The world of coats and ties and microfilm is gone. The shady character in some parking garage, passing out information to city beat journalists is as obsolete as a television antenna. Single source news, whether the local newspaper or trusty old Walter Cronkite, makes for quaint memories or historical studies, but it, too, is gone. And so, too, at least for this skeptic, is the somewhat disingenuous clamor for objectivity. Few possess a true to form judicial temperament and fewer still would argue that any media outlet, save a few bastions of the well-intentioned, hold to a rigid objective standard. Some would argue that the standard still exists, but the Old Media's circulations or ratings, much like their fantastic notions of journalistic integrity, are drowning in a tsunami of digital data transfer.
Now, bathrobes and Boolean searches dominate news. There are no shady characters in parking garages because any malcontent – or decent person wanting to right a grievous wrong – armed with an email account, has access to a universe of outlets for whatever information he’s willing to share. The evening news and daily fish-wrapper are out in favor of blogrolls, and forthright subjectivity with an acknowledgement of fact.
In the past decade, the Old Media has felt the sting of scandal. Jason Blair made the New York Times into a tool for fiction. Dan Rather saw his career at CBS get tossed with a handful of fake documents that somehow made it past the fact-checkers. Even the New Republic has hit the skids, as their “Baghdad Diarist,” Scott Thomas, was outed as not just Scott Thomas Beauchamp, but the husband of one of the New Republic’s fact-checkers. It wouldn’t have mattered as much, except for the little problem that Beauchamp’s articles were discovered to be pure fantasy and bad fiction simultaneously.
How were these egregious violations of the most fundamental rules of objectivity exposed? Bloggers did it.
And all of that would be bad enough for the Old Media, but the story deepens. As their credibility took hits and their ratings dropped, blogs surged forward as engines of information. The Ipod personal listening platform turned anyone with a little technical savvy into a radio host with his or her own show. You Tube was the final straw, as online streaming technology now allows webcasting of studio quality to take place on a budget fit for a teenager’s allowance. The information on the internet is astounding. In fact, the Old Media has gone on the offensive with the idea that they are somehow the gatekeepers, the professional gatherers of all that is fit to know.
As one might expect this far into the account, this, too, is flawed thinking, thanks to the advent of the encompassing news aggregator. It is possible to imagine that one might need to rely on the Old Media, were it not for the fact that in any given field, principal players are blogging, giving undiluted information – and in some cases misinformation – directly to the consumers. And if the thought of misinformation would give one pause to challenge this thesis, consider again Jason Blair, Dan Rather and Scott Thomas Beauchamp.
What we are now witnessing is a battle for the narrative. Competing interests, not only ideologically competing interests, but economic interests as well, are battling for attention and the ability to shape perceptions. Throw in a corporate machine still trying to learn to make a pitch in cyberspace and it is easy to see why this advent of electronic media is called an information revolution. The rules have changed, and some would argue they don’t even exist anymore.
As newspaper circulations drop and fewer people can name the anchor of any given station’s evening news, the upheaval continues unabated. Before it seems too certain, it should be noted that the Old Media is battling for its own niche, and isn’t dead just yet. Some have even taken to blogging to counterbalance the din from the internet. This only serves to enhance the democratic flair of the changes.
And in the middle of it all is a fluid narrative. That tale, regardless of subject, is shaped by resistance and gravity. Facts are pushed and tugged along until they reach a computer screen, where they are filtered through the bias of the reader. In the end, the narrative is driven by the reader and his or her support for a specific set of sources, reliable or otherwise.
Why does any of this matter?
Democratic participation, public policy, and individual decision making are fueled by information. That next job a worker wants in a competitive field will require valid and reliable information. Fortunes are made with information. Almost everything we do in the Twenty-First Century is the result of action taken based on information, which is to say that nothing has changed since human beings first developed speech as a method of communication, except that whispers are much harder to conceal now.
We went through an evolutionary bottleneck of information as power consolidated into the control of priests and kings, was passed to emperors and merchants, and handed down to aristocrats and magnates. Robber barons and trust mongers furthered the control of information, and then we witnessed the advent of corporate media and the reduction of choice in news outlets. This isn’t an accusation, just a recounting of the facts leading up to the final analysis. And that final analysis must conclude that while not all information is still readily available – anyone trying to figure out who is funding a political campaign these days and factoring in the 527 organizations will understand that many facts are still hidden – more than ever before, reams of data are a few keystrokes away.
The narrative isn’t so easy to control anymore.
Sorting it all out used to be the job of guys in shirts and ties working at the only paper of record in town, talking to shady characters in dark garages. That isn’t the case anymore. I read twenty or more blog posts before I shaved this morning and went through my news aggregator, which has over three thousand sources, before I left for work. Fifteen years ago, nobody I knew used the internet.
The average consumer controls a sizeable chunk of knowledge now. National borders no longer restrict a sharing of information and ideas. That’s a menace to totalitarians, but good news for lovers of freedom. The world is changing. On this front, it is for the better.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Blogging the Revolution by Bill Turner