Reposting from Blackfive in case my archives can’t be recovered. Continuing the reposting theme, here is Part 5 of the Saving Pvt. Journalism series I started reposting here sometime last August…
Originally posted June 18, 2003
We are getting near to the end of the background portion, and remember that you should count Rational Discourse/Persuasibility as a part of this discussion. Before we go forward, however, there remain some economics and some theory that also need to be put forward.
Economics truly is the heart of the process. Despite what a lot of idealistic writers and academics may say, the pursuit of truth at all costs is not what journalism, or any aspect of The Media, are all about. What it is all about, besides the hokey-pokey, is money. Newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television stations, shows, movies, plays, etc. all exist for the purpose of making money. Capitalism at its best, and none of the aforementioned outlets would exist unless they succeed in making money. To make things easier on you and me, I am going to refer to all the outlets as publications, as printed text is required for each, either for publication, scripts, or other means of communicating dialog.
Now, the amount of money made can vary. There have been a number of advocacy publications that were content simply to break even. The people involved were on a crusade and/or had other means of support. This was made possible by changes in technology that lowered the cost of printing.
That cost has been a driving force in American journalism and communications from well before the revolution. The cost of a press, of setting type by hand, of ink, of paper that was neither inexpensive or in plentiful supply, of repair, and other expenses made it so that presses were limited. Again, this is why many publications would use the same press and it is also why the phrase “press,” “the press,” etc. are so frequent in the writings of the founding fathers and in the Constitution. It was anticipated that this situation would change only slowly, and until it did that protections needed to be in place to ensure the independence of the presses from government.
Indeed, Thomas Jefferson hit it on the head when he said “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
Therefore, the Constitution set forth certain guarantees for this purpose, and the government for a considerable time did not charge for the mailing of newspapers and related documents, so as to foster the spread of information.
Of course, technology had begun its rapid ascent and as an outgrowth of that improved printing methods and improved methods of paper production were developed. As a result, presses became more commonplace and competing groups took advantage of the fact to own their own presses. This resulted in larger cities having several newspapers, all of which represented a different political viewpoint. This was also made possible by the elimination of expensive rag paper for that made from lint, felt, and ultimately wood pulp. When paper became comparatively inexpensive, and available in massive amounts, this further fueled the process. It also meant that papers might be put out morning and evening, and that special editions came out “as needed” to highlight special events or to push a particular objective.
It is well to remember that objective, honest, fair, and balanced were not the watchwords of the day. It was not unusual to find stories made up out of whole cloth, or slanted towards a particular group or objective. Laws against libel did not cover events, merely people, so the admonition of the founding fathers towards reporting the truth and facts went largely unheeded in the push to both convert and to make money. The latter was required to cover the costs of the presses, paper, and such, and to further the goals of the organizations behind the papers, most often political parties.
To get a better idea of what this period of history was like, go check out the copperheads, the Chicago Tribune, and related articles during the Civil War. Indeed, if looking for feet of clay in heroes, check out the actions of Lincoln and his government in regards the Tribune and other papers. There were many dubious actions on all sides at the time, and it is an interesting read.
Towards the end of the 1800s and in the early 1900s was when the idea of a press committed to the truth came to be proposed. There were a number of scandals that helped push it, and it was also advances in technology and changes in economics that helped bring about the acceptance of the idea of a fair and balanced press.
The changes in economics were a part of the maturity cycle discussed earlier. The markets were saturated, and no matter how lurid the stories or how much pandering was done, it was inevitable that some papers would die off, or that some other means of accommodation would be required. The Great Depression helped push this, and newspapers and magazines either folded, or found ways to work together. It was not unusual for bitter rivals to agree to share a common printing plant, so that they could both stay in business.
The Government encouraged this up through the 1980s, ruling that such was not a violation of anti-monopoly laws. Rather, it was but was allowed because of the need for multiple sources of information in order to obtain fair and balanced coverage. This is also a bit of an indictment of The Media in that it was a tacit admission by the Government that no single outlet was capable of, or should be trusted with, providing fair and balanced news.
The other factor that forever altered the economic landscape was the development of news means of communications. The telegraph was the first example of this, but it was not a true mass instrument of communication. Instead, it provided a foretaste of what was to come by allowing news to get across the country relatively accurately in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks or months. In this way, newspapers and magazines across America could, would, and did provide news and information (and fiction and misinformation) on a much more timely basis. This, too, was a part of the revolution that was to come in journalism and The Media.
The first true new mass communication method was radio. While it was years before every home could afford one, enough were out there to allow news and entertainment to reach large amounts of the population. Indeed, the problem was that it was sometimes quite hard to tell the news from the entertainment, and vice versa. The subconscious feeling was that if it came over radio, because of its immediacy, it must therefore be true. That is one of the reasons that Orson Well’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast was taken so seriously, and created a panic.
Radio did take revenue away from newspapers, magazines, and other publications. There was not an expansion of the market, and where the market could not afford to do both there was a tendency to go with the new media. This was for several reasons, ranging from hearing rather than imagining a symphony to the fact that it did not require quite as much though and knowledge to understand. It also provided the first means since the public readings of papers in pamphlets in colonial days to reach illiterate portions of the public. Those people voted with their money and helped make radio a dominant communications means.
There was also the fact that you could take it everywhere. From the early, large, cumbersome radios, there soon evolved small units for the home and even units for that newfangled horseless carriage. This allowed news to get much faster, and made it easier for the public to be informed and to be more easily entertained.
Recognizing the threat, many of the great media empires bought into the technology and opened up radio stations as a corollary to their print operations. They particularly went after the “clear-channel” stations and locked up corresponding slots on the FM spectrum when they became available.
It was also inevitable that radio stations would buy into television when it came along. At first, many did not see television as truly being a separate medium. It was perceived as, and treated as, radio with pictures. It took a number of years for that to change, and a good argument can also be made that television has simply built on and refined the so-called golden age of radio with its comedies, dramas, and the like.
Both new media, however, moved into journalism and as such ensured minimal government controls over the new media. In fact, there were (and are even now) campaigns to get the government completely out of the picture by abolishing the FCC and related organizations. The original purpose of the FCC was simply to ensure the fair distribution of available broadcast slots to prevent interference between competing stations. That has, as in inevitable with any government agency, to a much more intrusive role, with the rational that government control is needed to deal with new technologies not envisioned by the founding fathers and the resulting complexities. Good arguments have been put forth, however, that things might have functioned much more smoothly, and technological advances come earlier and better, without such regulation.
New media has always been a problem both for the government and for the American media dynasties. The Media has seen advertising dollars shift, operations become marginal or outright losses as the fickle public switched en masse to the new technology, and seen challenges to their dynasties in the form of new “upstarts.”
For this reason, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the internet by many in The Media and in government. The Media was worried about competition, challenges, and the like, as well as how it would affect the economic landscape. Unlike radio and television, however, the Internet did not take off in the same relative timeframe and did not follow the established models for same, so quite a few failed to realize its potential. The government, despite some strong desires both within and without, could not find reasonable arguments to provide control since there were no frequencies to allocate, etc.
Yet, the Internet has finally taken off, and many in academia and the real world see the World Wide Web as the new media of this new technology. Through the Web, information transmission truly has become instantaneous such that news is flashed around the world in near real-time. It also bypasses many of the traditional checks by government and The Media in that there are no gatekeepers to restrict the flow of information. From almost the start, the Web went into specialization of information, with sites devoted to almost any topic, and any sub-topic to the topic, popping up like mushrooms in a field.
The blogosphere is a prime example of this. There are sites to cover almost any topic of interest, as well as more general sites that try to cover the high spots. The best of these sites are multi-faceted such that there is the general and the specific provided. Glenn Reynolds is a good example of this with the somewhat general Instapundit site, as well as other specialized sites where certain topics are taken up in greater detail.
It also represents an unprecedented challenge to The Media and all governments. For the first time in history, so-called news coverage is subject to immediate investigation and refutation. Comments are spread around the globe with immediately, without the ability to retract them, merely redact them as needed. Unlike traditional outlets, Blogs and other Web sites can make corrections, updates, and changes as they happen and the entire result is available for review. This does make historical revisionism much more difficult, since many on the Web cheerfully archive things as they were up originally for comparison, and are not at all shy about posting notices of such attempted revisionism for all to see. Worse yet, from the point of view of The Media, they have no real way to seize control of the outlets in the same manner that they did radio and television. There is no exclusivity to them, and peasants and princes both have the same access and availability – for now.
Governments are also scared by the Web. Many totalitarian regimes exist because they control the flow of information to and from their subjects. This control is paramount to ensuring continued power, because if the people do not realize that things can be better and are better elsewhere, it is hard(er) to foment revolution from within. By keeping things like mass murder, burying babies alive, etc., from getting out, it keeps down the noise from the neighbors and allows idiots to bury their head in the sand and pretend that such horrible things are not happening, and therefore do not need fixing. Even relatively benign governments are scared of the unprecedented freedom of expression and freedom of information provided by the Web. Our own government, denied traditional rationalizations for interference, has opted to approach it from a law enforcement perspective by focusing on the reprehensible uses of same to provide pornography and such, particularly child pornography. Conveniently overlooked is the fact that this industry was largely created by the government in the form of the U.S. Post Office. When that agency decided to go after child pornography being sent by mail and the internet, there was so little of it that they had to create their own. In the process, a new horror was born, and the similarities to what happened with prohibition are best left to the reader or another series of long posts. This has been fairly well documented, even though very little coverage has been provided by The Media.
Today, we have calls by those who should know better, such as Senator Hatch’s abominable statements of late, to regulate the Internet and particularly the Web, on this basis. Also added into the equation are demands for restrictions and back-doors for national security. For now, I merely suggest that all concerned go read the Constitution, and think again.
For now, the real factor that upsets most of the apple carts is that the U.S. Government has never required the licensing of journalists, and in fact has ruled against such. While there have been a number of cases of individual judges deciding – in most interesting fashion, (see the case of the freelance writer jailed in Texas by a judge who has a most creative and interesting definition of “real” journalism) – who is and who is not a journalist, the law of the land simply states that it is anyone covering and reporting the news. Most interesting decisions by judges end up getting overturned when and if the cases involved reach the Supreme Court.
As for me, I see the blogosphere as being the new media and the new journalism. With the power provided by this technology, the relatively low cost and wide availability, everyone has the capability to be a reporter, and it can and should be argued that blogs represent the new media outlets. Indeed, many of the blogs do a far better job of reporting news in a fair and balance manner, with discussion in comments or in separate columns that would fill Jefferson, Paine, and others with fevered delight in terms of rational discourse. Not to say that many comments are rational, but even the most irrational spark discussion and thought.
Add to this the power of economics, and you have a winner. Bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan have proven that blogs and the Web can be a money-making proposition in the same way as traditional media, fulfilling the economic requirement. It is quite likely that we are witnessing the start of a new revolution within the Web and blogging as payment, voluntary or otherwise, becomes the norm rather than the exception. Even with such, there will be few restrictions on anyone taking part from the point of view of the technology. Governments can and are putting restrictions elsewhere, in a desperate and doomed attempt to control the flow of information, but at least for now there are means to bypass such efforts. Care needs to be taken, however, to ensure that this situation does not change from ill-intentioned laws (cloaked in the best of intentions/save the children/protect the public from what it can’t or shouldn’t understand) both local and international.
Now, we are finally set to begin discussing specific suggestions for saving journalism and actually making it what it has wanted to be, and has never truly been. Stay tuned, more to come.