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 courses through the veins and ganglia of what passes for an information
system. A corporate news system pumps it on more platforms dedicated to "more
news in less time" 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 it, or understand any 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
Meanwhile, out of public views, 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 not connected to the audiences 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 when 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 reflects itself in falling newspaper circulation
and ratings for network news. Not surprisingly, 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
even with one of the world's best newscasters. 70% 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 Company 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 first-hand information of Hurricane Katrina Š
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
Yes, the times they are a changing from India to Indiana, and many media moguls
seem the last ones 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.
DANNY SCHECHTER - New Dissector - Danny Schechter, editor
of Mediachannel.org, expands his media analysis in two new books, THE DEATH
OF THE MEDIA (Melville Manifestos) and WHEN NEWS LIES: Media Complicity and
the Iraq War. (Select Books)
Mediachannel.org - newsdissector.org/store.htm - Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org