Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Limits of the Media
Ask any journalist, and they'll admit: it's a scary time for journalism. With print journalism brought to its knees by the vaguely ominous "bloggosphere" and television saturated with pointless reality shows, sensationalized local news, and increasingly polarized opinion journalism, many reporters wonder how the industry will reorganize when it is forced to abandon its current financially unstable forms. Words like 'reliable' and 'objective' seem more elusive than ever, even though biases and internal hierarchies within all news organizations have always made 'objective truth' a standard to strive for, but a practical impossibility. This links remind me of the intimate link between capital and exposure--something that was not foregrounded in either Born Into Flames or Control Room. Most news outlets do not have the luxury of publishing solely what they feel to be important; they are in part limited by their need to turn a profit. I once met the former editor of People magazine, who regretted the less-than-profound content of the latest editions of his magazine, but explained that 20 years ago, there weren't other magazines similar to People, and their near-monopoly allowed them to publish more intellectual and controversial articles (his proudest, he said, was an expose on racism in Hollywood), but now, he said, only cover stories about Angelina Jolie can prevent consumers from buying one of the many other celebrity magazines lining the checkout aisle. Despite this lack of confidence (backed up by years of tracking their sales) in the intellect and social conscience of their consumers, journalists nonetheless, like human rights organizations, deeply believe in the power of exposure to affect social change. Interestingly, they view their role in the spreading of information ("telling the truth to the world") as necessary for democracy, but some journalists (particularly political reporters) choose not to vote, thinking it would compromise their position as objective observers. I find this paradox really strange: that the media is necessary for the functioning of a democracy, but must in some sense stand outside of it. Journalists self-imposed exclusion from the political process reflects their faith in the ability of the public to create social change using the mechanisms of democracy. No wonder they are so confounded when pervasive media coverage of crimes like the genocide in Darfur fails to bring a speedy end to these abuses. This reminds me of Christian Lander's critique of society's use of awarness as an easy way out of the social reposibility of addressing injustices.