Vast numbers of members of the public have routinely demonstrated a proven inability to sift information, to divine the real from the false, to cross-check and fact-check, to assess the legitimacy, credibility and validity of sources.
Just three months ago the NPR received a barrage of angry criticism and accusations of inciting violence, calling for revolution, propagandizing and pushing a political agenda, when it Tweeted the Declaration of Independence on Independence Day. None of the furious critics appeared to have recognized the document being quoted. A day later, the New York Times published the results of a survey in which 64% of surveyed Americans could not locate North Korea on a map, their guesses in many cases so staggeringly wrong as to place the country practically everywhere else in the world. The same article referred to a 2006 survey in which six in 10 young adults could not locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East.
Digging deeper requires levels of ongoing research on your own time and at the sacrifice of your own energy and attention, in order to broaden and augment the understanding of the topics at hand. When you need your pipes fixed, unless you are yourself a plumber, you will call a plumber. When you are getting wrongfully sued, you’ll want a lawyer, unless you yourself are one. However, when it comes to knowing about a subject, there is a misguided belief that anyone and everyone could easily be an equal expert on any topic.
Well you can’t be. This is wrong. You can’t enter the fray of a debate, armed only with a brief skimming through tabloid op-eds or having glanced over your favorite media website or listened to your go-to foaming-mouth talk-show pariah. This does not prepare you to somehow know the same amount or more than those individuals whose stated job and purpose and calling it is to simply know more, to study, to learn, to re-examine. Studying and learning a subject is not a dismissible nonsense concept. You don’t get to open a person’s skull without having undertaken years of careful study by which you can learn and then know what’s involved in brain surgery. You can’t wire a house up safely and correctly by simply watching a quick Youtube summary of electrical wiring. In a similar vein, holding forth on the complexities of relations between nations while simultaneously avoiding any serious study of the topic results simply in your opinion being uninformed. This is a controversial and unwelcome idea nowadays, in the age where the “right to an opinion” is mistaken for the sense that “all opinions are equal.” I, for example, have not studied real estate law. How then would my thoughts on the best way to litigate a housing issue possibly be of equal use as those of a real estate lawyer? My opinion in the matter could not be equal to theirs.
Yet time and again we observe this belief, grounded in entitlement, anti-intellectualism, and a noxiously dangerous pride in being ignorant of information and knowledge, that all experts can be cast off and cast aside. It’s a risky business, because it places us in that “post-fact” world Donald Trump’s advisors have told us about, where it’s really just your word against the word of whoever holds power over you: whether that’s an angry mob, the disaffected masses, an uncaring government bent on holding power and making profit, a media concerned with spin and propaganda, or a leader rising towards an authoritarian grip on a nation peopled with those who refuse to do the work necessary to gain better insights and act upon them.
The calling, the vocation of the journalist is not to listen to the public like some opinion jukebox, anxious to play the songs the audience wants to hear. This is not music written for commission. This is not paint-by-numbers-for-dollars. In the supply-and-demand-ruled media world, the historical trend has been a shrinking interest in foreign news: it’s not as exciting as celebrity gossip; it’s not as personally engaging as sports news; it’s too complicated and messy and rife with varying viewpoints – who has time for that? As the interest wanes, the demand falls, and as a result, the supply decreases in response. As the supply diminishes, the opportunity for the public to be informed about the important events happening around the planet continues to fade, in a feedback loop that gradually lowers the volume on foreign news until nobody hears it, nobody knows about it, so nobody really cares. The few big headline soundbites are all anyone has appetite for. Who are the bad guys? Where should we invade next? Which nation can we denigrate? Which international leader should we mock?
As I have written elsewhere (in a 2003 article “Don’t hate the media, become the media”), Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts claimed in 2001 that US newspapers and television companies have reduced foreign news by around two thirds in the last two decades “in response to corporate demand for profits.” Whether the events happening abroad are newsworthy enough to know about is less important than the profit margin and the ratings. In that year I attended a public panel discussion of anchormen, investigative reporters and journalists from major news networks, conducted in downtown Manhattan. The panel was discussing the interaction between the press and the Pentagon’s press office during wartime, and during the conversation they cited the decreased demand for foreign news as a justification for the lack of foreign news on network television. I was struck at the time that nobody in the auditorium batted an eyelid at the use of demand/supply logic to evaluate news content, as if news were a commodity to be traded; as if content should contain what the reader and viewers like, or what editors or media owners like, and not what is actually happening in the world.
Bennetts summarized the consumption preferences of the public quite damningly in her Vanity Fair article by writing that “Americans like a simple storyline that makes it easy to decide who the good guys are and who the bad guys are; and the byzantine tangle of international politics, Islamic fundamentalism and American foreign policy is making many citizens unused to grappling with such headache-inducing complexities want to throw up their hands.” ‘Please don’t confuse us with such troubling subjects, just entertain us,’ seems to be the mantra. Surely this not a mantra that journalists can accept as a driving principle as they look to the future of the news industry?
When you let supply and demand dictate what qualifies as valid journalism, you are equating the vocation of keeping the public informed about important events with transactional commerce along the lines of selling cans of soda to those who enjoy that particular flavor. “Younger generations just don’t enjoy following news” we read in Jeff Jarvis’ book, “Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures For News,” as if we’re indeed talking about flavors of soda. Yet news is not supposed to be a form of entertainment or fun.
“How informed are members of our community?” Jarvis asks. And it’s a good question, one that strikes to the very heart of the matter. “As informed as they want to be?” he asks next, before replying that this “requires that we first ask people and listen to them about their needs and the outcomes they desire and then find the best means to fulfill those needs.” These are the same people who have demonstrated their lack of appetite for foreign affairs coverage, for complicated international geo-politics and convoluted tangled news stories, and their preference for spin, propaganda, and unsubstantiated opinions and filtered half-stories. How then can we entrust to them the shaping of the future of news media, while downgrading any sense that there must be a central unshakable pylon of journalistic integrity and expertise, a foundation of careful study and research, underpinning the institution of the free press? Jarvis believes “our most critical measurement of journalistic value” is whether “the people we serve accomplish[ed] their goals,” while I disagree in the strongest terms. The goal is education, illumination, and the dissemination of well thought out coverage, which may not always align with the goals of the readership or viewership.
Jarvis maintains that “journalism’s result” is “better-informed individuals and a better-informed society.” On that much we agree. In posing the follow-on question of “who’s to define ‘informed’ and who’s to measure success: journalists or citizens?” Jarvis places some value on that fact that Jay Rosen, liberal media critic, writer, and a professor of journalism at New York University, “challenged” him on Twitter by “saying that if journalism is a service then it must have terms of service. Shouldn’t it be the public that sets those terms?” No. It should not. We’re not contracting to keep a webserver up 99.99% of the time, which is a pretty simple thing to measure and determine whether you met the terms or not. We’re contracting to sell the best written news coverage, and opening that definition of “best written news coverage” to the inputs of the reading and viewing public can only really go as far as “if you disagree with the standard, you are not required to buy,” but it cannot go as far as “if you disagree with the standard, you can change it or we will change it for you.”
Going back to Jarvis’ statement about “better-informed individuals” – who should define ‘informed’? Those who are themselves most informed. If that’s journalists: so be it. If the public is well informed, by all means let’s hear what they want to learn more about. If the public is not well informed: the harsh reality is, their sense of what they should hear more about is likely skewed and, let’s state it simply: misinformed.
Jarvis’ book purports to be an examination of the role of technology in re-shaping the news industry, yet there is a little bit of the same ‘blinded by the light’ mentality that seemed to bubble up and then burst during the heyday of the dot com new media boom. New methods of distribution does not equal new items being distributed. Journalism is still journalism, and news is still news. A platform that allows people to talk quickly does not negate the pre-existing foundational realities of what makes a strong and worthy news media, yet Jarvis seems distracted by the possibilities of social media, online chat and blogs.
“The internet has proven to be good at helping communities inform themselves, sharing what’s happening via Twitter, what’s known via Wikipedia, and what matters to people through conversational tools. Comments, blog posts, and tweets – never mind their frequent banality and repetition and sometimes incivility – tap the cultural consciousness.”
While it is true that these social platforms allow faster and wider sharing of what matters to individuals and communities, the incivility happens frequently rather than ‘sometimes’ while communities are as likely to misinform themselves as inform themselves – as was witnessed during the 2016 presidential election when baseless viral stories which were intended to sway the masses did indeed easily influence minds and produce measurable swings in voting intentions, demonstrating the pliability and lack of factual thinking at play within those communities.
Wikipedia, on the other hand, draws a degree of credibility from its framework of expert-vetted content: baseless nonsense does not last long in Wikipedia, where ranks of the informed will hold writers accountable for their statements, prodding for sources and facts, ripping down incorrect content so that it cannot misinform the way a click-bait nonsense article can. For this reason it’s not truly comparable to the unfiltered social media channels, blogs, where, as Jarvis remarks, “Anyone can gather and distribute information” and “anyone can find or join an appropriate public” or “ be connected to anyone without need of gatekeepers or mediators – that is, media.” But handing the role of mediator, gatekeeper, or ‘information’ collator and distributor to “anyone” results in just about anything being said with no guarantee any of it is useful or valid. “Anyone” can’t be a journalist. “Anyone” can’t intelligently distil multiple sources of information into a coherent narrative, a cohesive viewpoint on what’s really going on. It takes a skill, and at times Jarvis acknowledges it, such as when he talks about determining “where our skills are needed to anoint authority, eliminate repetition, correct errors, improve presentation, fill in blanks,” while at other times he is ready to entrust it to just “anyone,” qualified or not.
Jarvis continually returns to this theme of the everyman in the street becoming the reporter. “One common form of collaboration is crowdsourcing,” he writes, although he laments the possibly “condescending” nature of such efforts at “involving the public in the process of reporting already underway to accomplish goals we journalists have already decided upon, without the opportunity to hear the needs, desires, and ideas of our collaborators.” There is, however, nothing lamentable about deciding not to entrust the decision about what news is important and what is newsworthy to a public that has continuously proven itself, for the most part, incapable of determining what is newsworthy, what is credible and what is false. Allowing the public to lead the way ensures we’ll all quickly lose our way.
Jarvis takes his crowdsourced news concept to a hellish extreme, where “Wolf Blitzer’s gigantic CNN Situation Room video wall [is] filled by Brady Bunch boxes with someone in each square” and “below their faces are their latest tweets, so we can see what each has to say.” The host can “point to any of those people so we can hear their views.” In fact, Jarvis wonders whether the host is even necessary, or whether “the audience [can] take over, deciding who should be heard from next.” This is a nightmarish scenario, an ungodly mess. Experts in the boxes, co-mingled and competing with random pundits and everymen from the street, inexpert Twitterers of uninformed views, with no need for any experienced host to conduct or coordinate the discussion. Just shovel all the views randomly at the public, and let each person decide for himself what is real and what is not. They’ve demonstrated great objectivity so far, right?
On the subject of objectivity, Jarvis believes that journalists are not objective either. On that score he is correct. There is always an underlying worldview or perspective, an editorial style or policy. Yet journalists must back up their narratives with facts that demonstrate the credibility of the viewpoints taken, and in that way, with the right level of journalistic integrity, no underlying worldview is going to completely override the facts in the case. That is fine. That is how it works. What is not fine is taking viewpoints with no basis in facts. That is how things stop working.
“[TV News] repeats much, saying little,” complains Jarvis.
“It gullibly and dutifully flacks for PR events created just for TV. It presents complex issues with false and simplistic balance. It picks fights. It talks with only the usual suspects. It speaks in the voice of plastic people. It stages reality.”
I agree, and all of these false forms of journalism are beneath the integrity of the vocation, and demonstrate again the necessity of maintaining a certain standard. In the hands of the masses, the situation would and does grow worse. Read any set of Facebook comments in discussion of a news article or point of view, or the comments posted directly in response to articles on online news sites, and you will witness a barrage of poorly formed viewpoints. There is no logical basis on which to advocate that the solution to the unconscionable behavior of some media outlets is to replace the vocation of journalism with a crowdsourced flow of opinions, operating in a shrinking echo chamber.
Jarvis next turns to economics as a reason to restructure the news industry. There is no doubt that economic pressures have changed the reality and the rules for the news industry, in particular for the print media such as newspapers. Yet the critical importance of a correctly informed public remains constant, unchanged by economic realities. In fact, all too often the economic realities are out of step with the needs of the people. Jarvis seems to recognize this, such as when he asks us to “Consider the genius of Fox News founder Roger Ailes,” that ousted alleged sex offender. “His brilliance wasn’t political and it certainly wasn’t journalistic,” Jarvis explains, “it was economic.”
“He realized that gabbing about news rather than gathering it would often be more compelling and get higher ratings at a much lower cost than making packages and stories – than reporting, in other words.”
Jarvis seems to be suggesting that what Fox News broadcasts cannot be labeled “reporting,” while at the same time appearing to praise the economic “genius” of this situation. If this is true, it is lamentable. Yet it has long been understood that economic pressures do indeed directly impede reporting, such as in the case of investigative reporting, one of the more expensive kinds of journalism. Jarvis again sees the valiant crowd as the savior here, offering that, “given the limited absolute dollars actually spent on investigations, it is conceivable that the investigative reporting produced now could be covered by philanthropy and patronage.” Just as music has been devalued by society to such a degree that most people feel entitled to it for free, indicating that no reward is due the creator, now we can also whittle away the monetary price of investigative reporting, with the burden set at the door of generous folks who can pay the price we’re not willing to.
In another example of economic pressure compromising the quality of the journalistic product, a June 2017 CNN article covered “an afternoon walkout of the Times’ New York office [by newsroom staffers], protesting plans to dramatically reduce the paper’s editing staff.” Although the paper said the move, which was aimed to “significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters,” was justified by the idea that “savings would go to hiring as many as 100 new journalists,” many of the staff were deeply unhappy with this result of economic pressure, with the copy desk wryly pointing out that “Without us, it’s the New Yrok Times.” Can we expect a philanthropic sponsor to supply copy editors now? Or can we trust the everyman on the street to be a suitable copy editor in lieu of the New York Times copy desk?
Jarvis gets very creative in his search for new ways in which the news industry can fund itself, excitedly relating the tale of “the Brownstoner blog” in Brooklyn which “started a flea market that became the core of its business and expanded into a food fair, renting stalls to vendors for $10-$220 per day.” Elsewhere “shopping, bar, and restaurant crawls” help bring in the revenue, along with “deals with local merchants; free tickets to events; matching donations from a generous patron; […] T-shirts and totebags.”
Bar crawls. Flea markets. Tote bags. What has this got to do with the vocation of journalism? Once your core business is a food fair, can you still call yourself a news outlet? If we have to cajole and whimper, beg and borrow, seek the generous crumbs of benefactors to carry the cost, convince the consumer to take our news for free along with the pop-music ticket deal: have we not by that point traveled far beyond the realm where the populace is capable any more of understanding the importance of actually caring about what is going on in the world? About having a measured perspective on events? Will a tote bag or some flea-market goodies really turn heads, change minds and lead to an informed public?
Where Jarvis really steps out of his area, however, is when he begins to crow enthusiastically about an idea to “aggregate the audience of the other, smaller sites and services and take that added reach to marketers that still want audiences at a metropolitan or regional scale – or national advertisers that want the opportunity to target their messages locally.” Jarvis is excited “the smaller businesses [could] supplement their primary revenue from the ads they sell.” Sadly, Jarvis has “yet to see such a network emerge.” I’m not sure where he’s been looking, because we saw dozens of these remnant networks, real-time-bidding networks, national and regional networks, emerge and fade in the last decades. It’s hard, as an ad tech industry veteran, to read this suggestion and take the book seriously. In fact, it smacks of the pundit Tweeting an un-researched viewpoint, which in fact seems fitting given that the Tweeting of un-researched viewpoints is precisely where Jarvis’ vision of the news industry will lead us.
“By knowing more about who our users are, we can sell and deliver more targeted advertising that is more relevant to their customers and thus more effective,” continues Jarvis, unabated.
“Rather than serving only one-size-fits-all ‘impressions’ to anonymous ‘eyeballs’ by the thousands as advertisers and media companies do now, we can offer more productive measures of value like attention, engagement, action, impact, and even sales. We can serve specific groups of users to advertisers who value them highly. […] We have the opportunity to become a trusted broker of data we gather about our users. […] The relationship strategy is one defense against the commodification of media’s old content business by new competitors and new technologies.”
Almost all of this has either been tried before or is currently available in various forms and under continuous iteration and innovation. There’s nothing groundbreaking in these ideas, only perhaps new and more refined ways to execute; yet all of this is moving away from the central calling of the journalistic vocation, and the most important basis for the relationship with viewers and readers: the journalistic integrity of your news coverage. That integrity is at stake when, as Jarvis points out, “consumers identified [sponsored content and editorial content] correctly about 80 percent of the time in entertainment and business sites, but only half that in news sites.” I agree with Jarvis – that is “a troubling number.” Yet Jarvis continues to want to entrust those consumers, who are unable to distinguish a brand-serving advertorial from a news article, with the high responsibility of defining what constitutes an ‘informed’ public, what is relevant and what is news.
A February 2017 New York times editorial, “The New York Times claws its way into the future” by Gabriel Snyder, shared many of these concerns about the future of journalism in the hands of open platforms. “With fewer journalists working with fewer resources, and more Americans getting their news on platforms where the news could very well be fake, the financial success of the Times isn’t an incidental concern for people who care about journalism,” Snyder wrote. “It’s existential, especially in the context of the new American president.”
In that article, the Times chief executive talked about “the public anxiety to actually have professional, consistent, properly funded newsrooms holding politicians to account.” That anxiety has been heightened recently in light of “the president’s hostility to the press and the very notion of facts themselves.” Snyder correctly reminds us “nothing about the New York Times – or the kind of journalism it publishes – is inevitable,” and certainly not if the Jarvis vision of the crowdsourced online news platform replaces it. Snyder’s article looks back at a 1994 speech by former Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr., wherein he predicts that “Far from resembling a modern interstate,” the information highway “will more likely approach a roadway in India: chaotic, crowded, and swarming with cows.” That is not a new future I wish to imagine for news.