Friday, March 20, 2009

Has Journalism Died?

It is important to bring this discussion out into the public discourse. For it is we the people who will soon find ourselves no different than our caricatures of comrades in cold war russia. What needs to be recognized here is not "is journalism dead?" but rather has freedom of speech been restructured and restricted? I fear the worst is right around the corner, as printed "news" dies and everyone "does digital" we all seem quite assured that airwaves are as real and accessible as newsprint. But newsprint does not require a computer, an internet connection and an account login to read the information. Newspapers can be read with little more than a candle and seventh grade education.

Part of the transformational landscape being forged by the destruction of news as we know it - is access, localization and community. During the last seven years we've seen tremendous consolidation of media empires. Whether radio, television or print, corporations and private equity firms have quietly been buying up our media landscape and severing thousands of links to communities, government, local whistle-blowers, great journalists and newsmakers.

All this while simultaneously creating the largest and most available media spectacular known to mankind. As the Springsteen song says, 57 channels and nothing on. Actually, its worse than that, now we've got 1000 channels with the same thing on! We've got fewer than 10 media conglomerates owning all the major newspapers, television, entertainment and radio. They've consolidated into most of the local and regional markets as well. What this means is less reporters actually reporting, less transparency in business and government, and less useful information for the citizens. What it also means is greater ease in controlling the content that does make it out.

Last year a train derailed near a small urban town who's local radio stations were bought up and "upgraded" to nationally syndicated broadcasts. As the highly toxic fumes swept over the town, many turned to the radio for news of the eye-burning, gaseous smell making it hard to breathe. As hundreds vomited into their toilets and put wet washcloths on their children's eyes, the local radio just played song after song with an announcer giving weather and national news.

This is just the beginning of what will become "newspeak" in the future: non-specific corporate-edited, white noise. I can hear Orwell spinning in his grave right now.