jingoism, junk news and trivia. How much cable news time was devoted to a missing white American tourist of the blonde persuasion in Aruba when other important stories went begging for attention?

Anger with the media is growing. It's reflected in falling newspaper circulation and ratings for network news. Not surprising, one of the questions in a 2005 news quiz published in the Guardian asks, "Who accidentally sent an email to the BBC that read: 'Now fuck off and cover something important you twats'?"

It doesn't really matter who said it because it speaks to a widespread dissatisfaction with even one of the world's best newscasters. Seventy percent of the American people expressed disappointment in a survey about an industry that claims to be "just giving the public what it wants." Huh?

No wonder the media business is in trouble, as the Washington Post reports in a 2005 business wrap-up. "Things haven't gone so well for the media business, which became shareholders' target No. 1. Newspaper publisher Knight Ridder Inc. was hit with demands that it put itself up for sale amid worries about limited revenue growth, while at Time Warner Inc., investors have pushed for a massive restructuring they hope will ignite its stock price." The search for higher profits is decapitating major newspapers, as Joe Strupp reports in Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry trade magazine: "Using the bizarre premise that newspapers can bring back lost circulation and ad revenue by making their products WORSE, top executives at major chains from The New York Times Co. to Tribune took a butcher knife to staffing with buyouts and layoffs that appeared almost epidemic."

The response to this continued erosion of any commitment to public service in the form of the emergence of a media and democracy movement was not in the news much. The only good news seems to be that critics and activists challenging this media decline are quietly replacing the mainstream mudstream with a more credible media of their own. Millions of blogs and scores of independent documentaries are trying to meet the demand for more diversity in a media system dominated by just seven media giants.

The deeper trends

There are deeper trends and developments that need to be understood. The State of the Media 2005 report published earlier in the year: "The traditional press model -- the journalism of verification -- is one in which journalists are concerned first with trying to substantiate facts. It has ceded ground for years on talk shows and cable to a new journalism of assertion where information is offered with little time and little attempt to independently verify its veracity."

What can be done about this? The same Pew Research Center study suggested: "To adapt, journalism may have to move in the direction of making its work more transparent and more expert, and of widening the scope of its searchlight. Journalists aspire in the new landscape to be the one source that can best help citizens discover what to believe and what to disbelieve -- a shift from the role of gatekeeper to that of authenticator or referee. To do that, however, it appears news organizations may have to make some significant changes. They may have to document their reporting process more openly so that audiences can decide for themselves whether to trust it. Doing so would help inoculate their work from the rapid citizen review that increasingly will occur online and elsewhere."

Citizen journalism on the rise

One of the bright spots in a depressing year was the rise of citizen journalism. Sunil Saxena of Newwind Press in Mumbai, India, writes about it:

"The year 2005 witnessed a new phenomenon -- the birth of the Citizen Journalist. It was this journalist who captured the awesome power of tsunami just days before 2005 began; it was this journalist who flashed the first images of the underground rail blasts in London; it was this journalist who showed flames leaping from Platform Three of ONGC's oil well in the Arabian Sea; it was this journalist who gave firsthand information of Hurricane Katrina

"The mainstream media arrived later, borrowed or bought these images and showed the world its 'exclusives.' Was this an accident? Or is this a sign of changing times?"

Yes, the times they are a-changing from India to Indiana, but many media moguls seem the last to get it. With disasters more in the news, the disaster of our media world is also becoming evident to more and more people who have turned their complaints into an issue they want to do something about.

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