Shooting The Messenger: The Fate of Journalism in the Information Age

The Junta will convene for the first of its Fall/Winter discussion series, the subject of which is the modern media, and our culpability for its current state.

Tue 10/9 @ 8pm
DOC Wine Bar (83 N 7th St, Williamsburg)

With the amount of available content, and the fracturing of broadcast formats from wide and national to niche and partisan, how should we understand the role that media plays in the shaping of our national debate? How is the public handling the increased responsibilities of managing multiple streams of conflicting information, and how do we avoid enclosing ourselves in bubbles of ideology?

Greg Walters, friend of the Junta and a former journalist, will lead the discussion. Please read his introduction below and join us on Oct. 9th.

Enter Greg:

Americans increasingly complain about bias in the news media. Yet we have greater access to information than ever before. What’s going on?

Never before has so much news been available to so many, so cheaply.

What’s more, as a former journalist myself, I’d contend there has never been a greater volume of accurate, even-minded news reporting — if you want to find it.

Yet opinion polls show approval for the media has plummeted to an all-time low. Record numbers of Americans believe the media is “biased,” “inaccurate” or even “immoral.” A full 66% of Americans believe news stories are often inaccurate, compared to 34 percent in 1985, according to a Pew survey.

So — what gives?

Here’s what I think. To steal a phrase from Joseph de Maistre: in a free-market democracy, people get the media they deserve.

I think that we — the consumers of media — are not the victim of the crime. We are the mob boss.

I don’t see the media as “failing,” or as unable to control individual reporters’ biases. Rather, the market demands bias.

Viewers increasingly want to hear news they agree with, rather than news that challenges their preconceptions. The availability of choice has, ironically, enabled the public to start behaving like mini-dictators, surrounding themselves with yes men. They can shut out things they don’t want to hear. When a report comes in that they don’t like, they shoot the messenger.

Journalists have long been seen as employees of private companies who perform a public service. They work for publicly-traded companies, with a mandate to inform the national debate and separate fact from fiction.

Are their public and private roles colliding? Many news outlets, especially newspapers, are under increasing financial strain due to structural changes in the industry. Print advertising, still the mainstay for most newspapers, is plummeting. The internet is sucking away advertising dollars and placing even more pressure on newspapers to deliver an entertaining and agreeable product — rather than the difficult, complicated, unvarnished truth that the public says it wants.

Youtube, Google, Wikipedia and Facebook compete not only for advertising dollars, but also for the public’s attention. Some newspapers – such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal – have scaled back longer feature stories and investigative journalism in favor of shorter, attention-grabbing pieces. Newspapers and TV networks are shuttering foreign bureaus around the world.

In short, I think that what Americans say they want in a national media, and what they are willing to pay for, aren’t the same thing.

To me, it’s no surprise that more people say they trust America’s public broadcaster, PBS, than any private broadcast news outlet. Or that when Americans are asked to name their most-trusted and their least-trusted news outlets, Fox News, the No. 1-rated news channel, wins both categories.

So, my questions for the Junta:

Is my theory baloney, and are journalists these days just shilling for their own personal biases?

Should journalists consider themselves public servants, or private employees? If they are both, where’s the line?

Is there such a thing as “non-biased” journalism?

Is free market competition always good for journalism?

Is public media part of the answer, as support for PBS would suggest? Or is it too risky to rely on the state, and will free competition eventually sort out the trustworthy from the untrustworthy?

Is the future of our country in danger if the media can’t be trusted to referee our national debate?

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