CARL RAMEY: Ojective Journalism Heading for Extinction?
Friends and acquaintances who know my background (as an attorney, writer and one-time adjunct professor, all specializing in communications) often delight in chiding me about the failures of modern media -- how they are no good, how they can't be trusted and, perhaps more to the point, how they all seem dedicated to promoting bias.
Even The Pilot -- which, in my judgment, goes out of its way to present contrasting views -- fails to escape this kind of sweeping castigation. I'm always amazed when I hear that some otherwise savvy Sandhills citizen has decided to forgo everything else in The Pilot simply because of his or her deep-seated abhorrence of the paper's perceived political leanings.
It's as if those so angered or turned off by traditional forms of journalism wished that there were no media messengers at all -- except, of course, for the select few that they themselves rely upon (which somehow escape the usual pejorative denunciation of media in general).
They just don't want to have their own well-formed views unsettled in any way by exposure to different ideas or counterarguments -- even when such views are confined to editorial pages or opinion columns like this.
Well, we may be on the verge of granting their wish. Last month, NBC-Universal (whose two main businesses date back more than 80 years) announced that it was selling out to Comcast, the cable giant -- possibly marking the beginning of the end of general-interest broadcast TV (and, finally, ceding dominance to the decidedly more special-interest world of cable TV).
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the other general-interest TV networks continue on a downward spiral -- along with most general-interest daily newspapers and virtually all general-interest newsmagazines.
We all know that more raw information is more accessible than ever -- with much of it increasingly unfiltered by any institutional media messenger. While the most popular Web sites are still owned by mainstream media (such as nytimes.com, cnn.com, etc.), more and more contemporary information is available in a highly customized form -- even when drawn from a mainstream source.
All one has to do is subscribe to e-mails and RSS feeds tailored to one's favorite topic or point of view, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Or just surf your way onto the blogosphere, where like-minded propagators and cheerleading users can hook up in their own ideological love feast -- whether right-leaning or left-leaning.
No one would deny that this new media world offers a level of freedom of choice that is unprecedented. Moreover, a Web culture acting as an alternative, even as a check or brake on more traditional "filtered" sources, is a welcome, potentially beneficial, development. The key, of course, is whether it remains an alternative source, or whether it becomes the primary or exclusive source.
For decades, our media sources have been exploding in number while, simultaneously, being sprinkled over smaller, more fractionalized target audiences. But the Internet takes choice and fractionalization to entirely new levels.
Although tastes and views have long been sharply splintered among programs and channels on talk radio and cable, nothing approaches the splintering of tastes and tirades that exist on the Web. No matter how outlandish an opinion or how factually challenged an assertion, both will find a receptive audience somewhere on the Web.
It's as if our technological advancements have created the perfect set of conditions for spreading misinformation. Indeed, no less an Internet oracle than Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, warned last year that if the great brands of traditional journalism died, the Web would evolve into a "cesspool" of bad information.
In the same vein, Benjamin R. Barber, noted political theorist, warns that the Internet is not only "a democratic virtue ... it is also a democratic vice, because unmediated [his term for "unfiltered"] conversation can be undisciplined, prejudiced, private, polarizing and unproductive."
Exchanging or collecting thoughts in cyberspace, participating in rant-and-rave radio, or just watching one's favorite cable news channel (to the exclusion of all other channels) is far more likely to fuel partisanship than stir real debate or result in serious reflection.
Out of the cacophony of voices and images propelled by today's mass media, it is the most shrill, opinionated, and fast-talking voice that is most likely to garner attention. Slower-talking, more equivocal, more reflective voices tend to be muted or shunted aside.
Middle Ground Is Lost
In one sense, we are all implicated in this process, since we all have our predispositions and easy access to the same rapidly evolving technology.
But let's remember: Computers, PDAs and the Web are only tools. It still takes people to target, accept (with little or no validation) and then pass around anything that reinforces or exaggerates their predispositions. Or, on a more sophisticated level, for self-appointed activists to turn our political and cultural dialogue into a new form of verbal combat.
For example, in contrast to traditional journalists (whose work product is typically "filtered" by owners and editors) many bloggers -- especially those with no institutional association -- seem more intent on collecting information (usually raw and unfiltered) merely in order to help their side win an argument, often by destroying or demeaning an opposing argument or person.
Those stressing moderation or looking for a middle ground are either mocked or lost in the dust. Everything is viewed through a partisan lens and our political debate descends into a bloodthirsty contest for the upper hand. The other side is no longer the respected loyal opposition. Instead, it is always wrongheaded, even evil, out to destroy our country and its cherished traditions.
More and More Polarized
There is, of course, no turning back the clock -- pushed to this moment in time by both advancing technology and profound changes in American society. A nation portrayed in the media as polarized, and whose elected representatives repeatedly conduct business that way, is, in fact, increasingly polarized at the grassroots.
The once-captive audiences enjoyed by general-interest broadcast networks have long since been scattered among hundreds of special-interest cable channels, whose stock-in-trade is entertainment, and whose news shows are either ideological battlegrounds or wrapped in comic satire (exemplified by Jon Stewart's highly popular "faux news" show).
As Paul Starr, a media scholar at Princeton, observes in the current Columbia Journalism Review, audiences that remain committed to serious news tend to be more political and partisan. Just as "Walter Cronkite prospered in the old environment," notes Starr, "Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann thrive in this new one."
Looking ahead, Starr says that "as the diminished public for journalism becomes more partisan, journalism itself is likely to shift in that direction."
I say journalism is in crisis because it has already shifted in that direction, and heaven help us as we live with the consequences.
Carl Ramey, a former Washington communications attorney, lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at email@example.com.
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