[15 August 2011]
In the introduction of Page One: The Future of Journalism NPR correspondent David Folkenflik uses the New York Times’ recent financial difficulties to illustrate the problems surrounding print journalism. With circulations in decline and staff cutbacks throughout the industry, the morning newspaper, like the CD before it, looks like a casualty of the internet age.
A collection of essays inspired by a documentary of the New York Times news room, the book promises an insider’s look at the complex issues surrounding the industry’s transformation and what it means for society at large. What it provides, however, is those insiders spending most of their time arguing for why their particular corner of the industry merits saving: writers extol the size and scope of a news staff (“one of the biggest journalistic assets on Earth”), online media executives emphasize the promise of new media, journalism professors trumpet their contributions to civil society.
The reader who manages to make it through all 18 essays might notice that many of these arguments contradict one other. The end-result is a frustrating book which raises far more questions than it answers, without giving any clear sense as to where journalism is heading or what that direction means for society as a whole.
Folkenflik voices the book’s underlying assumption, writing that “The Times [is] a key part of an industry, that on its better days, makes a credible case that is indispensable to the functioning of democracy in the US.” In the last few years alone, the New York Times uncovered a massive federal wire-tapping program of dubious legality, documented the collapse of the housing bubble and exposed the unsavory sexual practices and corruption of New York’s last two governors.
Yet if keeping the citizenry informed is the main purpose of the Fourth Estate, what should we make of this embarrassing study brought to us by Dean Miller, a news literacy professor at Stony Brook: “In recent off-year elections, a majority of Americans went to the polls badly misinformed about the economic recovery, the state of climate science and other important context to the election.”
Indeed, most of the biggest revelations about government misconduct in the last two years have come not from legacy media organizations but from WikiLeaks. Kelly McBride, a former reporter who now works for the Poynter Institution, dismisses WikiLeaks credibility because its founder, Julian Assange, has an explicit agenda of ending the wars in the Middle East. She contrasts “Collateral Murder”, a controversially edited YouTube video of an American military engagement in Iraq, with stand-alone newspaper pieces outlining a day of violence in Baghdad and the life-span of an American military outpost in Afghanistan.
The difference, as McBride points out with pride, is that traditional journalism is more concerned with the truth and not any preconceived narrative. Yet WikiLeaks’ ideologically-tinged nature was the reason why it was able to scoop the more “objective” media: the military intelligence analyst behind the leak shared its agenda.
In reality, there’s very little objective truth in the field of public policy. As Miller points out in a discussion of cognitive psychology, once someone develops a series of beliefs, cognitive dissonance makes it extremely hard for them to accept a set of facts that challenge their ideology.
Hillary Clinton has a point when says that Al Jazeera is gaining American viewers “because it feels like real news.” After all, isn’t an obsession with objectivity and pointing out both sides of a story, even when one side is factually wrong, a preconceived narrative that can obscure the truth, as well?
With editors arguing about internet pay walls and how to get people to pay for quality reporting, Page One has more than its share of doom and gloom surrounding the future of journalism. However, it does offer one surprising ray of hope: National Public Radio. Despite operating in a medium that TV made obsolete 50 years ago and losing nearly all its government funding, NPR has re-invented itself as a home of quality journalism and a “voice of reason” in the national landscape. Most importantly, even though it gives away its product for free, people still value it enough that they’re willing to pay for it in the form of pledges and donations.
If what the New York Times does is as important to society as the writers in Page One seem to think, then society will figure out a way to keep it viable in these changing times.