What We Call the News

With information almost instantly available to us, what effect will this conversation have?

This title stolen from JibJab’s song of the same title found here.

In talking about the information networks of the twenty-first century, one cannot omit the rise of the Internet and the revitalization of conversational media. As lecturer Alex Whalen has told us, in the first era of the American Newspaper, conversation was key; the back page of every newspaper was left blank for people to leave their comments. These newspapers were passed from person to person, and the conversation was looked upon by the founders as vital to a republic. Indeed, in the words of Jack Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist:

Thomas Jefferson… He advocated and supported a free press, and yet Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. He was excoriated by the press. He was abused more by the press than Bill Clinton, or Richard Nixon, or anybody that we have had in recent times. Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. Excoriated. And he was human. He didn’t like it. He went nose to nose with a couple of editors in Philadelphia. He said to one Philadelphia paper: “Nothing in this paper is true, with the possible exception of the advertising, and I question that.” And yet that wise Thomas Jefferson, in a moment of truth, said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” After all he had been through, he was wise enough to understand. And there is no one here that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson. There is no one in Washington that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson, but he said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government.” (Source)

But now, with information almost instantly available to us from more sources than we have ever had available to us before, what effect will this conversation have? For a little less than a century, we have been completely reliant on one-way media — television, newsreels, and radio — that turn the general public into passive consumers of information. Now, with tools like this blog and the newly-added comment sections on the websites of major news outlets, as well as online forums and Twitter, conversation is making news interactive again, much like in the colonial newspapers.

In the eyes of Walter Lippmann, this is disaster; to him, news was something that should be created by elites and given to the public to be consumed. In his eyes, the role of the public was to react emotionally, not to help create or distribute information. Lippmann believed that people did not really know what was going on, but instead had an image in their head of the world and made their decisions based on that picture. The media’s role was to stay outside of the process and provide objective information. Essentially, he believed in a sort of governance of media elites. He also understood that news did not equal truth, and that lazy news reporters would take information from people in power, rather than seek out their own information.

John Dewey believed that interaction would drive information, and that professional journalism was not the end result of journalism. Essentially, Dewey desired active consumers of information. Put another way, Dewey “contended that democracy should not be confined to the enlightenment of administrators or to insiders like industrial leaders, and highlighted the importance of public deliberation in political decisionmaking,” and “had a great faith in the public’s capacity to learn how to govern itself.” Indeed, the world we live in is becoming more and more Dewey-esque in its methods of journalism. (Some information taken from here.)

In considering who is turning out to be correct in this debate, we must also consider Madison’s proposition in The Federalist Papers that a slow dissemination of information would allow for more logical government, and check the passions of the public when debating politics. I would argue that in most cases, despite the literal lightspeed of information on the Internet, and the not-quite-as-fast-but-still-fairly-quick speed of news on television and radio, rationality tends to prevail in our modern information environment, and that, as Dewey argued, a participatory public will lead to a more informed public. As of today, a lot of information that we get still comes from organizations of professional journalists, such as Reuters and the Associated Press. These professional, objectively-trained journalists still are the ones who put out the most well-respected and detailed news stories, and are acting, as Alex said, as filters of news — separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and using the expanded resources of professional journalism to give us a well-written and objective piece.

More and more, however, passions are starting to set in and become a part — and hopefully only a part — of the modern media scene. Just the other day, John L. Perry made the suggestion of a military coup against the president of the United States. Glenn Beck has shed (crocodile) tears on television over the state of the nation. On thousands of blogs both on the left (Daily Kos) and right (The New Republic), passions are flaring every day over every action of every politician at every level of government. Will these passions prevail? Will they hurt our republic; will they hurt the country? This has yet to be seen. Clearly, the Teabaggers protests where people showed up with loaded assault weapons at one of the president’s speeches is a frightening example of these new passions; in the very recent past, something like this would have been unthinkable.

This flare-up of passions is both scary, and, in Madison’s view, totally understandable. However, we cannot very well undo technological progress — you can take my CATV cable from my cold, dead fingers. This is truly a test of our republic; can people control their passions, despite the rapid speed of information? Or will we be doomed to a future of people reacting on what Stephen Colbert refers to as “truthiness“?

What is the role of this new media? In my mind, the spread of journalism to include almost anyone has two key benefits. First, amateurs may be able to provide information that the professional media cannot. For example, during the London Transit Bombings when video was posted by cell phones within minutes of the explosions, and professional networks quickly discovered it and sent it out. In this sense, the new media are information gatherers for the professional media to use as sources, just as it always has. Second, it is a way, as Dan Gillmor argues, to keep checks on the professional media. A great example of this was when Trent Lott made his obviously racist comment about Strom Thurmond’s run for the presidency, as discussed in Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.

Overall, as we gain new passionate and conversational forms of media, we will lose some of the objectivity that we were used to in the mainstream media for the past several decades. We will lose some of the civility that we have gotten used to. On the other hand, we will find more participation in discussions, a wider and more informed discourse (thanks to the many new people from different publics who can participate), and perhaps even a more informed general public.

Comments

  1. I don’t see why with more participation and discussion, the media should lower its standards of objectivity and civility. They’re not doing that because they like being so “interactive”; they do it, because it attracts viewers. That’s the real tragedy.