Skip­ping the news

Stabroek News - - REGIONAL NEWS -

On Septem­ber 14, 1987 the Sun­day edi­tion of the New York Times ran to a record 1,612 pages and weighed 12 pounds. With retrospect that mo­ment seems to be­long to a for­got­ten era. At the time dig­i­tal news that could be fed in­stan­ta­neously to bil­lions of hand­held de­vices that were per­ma­nently on­line seemed unimag­in­able. In the new cen­tury, how­ever, we have come to ac­cept a trans­formed me­dia land­scape as in­evitable, rarely paus­ing to con­sider the ef­fects of dis­tribut­ing de­con­tex­tu­al­ized en­ter­tain­ment, gos­sip, mis­in­for­ma­tion and hard news through the same dig­i­tal net­works.

A new book by Alan Rus­bridger, for­mer ed­i­tor of the Guardian, con­sid­ers the con­se­quences of ced­ing the moral au­thor­ity of tra­di­tional news-gath­er­ing and in­formed com­men­tary to the out­rage ma­chines that rule the new me­dia land­scape. In his in­tro­duc­tion Break­ing News: The Re­mak­ing of Jour­nal­ism and Why It Mat­ters, Rus­bridger takes an ex­am­ple from Fe­bru­ary 2017 – one that could eas­ily have been re­placed with scores of oth­ers – in which Pres­i­dent Trump re­peats xeno­pho­bic pro­pa­ganda from Fox News af­ter lis­ten­ing to a piece on Swe­den, which aired on Tucker Carl­son’s show, from Ami Horowitz (‘some­one we might call a me­dia con­tro­ver­sial­ist’ notes Rus­bridger) – a for­mer in­vest­ment banker who rein­vented him­self as a ‘gonzo film­maker’. The fol­low­ing day Trump talks about Horowitz’s thinly sourced story about an al­leged surge of im­mi­grant-re­lated crime in Swe­den as though it is hard news. Shortly after­wards, as Rus­bridger notes, “there is ri­ot­ing in the north­ern sub­urbs of the Swedish cap­i­tal, Stock­holm. No smoke with­out a fire? But which was the smoke and which the fire?”

In 1979 the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist David Broder mem­o­rably de­scribed a news­pa­per as “a par­tial, hasty in­com­plete, in­evitably some­what flawed and in­ac­cu­rate ren­der­ing of some of the things we have heard about in the past twenty-four hours—dis­torted, de­spite our best ef­forts to elim­i­nate gross bias—by the very process of com­pres­sion that makes it pos­si­ble for you to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour.” Nev­er­the­less, he con­tin­ued, “If we la­belled the prod­uct ac­cu­rately, then we could im­me­di­ately add: ‘But it’s the best we could do un­der the cir­cum­stances, and we will be back to­mor­row, with a cor­rected and up­dated ver­sion.’

When qual­ity news­pa­pers like the Guardian started shift­ing their cov­er­age to the in­ter­net, they had high hopes for in­ter­ac­tive ex­changes with their read­er­ship, for a col­lab­o­ra­tive “open jour­nal­ism” that would ex­tend their cov­er­age into new ar­eas. De­spite a few oc­ca­sional suc­cesses, this turned out to be a dream. In a re­view of

Rus­bridger’s book, the jour­nal­ist James Meek con­cludes that: “Open jour­nal­ism was based on the idea that non-jour­nal­ists would help news or­gan­i­sa­tions nav­i­gate their way to an ob­jec­tive truth, when the world we’re ac­tu­ally in is one where dif­fer­ent sets of peo­ple sub­scribe to dif­fer­ent ge­ogra­phies of truth al­to­gether.”

Hav­ing watched the col­lapse of tra­di­tional me­dia from the in­side of a dis­tin­guished news­pa­per, Rus­bridger has a clear sense of how it all went wrong: “In a world of too much to ab­sorb and never enough time, peo­ple skipped the story.” As the au­di­ences left, so did the ad­ver­tis­ers. Be­tween 2000 and 2016, the an­nual ad revenue in US news­pa­pers fell by US$45 bil­lion (from $63.5 to $18 bil­lion) even though, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, cir­cu­la­tion revenue has climbed steadily since the 1960s. In the in­terim the cor­po­ra­tions who took over control of the so-called ‘legacy me­dia’ be­gan to treat it as an ex­ten­sion of their en­ter­tain­ment hold­ings, and in­sist that it pro­duce com­pa­ra­ble re­turns on in­vest­ment.

One of the least de­sir­able out­comes of the new ‘in­fo­tain­ment’ was that the old me­dia of­ten chased its own tail, cover­ing so­cial me­dia rather than risk be­ing ig­nored by it. This fur­ther eroded the line be­tween news, com­men­tary, opin­ion and con­spir­acy the­o­ries – to the point at which most of the world’s news now reaches us via Face­book, Twit­ter and Google and the US pres­i­dent, the most pow­er­ful man on the planet, rou­tinely shares wild the­o­ries, mis­in­for­ma­tion and out­right lies as though they are le­git­i­mate news.

In 1962 the Ger­man philoso­pher Jur­gen Haber­mas warned that the post-En­light­en­ment pub­lic sphere which em­pow­ered cit­i­zens in the wake of the Amer­i­can and French Rev­o­lu­tions had grad­u­ally been ‘refeu­dalised’ in the late nine­teenth cen­tury by pri­vate and cor­po­rate in­ter­ests. Haber­mas’ anal­y­sis, which built on the Frank­furt School’s gen­eral scep­ti­cism to­wards a ‘cul­ture in­dus­try’ that func­tioned as a form of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal control, seems ex­traor­di­nar­ily pre­scient about the loss of the me­dia’s moral au­thor­ity in the age of ‘fake news’. To­day the 24/7 dig­i­tal news has largely dis­carded the ‘cor­rected and up­dated ver­sion’ that used to re­deem the er­rors in Broder’s time. Er­rors, ex­ag­ger­a­tions and pro­pa­ganda pass into the pub­lic sphere un­cor­rected. Mean­while the new gate­keep­ers – as shown by the re­cent rev­e­la­tions about Face­book – con­tain what­ever is needed to avoid the moral re­spon­si­bil­ity and reg­u­la­tory over­sight that used to con­strain tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers. It is a dispir­it­ing state of af­fairs, cer­tainly, but one that we have largely brought upon our­selves.

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