Journalism is dead. Why? Because old media were stubborn and did not adjust to a new world of smart phones and social media. Or so the prevailing thought goes.
Robert McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy” offers another theory, though, one I believe should be discussed and dissected in every journalism school in the United States.
Those who aspire to be journalists need to know and understand the information and arguments in “Digital Disconnect,” because it gives a brutally honest description of today’s “political economy of communication,” and how the demise of good investigative reporting is contributing to a rise in economic inequality.
The book is primarily about how the promise of the Internet – open, untethered, democratic, free of advertising – has been co-opted by two groups of massive conglomerates – telecoms (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc.) tussling over the right to control access, and massive new media companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, etc.) fighting over your data – all to maximize profit. As Jaron Lanier writes, those who owns the most distribution channels and data own the future.
At its heart, however, McChesney’s book tackles the death and future of American journalism. National news organizations are now almost entirely owned by one of six media corporations (who also often own telecom networks), and they design their product to get maximum pageviews or ad clicks through one of the massive social media networks. In other words, the news has fundamentally changed thanks to a squeeze for profits from both ends. The wall between ownership and newsrooms were long destroyed, and terms like “sponsored content” try to disguise the fact that most “news” is now no more than regurgitated press releases.
All of this means journalism is spending less time putting pressure on those who control resources and power in society. This includes their own ownership, actively rewriting laws and regulations to further monopoly control over public means of communication. As a result, these companies, along with the American government, now know nearly anything they want about you, while you are allowed to know as little as possible about them. Primarily, “Digital Disconnect” is an account of corporate and state collusion to increase profits and power at the expense of privacy, choice, dissent and the democratic process. And professional journalism has rolled over and played along.
The Internet has been detrimental to news media, because it has destroyed ad revenues. Journalism struggles to remain afloat. But this was always the case – real journalism has always been a thorn in the side of power, and thus always under attack. Intimidation via digital communication is just the latest tool to render reporting and investigation harmless.
Journalism plays a role in combating inequality by “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” Evidence suggests it is failing in that role in the 21st century. Is it just coincidence that the collapse of old media has coincided with economic instability, sinking real wages, and record gains for Fortune 500 companies and the top centile of earners?
So what’s the cure? How does journalism survive and ensure the health of our politics and economy? Non-profit journalism has shown promise (even winning a Pulitzer), but ultimately it is susceptible to the same threats of funding and influence of corporate journalism.
McChesney’s solution? Public funds for media. Yes, it seems to fly in the face of everything journalism schools teach – no government should exert any level of influence or control over the media or its resources, or you become China. But when corporations are arguably as powerful as the government, and when the two actively collude, why is privately funded journalism intrinsically better? “Digital Disconnect” calls public broadcast a positive example of state-subsidized journalism, and he points to other advanced democracies – Norway, Sweden, Denmark – where the government provides funds to independent, non-profit news outlets. These countries also – coincidentally – have some of the lowest Gini coefficients in the world.
McChesny is staunchly anti-capitalist, and this is perhaps where I differ. I believe the political economy of the United States has flaws, but these can be fixed, albeit with major structural and legal changes, in a way that preserves capitalism, free markets, healthy competition, and a thriving fourth estate. The key is to reform our political and economic system in a way in which democracy takes precedence over profit taking and capital hoarding. The simplest way to do this is to ensure a future for professional reporters, investigators, and journalists who will shed disinfectant sunlight on the the corrosive and the corrupt.
If we could preserve the vital function of free press and return to the days when the newsroom was separate from the business operations of media companies – only now public funds replace the disappearing private funds – well, would it be much worse that our current situation? I know it’s a tough pill to swallow, and the slippery slope gives one pause. But a journalist should never deal in absolutes.