Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Shine a Light.

Seems like anyone who's anyone on the intertubes is commentating at length all about Eric Alterman's "Out of Print" article. My perennial favourites Matthew Yglesias and Tim Lee both have interesting things to say about it. Predictably enough, they both think he overstates the problems and understates the benefits of us getting more of our news online. This being more of a random-thought-that-I'm-getting-down-for-later sort of blog, I'm just going to say a few general things that struck me about the article and the ensuing hubbub.

In the first place, it's a nicely written article. I like to think I know as much about US news media as the next man, but it clued me into a few things I didn't know. Really enjoyed all the talk about Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, and Alterman's contention that newpapers have been far more about a Lippmannite process of privileged insiders trying to shape public opinion, rather than being a purely democratic force.

I'm old enough to remember when this sort of talk was the preserve of Chomsky-reading anarchists ("Manufacturing Consent" was originally Lippmann's description of the process by which journalists should shape the opinions of a public unable to negotiate the complex workings of modern democracies). Nowadays talk about how advertising inevitably shapes coverage and government can cow media outlets is the stuff of New Yorker articles, BBC Series and books by Harvard Law Professors. Which I guess is all to the good.

Was also interested to hear about the increasing involvement of the non-profit sector in journalism:

The survivors among the big newspapers will not be without support from the nonprofit sector. ProPublica, funded by the liberal billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler and headed by the former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, hopes to provide the mainstream media with the investigative reporting that so many have chosen to forgo. The Center for Independent Media, headed by David Bennahum, a former writer at Wired, recently hired Jefferson Morley, from the Washington Post, and Allison Silver, a former editor at both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, to oversee a Web site called the Washington Independent. It’s one of a family of news-blogging sites meant to pick up some of the slack left by declining staffs in local and Washington reporting, with the hope of expanding everywhere. But to imagine that philanthropy can fill all the gaps arising from journalistic cutbacks is wishful thinking.

This he thinks, is unfortunate because:

Finally, we need to consider what will become of those people, both at home and abroad, who depend on such journalistic enterprises to keep them safe from various forms of torture, oppression, and injustice... Just how an Internet-based news culture can spread the kind of “light” that is necessary to prevent terrible things, without the armies of reporters and photographers that newspapers have traditionally employed, is a question that even the most ardent democrat in John Dewey’s tradition may not wish to see answered.

Obviously dedicated media replacement non-profits aren't going to spring up in great enough volume to fund the sort of journalism that the mass media has traditionally produced, but that's not really the issue. It does strike me (admittedly having given the matter only two seconds thought) that non-profits already serve quite a big role in getting out information about "torture, oppression and injustice." Indeed, if I'm looking for reliable statistics on, say torture in Chile under Pinochet, I'm at least as likely to turn to Amnesty International as I am to the New York Times. Whilst they're an important part of that ecology, it's not like journalists have some sort of monopoly on getting out information about worthy causes. If their role diminishes, though, I think it's at least plausible that other interested parties might start to take up some of the slack.

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