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The free press and free people

Journalists are involved in something essential to the concept of free people and a functioning and sustainable democracy.
By William F. Woo
November/December 2004 11.1.04

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A year or so before I left my position as editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996, the newspaper’s top editors and managers interviewed a consultant—or “change agent,” as some of them were being called—who might make us more creative. Change was the new thing in journalism. The air was full of “transactional change,” “transformational change,” the “dark night of the innovator,” and so forth. After we’d finished interviewing the change agent, he asked what business we thought we were in. One by one, the chairman, assorted vice presidents, and managing editor gave the identical answer: We’re in the information business.

When it came my turn, I disagreed. No, I said, we’re in the news business. I said we were in the business of judgment, of discretion, of making informed decisions on what to publish. We were not in the business of spewing out undifferentiated information, like water from a garden hose.

The looks around the table said it all: Poor fellow, he just doesn’t get it.

Not long thereafter, I recounted this to my old friend Phillip Meyer, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina. When I told him the others declared we were in the information business, Phil replied, “Wrong answer.” So I told him that I said we were in the news business. “Oh, oh,” he said. “Also wrong answer.”

So what is journalism’s purpose? In my view, the purpose of journalism is not doing journalism—any more than the purpose of surgery is cutting patients open and sewing them back together again. The skill of the knife is important but only so far as it serves the larger purpose of surgery: restoring patients to health and productivity.

Similarly, the skill of journalists—their ability to report and edit well—is necessary for journalism to serve its purpose, which I consider a public trust. I once taught a course at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley with Jay Harris, the former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, devoted entirely to journalism’s public trust. At the time, Jay had just resigned from the Mercury News in protest of the relentless bottom-line orientation of its parent company, Knight-Ridder. He knew that people expect more from journalists than maximizing their employers’ profits.

At my old newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, we never conducted a focus group at which people told us they wanted to read about the plight of poor people, whose lives were often ones of squalor, affected by crime or a lack of education or multiple unplanned pregnancies. Quite the contrary. In fact, they told us nobody wanted to read about those things. And yet I knew that the public trust, at least as we defined it, required us to print such stories so our readers would have a better understanding of society and, hence, be better equipped to change it for the better.

American journalists came to embrace the idea that they had a public obligation for several reasons: The owners of important newspapers over many years came to see themselves as out to do more than get rich—though that was something they expected, as well. But when the requirement to spend money on the news meant smaller profits, they put the news—the public trust—first. The Sulzburgers at the New York Times, the Grahams at the Washington Post, the three generations of Joseph Pulitzers in St. Louis, the Binghams in Louisville, the Knights in Akron and Miami, the Poynter family in St. Petersburg, and many others, chose to be “philanthropists of news”—a wonderful phrase that I borrow from Jay.

The papers these owners created and managed over many decades were the incubators of the notion that journalism is about something more than the who, what, when, where—that journalists are involved in something essential to the concept of free men, free women, and a functioning and sustainable democracy.

We are in a period of technological, demographic, and attitudinal change, but to my mind, the greatest challenge in America’s newsrooms relates to journalism’s purpose. When the media lose sight of the public trust, they are letting the American people down. The disturbing truth is that we journalists have lost sight of our public trust; but it also has been deliberately obscured by the new ownership structure of the media and the incestuous relationship between the media and government. Four recent books confront these developments in interesting and useful ways.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu, the Chinese military philosopher, addressed the importance of self-knowledge. If you know the enemy and know yourself, he wrote, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. But if you know neither yourself nor the enemy, you will lose every time. When I was a young reporter in the 1950s, journalists knew themselves: They were in the newspaper business. Period. There was no confusion about it, and as for their enemies, they knew them chiefly by their absence. By the mid-1990s, when I left daily journalism, our competitors came in a bewildering array of print sources, broadcast media, and on-line sites—all hoping to capture advertising revenues that once were the domain of newspapers, all eager to replace newspapers as the preferred source of news, information, and advertising. No longer did we even know ourselves. What business were we in, anyway?

By the 1990s, the transformation of newspapers from privately owned companies to publicly traded ones had long been under way. Twenty years ago, in the first edition of his landmark book The Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian noted that fifty corporations controlled most of the country’s newspapers, broadcast, movies, and books. As he reports in The New Media Monopoly, that number has shrunk to five. In The Problem of the Media, Robert W. McChesney comprehensively documents the process by which the federal government has subsidized big media for nearly a century and a half. The roots of media monopolies were planted long ago, and by the 1990s they extended far underground.

As media consolidation has expanded, the media’s fall from public grace has continued unabated. In 1972 a Gallup poll reported about 70 percent of people trusted the media. By 2000, Gallup found the figure had dropped to about 30 percent. What has changed? Government policies and the concentration of ownership have exacerbated the problems, but the loss in public confidence can also be attributed to a decline in journalistic quality, primarily through the subordination of news values to entertainment values. The public’s waning confidence also reflects media executives’ failure of nerve to pursue public issues, a course they rationalize on the grounds that their audiences are not interested in them. People, they say, want news you can use: stories about personal finance, personal health, and personal technology. Public issues do not qualify as news you can use, though what transpires in legislatures and city halls has more impact on readers and viewers than any number of articles on striking it rich in the Google auction or losing weight on low-carb diets.

The loss in public confidence is inextricably tied to the rise in educational levels, a strongly positive social trend that has the healthy side effect of encouraging the public to question what it reads and hears in the mass media. The loss is also related to the explosion in alternative sources of information, which allows people to make up their minds on the basis of a wider range of facts and opinion. Once people said they only knew what they read in the papers. It’s unthinkable that anyone would seriously say such a thing nowadays.

Finally, journalism is scarcely the only public institution that has been challenged. Churches, universities, the law, corporations, government: All are shaken by doubts from without and within. Efforts to reform the media are unlikely to succeed without similar activities directed at other institutions central to American life.

For years scholars, activists, and journalists have discussed the effects of these changes on the country—“on democracy,” they usually say. Not surprisingly, however, media companies have muted the response to the deeper issues of media concentration, as McChesney demonstrates through the belated news coverage of the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to relax media ownership regulations.

Bill Moyers describes the current situation in the media in his new essay collection, Moyers on America:

[D]espite plenty of lip service on every ritual occasion to freedom of the press, radio and TV, three powerful forces are undermining that very freedom. . . . The first of these is the centuries-old reluctance of governments—even elected governments—to operate in the sunshine of disclosure and criticism. The second is more subtle and more recent: the tendency of media giants, operating on big-business principles, to exalt commercial values at the expense of democratic value. . . . [The third is] the quasi-official partisan press ideologically linked to an authoritarian administration that in turn is the ally and agent of the most powerful financial interests in the world.

Moyers on America is a personable collection of wide-ranging speeches and commentaries. For the general reader it provides an excellent though brief description of the pressures that have been debasing the media—particularly, in his view, commercial television. Like Bagdikian and McChesney, Moyers worries about the effect on democracy. “What I find troubling today is democracy’s inability to resolve some of the critical issues that face our nation,” he writes. “These questions—all the more critical because of the growing disparities of wealth in this country—are almost entirely off the screen of public debate.”

Bagdikian, a former dean of the graduate school of journalism at Berkeley, has long been respected as a perceptive herald of the consequences of concentration of media ownership. Through many editions of The Media Monopoly, he has laid out in fine detail how the obsession of owners to maximize profits has led them to ignore news that may interfere with their bottom lines. Now in The New Media Monopoly, Bagdikian has added a sharp and welcome political dimension. His first words to the reader are:

In the years since 1980, the political spectrum of the United States has shifted radically to the far right. What was once the center has been pushed to the left, and what was the far right is now the center.

In The Problem of the Media, McChesney, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois, argues that the debasement of the media is the product of a historic collusion between government policy makers and a private media ownership driven by an insatiable desire for profits. He notes three duties of the press in a democracy: to be a watchdog, to ferret out truth, and to broadly present informed positions on important issues. On all three, he says, the media have failed:

The problem stems directly from the system of profit-driven journalism in largely competitive markets that began to emerge over a century ago. This system was not “natural,” but the consequence of a series of policies, most notably policies favoring monopoly and/or oligopoly . . . and commercialism in media.

McChesney finds a possible solution to the problem in what he calls “the uprising of 2003”—the unprecedented public opposition to the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to further relax rules of media ownership. We have yet to learn whether the revolt will succeed.

McChesney tells an engrossing story of a dormant public aroused to indignation and action, but whether the opposition to the FCC’s rules can be replicated is the question. For one thing, the public in this case had something specific to oppose as well as effective leadership within the FCC minority to carry the fight. But had the FCC not overreached, the country would still have been left with an indefensible concentration of media. Third, there has been a long history of government regulation over broadcast, but nothing similar over the printed press, where the deleterious effects of concentration appear likely to remain.

Dan Gillmor, technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and a friend who addresses my students each year, provides a different corrective in We the Media. Whereas McChesney envisions a frontal assault on the government-private ownership cartel, Gillmor sees a million holes drilled through it by “citizen journalists.”

Gillmor looks forward to “journalism’s transformation from a 20th Century mass-media structure to something profoundly more grassroots and democratic,” a transformation made possible through new technologies like blogs, SMS (short message services), mail lists, the Wiki phenomenon, mobile phones with cameras, Internet broadcasting, peer-to-peer file sharing, and RSS (Rich Site Summary, also known as Real Simple Syndication). These applications are used by citizen journalists around the world; indeed, it was through SMS that Chinese reporters first learned of the sars epidemic.

Gillmor foresees a fundamental shift in news from a lecture by the media to a conversation among professional journalists, citizen journalists, and others with something to add to the discussion:

The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communication network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just the few who can afford to buy multi-million-dollar printing presses, launch satellites or win the government’s approval to squat on the public’s airwaves.

Accuracy and fairness no doubt will take some buffeting in the process. I do not minimize the effects of this turbulence. Even so, the contribution of more voices, more opinions, and more facts will surely enrich the discussion of important issues.

Gillmor’s vision of American society comes closest to my own, which is that democracy is a means, not an end or objective. Personal liberty or freedom is the end, and democracy is the way that we Americans have chosen to try to achieve it.

Hence, the debasement of the media can be likened to the failure of an automobile’s engine. It is serious, perhaps catastrophic. Fortunately, we can still walk, though that effort may not be for everyone.

We the Media shows how citizens and journalists alike can contribute truth, accurate information, and provocative opinion without the need for what is controlled by the government-private ownership cartel. There are ways to address that cartel, though it would take another essay to describe them. In the meantime, if we cannot ride, then let us walk.

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